The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark, is the second novella I’ve read by her. It concerns a group of young women living in a boarding house/hostel for young women at the end of WWI, in the months between VE and VJ Day. The boarding house, the May of Teck Club, is intended to provide a place where “well-bred girls of slender means” can live safely away from home and pursue careers in London. I’m fascinated by boarding houses, hotels, women’s colleges – basically any place that facilitated young women to live with relative independence and pursue careers. Reading books about the first half of the twentieth century is quite tricky, though, since the young women pioneering these new roles for themselves and others often had obnoxious views about class and society. I never know whether I am going to end up wanting to start a revolution by the end! Perhaps because it was written a bit later, perhaps because Muriel Spark is a genius, this book was a pleasure and never a chore.

We don’t really get a central character to The Girls of Slender Means, apart from perhaps the club itself. The closest thing the novella has to an individual protagonist is probably Jane. Jane is described as fat and literary. She brings the social class of the May of Teck down a bit, but lends it a certain professional prestige through her job with a publisher, described vaguely by Jane as “brain-work”. I loved Jane, though I’m sure I’m not meant to – I usually find myself loving the Janes of these stories. Whenever I allow myself to indulge in faux-nostalgia for a London that never existed – for the idea of living in a boarding house and being part of a community of pioneering women pursuing careers, all supporting one another, there is a Jane to bring me up short. I would have been Jane in any era. It is by far preferable to be fat, clever, common Jane; socially awkward Jane; Jane who doesn’t fit in the only beautiful dress in the house (is otherwise held in common) in 2022 than 1945.

This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business. And it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.

I loved the rather unusual format of this novella, which jumps around all over the place timewise. For example, the first thing we find out about Nicholas Farringdon (who will go on to become an important figure in the life of the May of Teck) is that he has recently been martyred in Haiti after becoming a monk and missionary. We find this out through Jane, now many years removed from the May of Teck and working as a journalist, calling up her old housemates to gossip about him – she thinks she can probably get a pretty good story out of his life and death. The action zips back and forth between these gossipy phone calls and the main substance of the story. We never get a date for these phone calls, though I assumed they were in the early-mid 60s as per publication date. It seems like the characters are many years removed from the May of Teck and established in their various careers, but nowhere near retirement – so by my estimation they are in their forties during the phone call scenes. It’s fascinating to get the sense of his character during the 1945 scenes, when his main aim is to sleep with the beautiful (and decidedly unliterary) Selina on the roof. There is more similarity between the lover of 1945 and the martyr of 1963 than one might think.

With the reckless ambition of a visionary, he pushed his pursuit of Selina into a desire that she, too, should accept and exploit the outlines of poverty in her life. He loved her as he loved his native country. He wanted Selina to be an ideal society personified amongst her bones, he wanted her beautiful limbs to obey her mind and heart like intelligent men and women, and for these to possess the same grace and beauty as her body. Whereas Selina’s desires were comparatively humble, she only wanted, at that particular moment, at that particular moment, a packet of hair-grips which had just then disappeared from the shops for a few weeks.

There is so much that I could say about this short novella, because it is absolutely packed full. Despite the fact that there is no protagonist as such, all the characters are very well captured – even fairly minor characters are drawn with minute detail. It’s a fascinating glance at a particular segment of London at the end of the war, in the run-up to the election – and then, too, also a look at how people thought and talked about the war almost twenty years later. It’s a deceptively quick read that has had me thinking about it on and off for a good few weeks after I finished it, and I would highly recommend it. It’s quickly becoming apparent that Muriel Spark is likely to end up as a favourite for me (though I’m aware that last time I declared a new kindred spirit author, it was Barbara Pym, and the next two novels of hers I read were No Fond Return of Love and A Glass of Blessings, neither of which deserves that title). I can’t wait to read more of her work!

A note – if specific detail of calories, weights, and inches is an issue for you, be advised that the early part of this book contains quite a lot of that.