Category: Muriel Spark

book review – The Girls of Slender means


In the Ballad of Peckham Rye Muriel Spark uses an outlandish character to act as a provocative catalyst to bring out sides of people that are otherwise buried. In The Girls of Slender Means it is the act of a bomb going off that has the same impact on one character in particular.

The title refers to a group of girls that are living in a women’s club that is a hostel with the group of early twenty something’s living on the top floor. The scene is set in a war torn London with the club standing despite bomb damage around and the scars of the blitz and the war still in evidence all around.

The girls in the club are all living with next to nothing and making do – slender means – sharing dresses and borrowing things from each other to make the best of it. One thing they seem to try to have an influence over is the men who come into the club and Nicholas appears on the scene and sleeps with the most attractive but stirs passions in some of the others.

As a result of several flashbacks we know that Nicholas dies at the hands of some natives he was trying to convert as a missionary. How does he get there from the situation of a bored poet come anarchist celebrating the Attlee government success after the war?

The turning point it watching horrified through a window while the elocution teacher Joanna, who he has started to fixate on, chants clearly psalms before she meets her death in the collapsing house after a bomb, long thought to be in the garden by one of the owners of the club, finally detonates.

His death also sparks off memories for one of the girls in the group who had initially met Nicholas and tried to help him get published. She tracks down the truth of his demise and puts the last pieces in the jigsaw.

In some respects this could be taken as a religious message about the power of faith over death but there is also something else about the death signifying the end of innocence. The irony is that this book is set in 1945 when presumably any innocence has long since gone after the bitter years of war. But the girls of slender means seem to have drifted through the war and the fact their club is still standing is a sign that not much has altered.

One of the other telling moments is when on VJ day Nicholas witnesses in horror a man stabbing a woman in the crows and then slipping away without a care in the world. His café anarchism is challenged and found wanting and in the end inspired it seems by a vicar’s daughter he too sets out to find something that he is happy to die for.

A more dynamic result compared to Ballad of Peckham Rye comes as a result of the twist and the moment of horror with the fire and the death. Putting this alongside Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell it provides another interpretation on wartime London.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – The Girls of Slender means


In the Ballad of Peckham Rye Muriel Spark uses an outlandish character to act as a provocative catalyst to bring out sides of people that are otherwise buried. In The Girls of Slender Means it is the act of a bomb going off that has the same impact on one character in particular.

The title refers to a group of girls that are living in a women’s club that is a hostel with the group of early twenty something’s living on the top floor. The scene is set in a war torn London with the club standing despite bomb damage around and the scars of the blitz and the war still in evidence all around.

The girls in the club are all living with next to nothing and making do – slender means – sharing dresses and borrowing things from each other to make the best of it. One thing they seem to try to have an influence over is the men who come into the club and Nicholas appears on the scene and sleeps with the most attractive but stirs passions in some of the others.

As a result of several flashbacks we know that Nicholas dies at the hands of some natives he was trying to convert as a missionary. How does he get there from the situation of a bored poet come anarchist celebrating the Attlee government success after the war?

The turning point it watching horrified through a window while the elocution teacher Joanna, who he has started to fixate on, chants clearly psalms before she meets her death in the collapsing house after a bomb, long thought to be in the garden by one of the owners of the club, finally detonates.

His death also sparks off memories for one of the girls in the group who had initially met Nicholas and tried to help him get published. She tracks down the truth of his demise and puts the last pieces in the jigsaw.

In some respects this could be taken as a religious message about the power of faith over death but there is also something else about the death signifying the end of innocence. The irony is that this book is set in 1945 when presumably any innocence has long since gone after the bitter years of war. But the girls of slender means seem to have drifted through the war and the fact their club is still standing is a sign that not much has altered.

One of the other telling moments is when on VJ day Nicholas witnesses in horror a man stabbing a woman in the crows and then slipping away without a care in the world. His café anarchism is challenged and found wanting and in the end inspired it seems by a vicar’s daughter he too sets out to find something that he is happy to die for.

A more dynamic result compared to Ballad of Peckham Rye comes as a result of the twist and the moment of horror with the fire and the death. Putting this alongside Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell it provides another interpretation on wartime London.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – The Ballad of Peckham Rye


On the face of it this is a story of what happens when a bit of devilry enters the lives of ordinary people. But Muriel Spark is also using this often humorous book to tackle other issues.

One of them is the sense of place with this being a Peckham that is almost totally unrecognisable from today. Not because of the reasons you might think but because in this book it is an area in London that supports two factories and their respective communities. It is because this is such a close-knit community that the arrival of someone out of the ordinary can have such an impact.

Then there is the sense of traditional. The main character Dougal Douglas is quirky because he refuses to adhere to social convention, which means being silent about indiscretions. He manages to do very little work but spend his time unravelling the paranoia’s and jealousies of those around him with in some cases devastating effect. He is also prepared to cry publicly, be far too informal and discuss sexual matters in a very carefree manner. It is almost like a herald of the free thinking sixties to the population of the 1950s. That is one major cause of a feeling of unease.

But the other comes from the key theme is the idea of someone being sent from the devil to cause havoc. In the same way that Mr Pye shakes-up the community of Sark in Mervyn Peake’s book Douglas here claims at one point to have horns. He confesses to being the devil and certainly in some cases he causes grief. One of his associates has a breakdown, the other in a jealous rage murders his mistress and in the case of the local hard man Trevor he drives him to distraction by taunting him with threats of fights on the Rye.

There are funny moments, because the way Douglas impacts people is through humour and oddness, and these make an otherwise uncomfortable read much more pleasurable. At the end as Douglas flees Peckham leaving his landlady suffering a stroke and Trevor the hard man swinging for him the sense of damage to the community is palpable. But as Spark makes clear in the closing pages things revert back to normal and the madness that was Douglas becomes part of Peckham folklore.

In that sense it could be an allegory for the madness of the war and the resilience of Londoners able to carry on after the destruction of the blitz. But it is more of a personal story a modern day Jekyll and Hyde inviting the reader to ponder the reactions of the characters Douglas churns up and to wonder what they might be capable of if provoked by a devilish acquaintance like Douglas.

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – The Ballad of Peckham Rye


On the face of it this is a story of what happens when a bit of devilry enters the lives of ordinary people. But Muriel Spark is also using this often humorous book to tackle other issues.

One of them is the sense of place with this being a Peckham that is almost totally unrecognisable from today. Not because of the reasons you might think but because in this book it is an area in London that supports two factories and their respective communities. It is because this is such a close-knit community that the arrival of someone out of the ordinary can have such an impact.

Then there is the sense of traditional. The main character Dougal Douglas is quirky because he refuses to adhere to social convention, which means being silent about indiscretions. He manages to do very little work but spend his time unravelling the paranoia’s and jealousies of those around him with in some cases devastating effect. He is also prepared to cry publicly, be far too informal and discuss sexual matters in a very carefree manner. It is almost like a herald of the free thinking sixties to the population of the 1950s. That is one major cause of a feeling of unease.

But the other comes from the key theme is the idea of someone being sent from the devil to cause havoc. In the same way that Mr Pye shakes-up the community of Sark in Mervyn Peake’s book Douglas here claims at one point to have horns. He confesses to being the devil and certainly in some cases he causes grief. One of his associates has a breakdown, the other in a jealous rage murders his mistress and in the case of the local hard man Trevor he drives him to distraction by taunting him with threats of fights on the Rye.

There are funny moments, because the way Douglas impacts people is through humour and oddness, and these make an otherwise uncomfortable read much more pleasurable. At the end as Douglas flees Peckham leaving his landlady suffering a stroke and Trevor the hard man swinging for him the sense of damage to the community is palpable. But as Spark makes clear in the closing pages things revert back to normal and the madness that was Douglas becomes part of Peckham folklore.

In that sense it could be an allegory for the madness of the war and the resilience of Londoners able to carry on after the destruction of the blitz. But it is more of a personal story a modern day Jekyll and Hyde inviting the reader to ponder the reactions of the characters Douglas churns up and to wonder what they might be capable of if provoked by a devilish acquaintance like Douglas.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

For a while you try to work out where this book is going but it all comes together in the last couple of chapters. Spark seems focus on those moments of conversion or cataclysm where a character has the ability to change the thoughts and actions of others.

In this case the explosion of a bomb in the garden, something that has been a running point of commentary throughout the book, causes not only the destruction of the club building but as the fire escape collapses and the women upstairs wait it also claims the life of one of the residents.

The life is claims so the elocution teacher Joanna who takes comfort in calmly reading a psalm from memory as the smoke and the flames get ever closer. Her attitude to death impacts Nicholas, who is watching through the window profoundly. He starts to understand that away from the topical anarchism and posturing there are people who really believe in something.

That incident in the house, which collapses like the other bombed out buildings nearby, along with the casual murder on VJ night seems to have an impact on Nicholas who then heads off to become such a zealous missionary that the natives resort to killing him.

Just like the Ballad of Peckham Rye this is about the way people can be changed. In this case though it is not Nicholas, who you suspect of potentially playing a Douglas Dougal type role, but someone who has been heard throughout the book as she recites poetry but rarely seen. That is an idea in itself – the concept of influence through mystery – and you put this slim novella down with a few of the really big questions left going through your mind.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

The characters start to emerge with Jane acting as the go between link from the past to the future when Nicholas has died. She is the one phoning round trying to find everyone to tell them the news.

Back in 1945 Jane is resigned to the fact that Nicholas is more interested in her attractive friend Selina and she allows him to use her as a way back into the club. The girls are largely harmless struggling to find their way through post-war Britain without any money and without too much idea of what they want to do with their lives.

Now and again Spark fast forwards and gives you a life summary taking a character right through the next forty years as lightning speed. It works well and I almost wish someone could sit down next to me and summarise my next twenty years in a sentence – only of course if it turned out well!

Spark really manages to create a watertight description of a little community and you feel at the point when Nicholas is waiting in the hall for Selina that you are almost there with him taking in the sights and the mood of the period and that is a result of her writing.

Is there going to be a moment when Nicholas acts a catalyst to change the lives of the girls on the top floor or is Spark writing a straight memoir type story of the year 1945 and live for girls with slender means? Not yet clear but still enjoyable either way.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

Often when you like an author it is the world and the characters they are describing that makes the impression. As a consequence it can sometimes be possible to reach out and head for other books written about the same period to find other writers trying to paint similar pictures.

Although the war years haven’t been reached in Dance to the Music of Time the fact they arte coming inspired the choices of the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh and now The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.

This story is set in Kensington in 1945 just as the war has ended and focuses on a club come women’s hostel and Spark builds up a picture of the girls who live at the top of the old Victorian building. Some have fiancés, others focus on their jobs but they all have in common a lack of money and the challenges of living in a country that has rationing and not a great deal of anything in the shops.

Something is going to happen and it looks as if it will be connected to the poet Nicholas Farringdon, who appears at the start of the story to have died. But then he is introduced into the text in such a way that it is not clear if he is dead and then the past role he played with the girls starts to be introduced.

More tomorrow…