Friday, June 14, 2013

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

I have a list of books that I intend to re-read every ten years or so, mostly because I expect to react differently to them with each passing decade of my life. I've put The Girls of Slender Means on the list, but for a different reason -- I just wasn't in the right frame of mind when I read it this time. I enjoyed it, but it deserved more concentration and attentiveness than I had at hand this week.

"Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions". This sounds like the first line of a fairy tale, but to readers in 1963, the year the novel was published, I suppose the post-war privations may have seemed remote, well in the past. Some of the nice people in London are the young ladies who lodge at the May of Teck Club, a hostel of sorts for young women and a quartet of older ones who somehow managed to stay on.

Gentlemen who visit the May of Teck club invariably find themselves drawn to Selina, who is tall, cool, and elegant, except perhaps when she is squeezing her slim body through the upstairs bathroom window to sunbathe nude on the rooftop below.
Selina's long unsurpassable legs arranged themselves diagonally from the deep chair where she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll.
If I recall nothing else from this reading of the novel, I will remember Muriel Spark's razor-like character sketches. An ear for current slang is a gift.
Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: "Filthy lunch." "Thee most gorgeous wedding." "He actually raped her, she was amazed." "Ghastly film." "I'm desperately well, thanks, how are you?" Her voice from the wash-room distracted Jane: "Oh hell, I'm black with soot, I'm absolutely filthington." She opened Jane's door without knocking and put in her head. "Got any soapyjo?" It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane's door and announce, "Filthy luck. I'm preggers. Come to the wedding."
Jane, the recipient of Dorothy's comments, is an overweight young woman who works for a struggling and slightly dodgy publisher. She justifies eating more than others and sneaking a bit more gas for heat -- all required to fuel her 'brain work'.  Jane, unlike Dorothy, very much wants to give the impression that she thinks, though the quality of her reasoning is dubious.  A shady acquaintance, Rudi, encourages Jane to put her literary talents to profitable use by writing letters to well-known authors in hope of receiving a personal reply.
The prison letter and the asylum letter were more liable to bring replies in the author's own hand than any other type of letter, but one had to choose an author "with heart," as Rudi said. Authors without heart seldom replied at all, and if they did it was a typewritten letter. For a typewritten letter signed by the author, Rudi paid two shillings if the autograph was scarce, but if the author's signature was available everywhere, and the letter a mere formal acknowledgment, Rudi paid nothing. For a letter in the author's own handwriting Rudi paid five shillings for the first page and a shilling thereafter... 
Bernard Shaw had in fact proved disappointing. He had sent a typewritten postcard: "Thank you for your letter in praise of my writings. As you say they have consoled you in your misfortunes, I shall not attempt to gild the lily by my personal comments. As you say you desire no money I shall not press upon you my holograph signature, which has some cash value. G.B.S." The initials, too, had been typed.
One day, on a brain-wave, she wrote to Henry James at the Athenaeum Club. "That was foolish of you because James is dead, by the way," Rudi said.
Jane is enamoured of Nicholas Farringdon, who has submitted a manuscript to her employer, but Nicholas has eyes only for Selina and takes to arranging illicit meetings with her on the rooftop; he gains access to it from the American intelligence agency next-door, and Selina slips out that narrow bathroom window.

One of the more senior residents (the women are supposed to move out at the age of 30) insists that there is an unexploded bomb in the garden, and she is proven right one afternoon when it at last blows up. As fire moves through the club, the action moves to the third storey bathroom, where Jane and the others are working frantically to extract the publisher's wife from the narrow window, which she'd tried to slip through on a lark. Once she is freed, Selina and those few who are slender enough can escape through the window, but the others must wait for firemen to break through the roof to extricate them. Nicholas, who is trying to help the trapped women -- either to slip through the window or to stay calm until the firemen reach them -- perhaps sees for the first time each one's true character.

As I said, the timing was off for me and this book. It happens. I look forward to reading it again when we can click properly.

1 comment:

  1. Muriel Spark was one of my favourite authors when I was young. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was enough to make me want to move to Scotland. No timing is off for me when it comes to Spark.


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