Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in Edinburgh with her partner and their two children. Her debut novel, After You'd Gone, was published to international acclaim and won a Betty Trask Award, while her third, The Distance Between Us, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. Her most recent book, The Hand That First Held Mine, is on the shortlist for the Costa Novel Award. Maggie's other two books are My Lover's Lover and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Here she writes about Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means.
Maggie O'Farrell on The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
It is 1945 in Kensington and the May of Teck Club is an establishment that exists 'for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London'.
Muriel Spark proceeds to create within the genteel, crumbling walls of the May of Teck a hermetic, unique world; once you are immersed in it, it's impossible to tear yourself away. I read this book often, perhaps every year or so, and it's invariably in one sitting.
There is the sensible Jane, beset by inconvenient hunger pangs and career anxieties, who self-importantly shuts her door to get on with her 'Brain Work'. There is the beautiful and utterly ruthless Selina, a terrifying creation recognizable to anyone who has ever shared a classroom, desk or living space with an alpha female. She believes in the benefit of reciting a paragraph about elegance and poise. There is Joanna, an angelic elocution teacher who is rarely visible but often audible, and whose essential goodness and virtue radiates throughout the club. Pauline is the mad one who comes in at all hours from fantasty dates with famous actors. There are the 'dormitory girls', younger, noisier and more wearing on the nerves of the other residents. One, memorably, when told during an elocution recording that the room must be so silent as to make it possible to hear a pin drop, causes a pin to fall from her lap to the floor. And then there are the Club's permanent residents, determined spinsters who like to pass judgement on the younger girls and check that rules are being observed.
The other important character doesn't speak, doesn't breathe, doesn't live. It is a Schiparelli dress, bequeathed to one of the girls by an aunt, and loaned out to the others in return for clothing coupons and chocolate.
The novel has all the excoriating humour and detailed satire for which Spark is famous. Much of it is a delight to read; the arguments, the romances, the hopes, the swapping of face creams and coupons. The discovery that if one's hips measure less than a certain circumference, it is possible to squeeze out of a bathroom skylight and sunbathe (and more, as it turns out) on the roof. The dieting that ensues and the further discovery that if one smears oneself in margarine, it is possible to wriggle through, even if one's hips haven't responded to the diet.
But throughout the book there is a deep undertow of unease and danger. You know that something terrible is going to happen to these girls. Spark makes you aware pretty early on that the May of Teck, this world that she carefully and lovingly paints for us, is one that no longer exists, one that has been swept away. The lightness of tone belies her subject matter: death.
It's easy, with some readings of the novel, to get swept up in the quarrels and rationing and Pauline's strange antics, to forget the crumbling building, the certainty of one resident that the garden contains an unexploded bomb, the intimations of doom in the apocalyptic poetry that Joanna recites. It's easy to disregard the framing narrative, set in the early 1960s, which is concerned with the former club members discussing the death of one of Selina's former admirers, Nicholas Farringdon, who gave up anarchy and poetry to become a Jesuit.
The denouement, when it does come, is always a shock to me, however many times I read it. In Spark's judgement day, the good are vanquished and the bad are able to wriggle free. I won't spoil it for you, but the Schiaparelli dress makes a crucial yet fleeting final appearance in the last few pages. Look out for it: it's one of the most horrifying moments in fiction.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]