Muriel Spark: The Girls of Slender Means
The great thing about Muriel Spark is that she can, at the same time, be deadly serious and be poking fun. And she likes nothing better than to poke fun at the British upper middle class or, at least, those who have pretensions at being upper middle class. Her targets this time can be seen from the title – young women who consider them themselves to be somewhat superior but who have little money. The time is just at the end of World War II. The young ladies live in a hostel in London, called May of Teck (after the Queen of that name). There are actually three older ladies there, who have always lived there – no-one is sure why – and who stay on because no-one had the heart to throw them out.
At the start of the book we learn of the death of Nicholas Farringdon in Haiti, apparently murdered for objecting to the local culture. He is remembered as the man who slept on the roof with Selina. We are mainly introduced to him by Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who has a certain cachet in the hostel as she works for (an albeit small) publisher. Her boss, George Johnson (though he seems to have a number of aliases), is interested in publishing Nicholas’ work on anarchy (Nicholas was an anarchist and a poet and also worked for American intelligence.) Jane is interested in Nicholas though, as she finds out and Spark tells us, literary women may be interested in literary men but literary men are not interested in literary women, only in girls and the girl is Selina. Nicholas, however, has to court Jane in order to get his book published.
Apart from the vicissitudes of Nicholas’ love life not a great deal happens, except for the everyday activities of the young women. There is Joanna Childe, a rector’s daughter who has been spurned by a curate and now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons, primarily by spouting The Wreck of the Deutschland and other English poems. Pauline Fox claims to be having an affair with Jack Buchanan. No-one believes her but… And poor Jane collects famous autographs for Rudi Bittesch, another of her publisher’s authors, by writing pleading letters to famous authors. Of course, it is all done in Spark’s usual tongue in cheek, mocking style.
But the key part of the hostel is the window that gives access to the roof. Selina is slim enough to get out of it. Nicholas has access to the roof from the hotel next door, which is the HQ of an American Intelligence outfit. But most of the women are too large to get out, even when they strip off completely and apply grease to their bodies. More than one gets stuck, in particular Tilly who seems to be unable to get out till an unexploded bomb, concealed in the garden, goes off, dislodges her and sets the hostel on fire. Only one or two are subsequently able to get out of the window till the firemen break the old, blocked up skylight and are able to rescue everyone, except for Joanna who perishes in the flames, though no-one, in typical Spark style, seems to be too concerned about her death, even her father. Selina disappears, which sends Nicholas off to Haiti and his death, leaving Jane as the survivor.
First published 1963 by Macmillan