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.
You enjoyed this one rather more than I did. I enjoyed it well enough, but found it rather slight – not nearly as good as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I loved. I think it may be one of those author/reader incompatibility things though. Apart from Jean Bodie, I’ve been rather underwhelmed by her in the few I’ve read to date. Perhaps as you read and review more of them you’ll revive my enthusiasm to give her another chance to wow me again!
I think Muriel Spark seems to have had a bit of a preoccupation with hypocrisy among people of different faiths, but from the perspective of someone who was herself a believer – I think it’s a combination that is naturally designed to appeal to me! Put alongside the setting here and I was bound to be won over. But I think you are right that this is nowhere near as good on its own terms as Jean Brodie – I just loved it anyway.
I remember the name May of Tek so I assume I’ve read the book, but when, I couldn’t say.
Australian fiction and memoir is full of young women in London in tiny rooms cooking over a parafin stove. Christina Stead and Florence James lived together for a while, 1930 ish, but I can’t think of a ‘gang’.
I can’t say what literary men want but Milly and I bonded over a shared love of SF.
I think the name May of Teck is derived from an Edwardian aristocrat who was a real person – she may well have cropped up in other books, so that might account for you recognising the name but not the story.
I think there are still plenty of clever men out there who don’t want clever wives or partners, though I am sure there have always been plenty of exceptions – but I do at least think it’s becoming less acceptable to tell girls to dumb themselves down to be more appealing to men. This is an improvement at least.
Ha, I’m glad you said you are a Jane because I instantly thought, “Surely, I am a Jane.” Also, thank you for your note at the end. Long descriptions of dieting do make me pretty anxious. I wonder how I ever got through Bridget Jones’s diary for a college class……or why I read the follow-up novels.
I suspect that a lot of book bloggers are Janes – which is one of the many reasons it is more fun to be her now than then!
Long descriptions of dieting and weight loss don’t really make me twitchy now (at least in books – different in real life). They certainly used to. For some reason it never worried me in Bridget Jones – maybe because those weights and calories are meant to be satirical? I don’t think we’re ever meant to think that it’s reasonable for her to be behaving like that. At one point, she tells a friend who’s just started a diet how many calories she’s aiming for a day, and he says “but don’t you need X amount to survive?” She’s shocked – she’s totally forgotten that a person needs food to stay alive and regards it solely as a source of guilt. So I think we’re always meant to see her obsession with her weight as really unhealthy, and that’s why it doesn’t bother me there when it would with a different book. (But I do see why it would bother a lot of people!)
Oh, wow, I had never thought about Bridget Jones being satire. I was always frustrated because he weight is quite low, even a goal of many dieting people. Thus, her obsession over the 5 pounds she wants to lose that she thinks will fix her life seemed more pathetic. I wonder if I would have felt differently if Fielding had really leaned into the satire even more. I did completely enjoy Mad About the Boy. It was heartfelt and an interesting look into grief.
I’ve always thought of Bridget Jones being a commentary on the way expectations of women can manifest. Bridget has a great life on paper: several close friends, nice flat in an (even then) very swish part of London, good job that pays reasonably well and that she (mostly) likes. But because she’s single and dissatisfied with her looks, she has bought into the narrative that she is a disaster. Her obsessive reading of tabloids/glossies and self-help books indicates that she is not getting her messages from very healthy places. And then eventually she does end up in a loving relationship and it doesn’t “fix” her – as emphasised in the subsequent novels – and nor does her constantly yoyoing weight. (I didn’t read Mad About the Boy though because the teenager inside me was too cross about Mark Darcy being killed off!)
Okay, yes, Mark Darcy dies, but it’s handled well in a way that helps you move past him and see other people as something good that enters her life. Actually, thinking about there being ONE person for each of us (even a Mr. Darcy!) is quite scary. Unless Nick and I are lucky or make a plan (like, hypothetically, if there were a zombie virus outbreak or we were on the sinking Titanic and we didn’t want to face the scary stuff), we’re not going to die at the same time. Looking at examples of how life proceeds after the death after “the one” makes me feel calm, less afraid.