That voice. It strikes us immediately; alerting us, setting us on our guard, creating a distance that invites us all to be sceptical; we are goaded to read the whole book with an arched eyebrow. Trust it, can we? This author so ironic, ever so smart, so so playful, she flirts with us like a courtesan… It is not safe to stroll along her streets; wary of accompanying her home, we pretend ignorance when invited through the front door; oh oh, I'm so sorry, I think I must be going now… The danger of such cleverness is that it can undermine its own authority. Indeed, we feel sorry for the characters, and often take their side; these servants of a mistress who constantly exposes their faults and laughs at their absurdities. A governess whips off her charge's skirt and scolds her for wearing dirty knickers; then, stepping back, smiles at the cartoon camel sprawled cutely across the pink cotton. This novel a nursery, where innocence is chastised by a puritan’s comedy shaming the child with an adult’s humour; the meaning of that bulbous head and long neck, standing sadly erect between two whimsically deflated sacs, cruelly beyond young Henrietta’s comprehension.
Narrative eccentricity is another authorial trait. The puckishness and artificiality arising naturally out of that strong voice; a mouthpiece for a mind that organises events to satirise human folly; especially by the clever, those fools to some idea. Yet more cartoon figures walk onto the page. A sprightly duchess press-gangs some undergraduates for a local carnival. Right chaps, this’ll be better than any thing you’ll get at Cambridge. Dressing them as Wombles she drives them through the crowds on a float festooned with junk. (Clutterbutt’s Women’s Institute is running an anti-litter campaign, to give the full picture.) Come on! Come on! you young chaps; give everyone a healthy wave. Add vim to it! That’s the way! And pick up that rubbish! Don’t! Don’t throw it back! shouts Griselda de Montfort. The police will deal with those rascals. Officer! Officer! There they are, those young thugs throwing their cans and their little bottles. No! No! Officer; get off that trailer….
There are compensations with such a voice. Big ones! The narrator’s vitality is communicated to the characters, who are wild and boisterous; this novel revealing a new kind of personality not previously seen in literature: a young woman’s feral frivolity is usually protected by the bathroom door.
When she reached the top landing, she saw that the commotion came from the wash-room. There, Anne and Selina, with two of the dormitory girls, were attempting to extricate from the little slit window another girl who had evidently been attempting to climb out and had got stuck. She was struggling and kicking without success, exhorted by various instructions from the other girls. Against their earnest advice, she screamed aloud from time to time. She had taken off her clothes for the attempt and her body was covered with a greasy substance; Jane immediately hoped it had not been taken from her own supply of cold cream which stood in a jar on her dressing-table.
Tilly is trying to get onto the flat roof to sunbathe. Unfortunately, she discovers that although her hips are small enough - the girls have measured them - her bone structure is just too firm to squeeze through the window frame. She is stuck! A delightful idea has come ruinously undone. It is a common occurrence at the May of Teck Club: a hostel for young women founded by Queen Mary, decades ago. The incongruity between the redolently ancient name and the girls’ rowdy behaviour perfectly parallels the contrast between the animal exuberance of these young women and their prim façades; the novel’s theme. The author has great fun here; for when moral authority and innocence enter the room irony invariably follows; those winks, nudges and knowing smiles - how it skips! how it jives! - behind that slow and sedate and nearly always lugubrious couple. This writer is self-consciously aware of her talents; Ms Spark using ridicule as moral reproof; though her touchstone is not sin but intelligence: the characters chastised for being less clever than their creator. Sophistication is what counts; though at times even this can be made to look absurd.
The absurdity is spot on! Capturing, as it does, elements of the female psyche absent from other novels of the period; we think of Patrick Hamilton’s classic The Slaves of Solitude.1 A woman must, even in her own bedroom, be discreet before her man; Jane, with her eye on that cold cream, exhibiting a trait that both deludes and controls the mate: it is that cool awareness of her surroundings, which makes her sensitive to another’s expectations; that readiness to always please. Only when the will is thwarted do men see the inner turmoil; released now as a tempest of anarchic passion. However, these are not the only sides to a woman’s life, though the others are rarely seen in novels of this time; for we don’t often see women relaxed and alone together; it is why although Hamilton’s best work contains acute character descriptions his women exhibit little of the high spirits shown here. The title of this novel is very precise: The Girls of Slender Means. That girls is exact. These young adults are acting like teenagers, mucking about behind the bike sheds; we think of fags, snogs and heavy petting, with its chorus of lewd laughter. Sexual excitement is everywhere. The spinsters - who shouldn’t be at the Teck - are defined by its absence; while the thoughts of everyone else are monopolised by the male species; an entire life now dedicated to captivating the right man. Sex even overruns classic English poetry, quoted freely at the club by Joanna, who has transferred her sexual longing to the sensual vocabulary of Gerald Manley Hopkins and the English Romantics. The sex, thankfully, is mostly in the head; an essential stimulant to young exuberant natures that fizz and pop, and then recover from an excess of fizzing and popping; everyday a girl shakes the champagne bottle - harder harder, faster faster the others cry - and then opens it… The sex is more energy than actual sexual activity: to have fun, to be invigorated, this is the thing. Second in importance to the sex obsession is the seriousness with which the trivial is invested; Selina measuring the lavatory window, a portal to sun-rich flesh. Then there are those sudden shifts in feeling: we overhear the giggles; eavesdrop on the crazy ideas and watch that mad rush to…trap oneself in a window! Ms Spark is giving away all of these young women’s secrets. But then this is 1963…2 Inside the Teck this roistering must be hidden from both the elderly authorities and the male gaze; it is why Tilly - an outsider: she doesn't live at the club - is urged to be quiet: don’t give the show away! Spark’s chutzpah is enormous.
Beauty and a cool decorum captures the prizes that matter: men; those victims of appearances and their own silly ideas. These women want to be attractive, and will try all the means available; the beautiful Selina recklessly rescuing the Schiaparelli dress because it is too lovely to lose, to the fire and its rubble. A woman’s life is a work of art, that yet must appear unforced, natural; beautiful sophistication with a touch of innocence is how they catch the best specimens; the measure of a girl’s success. Selina is always looking to attract new admirers, of the right sort: handsome but not possessive about love or sex. These men exist only for fun; light-hearted entertainment before her return to a luxurious security, when after the war she will settle down with a rich husband.
Not all the characters are as foolish as Tilly; though all have their foibles, ruthlessly exploited by their author. Jane is a self-consciously serious person who works in publishing and wants to be an intellectual; although it is people who interest her not ideas. Her luck is to escape this chimera; a later life as a gossip columnist fulfilling her natural bent. Saved at the last from Sparkian sardonicism? Not quite… To think there’s both a story and money in an old friend’s death suggests that Jane has replaced one kind of humbug - “brain work” was her euphemism for an earlier mercenary exploit: hustling signatures from famous authors - for another; this girl is not quite an honest person; her cleverness a handmaiden to her hypocrisy. Though to be clever can also be a handicap; Joanna, a beautiful woman who gives elocution lessons by reading the romantic poets, wants to sacrifice herself to the Church; for she has given up on love, believed only to happen once. The highly intelligent have a propensity to lose themselves to an obsessive idea. Here it is the silliness of the overly sober; Joanna the victim of a Protestant asceticism (her father is a country rector, albeit leaning to High Church) that in propagating excessively rigid ideas trusses up the natural instincts until they become attenuated. Emotionally Joanna is an overgrown child, stuck in an adolescent religious phase; her innocence too powerfully protected by a high intelligence to be influenced by the sexual maturity of the other girls. Although this being a Muriel Spark novel - that black market in authors’ signatures - we suspect Joanna embodies some literary idea: a Victorian sensibility, perhaps, that is decades out of date. There is the whiff of the obsolete about Joanna; she belongs to a dying kind; her late Pre-Raphaelite religiosity out of place in a club whose members are sexually aware and worldly wise.
The action occurs between VE and VJ day and climaxes with the collapse of the Teck, whose symbolic overtones are too obvious to be ignored - that the building fall downs on the day the Labour Party is confirmed in office raises a political resonance… Watch that hole! You’re going to fall in… Be careful!! The politics can easily mislead us. It is inside the Teck where the revolution has happened. These girls, mostly from good families in the home counties, none of whom are dedicated socialists or activists, they are natural Conservatives, have taken advantage of the times to push the logic of this institution - it is a hostel for young women seeking employment - to its ultimate conclusion: to enjoy all the freedoms of youthful independence. Selina is the ideal. The most beautiful woman in the house, she likes expensive restaurants, goes to fashionable parties, and sleeps only with men who share her free-spirited ways. Fun is the vogue now, not marriage, not career; not politics.3 The war, in destroying much of the social fabric, while also providing easy opportunities for sex, has become a most valuable accomplice; although we shouldn't be too obsessed with the bombs and fires, or enamour ourselves with the thieves and fraudsters, their charm, their way with a lock-pick and crowbar;4 for the old order was already in decline; the Teck, having passed its heyday, has long been running out of cash, which inevitably diminishes its character; it now lacks the moral authority to restrain these girls; the custodians can’t even evict those feeble spinsters.
The original purpose of this club, Spark has only to tweak the irony, was certain to encourage the likes of Anne and Selina to transgress their conventional upbringing - it frees them from mother’s puritanical eye. Stop! Stop the car! Driving too quickly we… The war must have its say! Would Selina & Co be in this hostel but for the krauts? Wartime London offers employment in the war ministries for well-brought up women, many of whom cannot live at home. These are girls of slender means only because they are young, single and have just started work, living independently for the first time. The war, we surmise, has changed the social composition of the Teck. These girls, although nominally poor, retain all the confidence (and the connections) of the well-heeled; assured of worldly success they can therefore risk a wild holiday, while their self-possession protects them against mishaps such as pregnancy and besotted love; Selina chooses her victims with calculated care.5
The Teck’s committee of management issues a notice informing members that they must not complain about the new wallpaper in the dining room. This direct moral censure is a reaction to the times and its change of atmosphere, whose critical attitudes are a novelty in the club’s history. The notice’s absurdity proclaims its own impotence. These girls don’t care at all about such fuddy-duddy admonishments, which completely miss what is really going upstairs and on that flat roof, a favoured meeting place for Selina and Nicholas. These girls are having fun! Fun is the Bolshevik spirit that pervades the topmost bedrooms in this building. The insipid anarchism of Nicholas only accentuates the point. It is here in the Teck that we see the spirit of a youthful independence, whose carelessness and calculating calm loosens all ties of sexual responsibility. Though we must be careful and cautious and precise: this is the freedom of an extremely short period of time, that interregnum between the two armistices, a recovered peace generating relaxation and relief but also some hysteria… Can it really be true? How long will it last? Oh do shut up. Today, tomorrow and for the day after tomorrow - who cares! We are alive! and at liberty; soon, we know, to end.
Jane asks us not to read too much into these shenanigans. We must not reduce the Teck to a microcosm of wartime Britain.6
Jane told him everything that went on in the club. ‘Tell me more,’ he said. She told him things, in her clever way of intuition, which fitted his ideal of the place. In fact, it was not an unjust notion, that it was a miniature expression of a free society, that it was a community held together by the graceful attributes of a common poverty. He observed that at no point did poverty arrest the vitality of the members but rather nourished it. Poverty differs vastly from want, he thought.
This is a wonderful passage that captures the knowingness of Jane, who is cleverly aware that the bawdy nature of the club - the rumbustiousness of these private lives - must be subsumed within an uplifting idea; Nicholas’ imagination to then do the rest, turning a few phrases into an ideal of a common struggle; the Teck to embody the new society, the socialist Jerusalem; the public notion of the times, and already a cliché.7
Nicholas is an aristocratic dropout and a weedy anarchist; and though intelligent he aspires to an art for which he has no talent - he is a miserable poet. It is his misfortune; Spark pitiless to others in her trade: hands on both holsters she always beats her colleagues to the draw, here she guns down the slow-witted writer and bumbling intellectual. Nicholas is typical of his type; to tidy up the messiness of life he deposits the nice bits into an abstraction, which is then believed to represent the whole of reality; we think of a child who cleans his room by putting only his favourite toys in the cardboard box, the rest left to litter the furniture and floor. He is easy meat for the clever Jane, who simply moulds events at the Teck to shape Nicholas’ expectations, which he then smartly refines - poverty is different from want - for his own intellectual benefit; thereby hiding those inconvenient, these messy, those unsettling details. Big ideas: they are façades that belie what lives behind them. Nicholas is not allowed above the ground floor of the club; he is therefore not attuned to its clearly defined social strata; where the youngest women live in the dormitory; the spinsters on the next floor; the older, solider girls above them; with the top of house left to the overwhelmingly pretty and exceedingly wild; Jane the anomaly. An outsider to this private world he cannot experience its intense rivalries; he is does not hear the arguments over dress-sharing, nor witness the trade off between tea and makeup. Described in words such things are apt to lose their impact; they are easily smoothed over and rounded off by large comforting ideas that play so well to an intellectual’s prejudices, that need for an idealised portrait. Bang! Bang! Our sharp-shooter guns down another abstraction, as it stumbles around the corner. Not what Jane describes is wholly false. She is pulling the reality only slightly out of shape, so as to fit another person’s pattern, for she fancies Nicholas and wants to win his approval; her game a careful balancing between the shockingly new and the reassuringly familiar, a smidgin of the latter enough to offset the salacious and the pert, of which there has to be plenty: his interest must be kept alive. The vitality of these girls is a truth. It was a wild time between the armistices. And some people did have silly ideas; Jane was one of them: she believed poets preferred intelligence to good-looks. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Ms Sparks holds the smoking gun to her nose and breathes in its delicious perfume. Innocence. No chance before a pro.
The action is squeezed into the months May to August 1945, which allows Spark to catch the unique atmosphere of this odd time, for with the war still going on these characters are yet able to experience the fun-filled liberties of peace.8 During these months it is not political hope but vital animal instinct, relaxed yet acutely alive, following the release of war tension after Germany’s defeat, that occupies London’s streets. This is a holiday!9 A sabbatical from the hard choices that the future - presently suspended - would otherwise impose upon these girls.10 The election heralds the end of this peculiar interlude; while VJ day, a raucous and violent and exhilarating festival, is the last exhalation of this wild but evanescent spirit.
I said the narrative is odd. It is. The story is told in retrospect between telephone calls; Jane ringing up friends to tell them that Nicholas has died in Haiti. We are to learn – Jane periodically updates everyone on her progress - that our hero was murdered because he was too fanatical in his faith; a touch of madness was always there, is now the general opinion. It is a strange framing device for a story about a particular place, a special time and a distinct group of young women.
Ms Spark is too quick for this reader. It took me years to catch up… Of course! This novel is really about Nicholas’ death, of which, typical of the author’s oblique style, we are given only the smallest details. What caused it? This is the novel’s mystery. Obsessive behaviour, arising from a conversion to an evangelical faith, is the obvious answer; it is the one we would read about in the newspapers. Fortunately, novelists are more sophisticated than columnists, who skinny-dip on the shores of tittle-tattle. The novelist raises different questions. What made an indecisive aristocrat turn into a committed Christian and a violent preacher? is the question Spark makes us ask. Although there will be no simple solution; in a novel the profundity of feeling is preferred to the superficiality of answers. Of course this novelist does not tell us. Instead, Ms Spark implies certain things, describes others, gives us a context… There is his relationship with Selina; that experience with Joanna when the Teck collapsed; to which we must add the violence of the VJ celebrations; somewhere in this mix, or in the mix itself, are the forces that sent him into a double exile of intellect and of geography. After the disaster his mind requires a mission, which he can find only in a foreign land amongst the heathen; who, bad news for Nicholas, have their own ace marksmen. This enduring image of Jane offers us a clue.
Jane mumbled, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have missed it, really.’ She had halted to pin up her straggling hair, and had hair-pin in her mouth as she said it. Nicholas marvelled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death – how she stood, sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass, occupied with her hair – as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty, long ago in 1945.
In his usual way Nicholas has abstracted and then idealised an experience, thereby ever so slightly corrupting it; for he has turned a vital insouciance, that requires a hard-earned leisure, into a secular morality story that obscures a sexuality too obvious to be missed. It suggests a state of mind unable to cope with the rough textures of reality. His memory perfectly suited to a personality that gravitates towards the fantastic; Nicholas’ mind a centrally heated room with comfortable and capacious armchairs where ideas luxuriate and dream they are in paradise.
The sudden and acute recognition of a truth, idealised and fused with guilt and shame, plus an ambiguous attitude to sex, these are the usual components of a religious conversion; and its almost inevitable consequence: a rabid evangelicalism. What tipped Nicholas over the Christian edge, we at first surmise, is that final tragedy, when the Teck disintegrates, its last scene peculiarly lacerating: there are the screaming girls, Joanna reciting the evening Psalter, and Selina carrying out the Schiaparelli dress… But wasn't she supposed to be saving somebody? Such a fusion of horror, madness and unreality can easily queer the balance of a susceptible mind that later rights itself by reading his whole Teck time as a morality tale: sin receiving its just reward.
‘Well, I always like to think it was Joanna’s example. Joanna was very High Church.’
‘But he wasn’t in love with Joanna, he was in love with Selina. After the fire he looked for her all over the place.’
‘Well, he couldn’t have been converted by Selina. Not converted.’
‘He’s got a note in his manuscript that a vision of evil may be as effective as a vision of good.’
‘I don’t understand these fanatics. There’s the pips Jane, I think he was in love with us all, poor fellow.
Is Jane’s intuition correct, was it Selina who converted Nicholas? There is evidence to support this view. When Selina returns with the Schiaparelli dress some of the bystanders see him make the sign of the cross; while he himself is unsure: it is possible, he thinks, that I made that gesture. Muriel you saucy sphinx! We have caught a red herring. This is only the reflex of a man thanking fate for saving his love object; animal instinct not god is working here. A later event has far greater significance. After the Teck’s collapse Selina vanishes. Nicholas is desperate. There are many months of ineffectual searching. Then he meets an old friend, who has some information, which he will provide in return for…Nicholas’ manuscript. Poor unfortunate soul. The transaction is a mistake (giving up literature for life is always high risk, especially in a Spark novel) and sure enough our hero is to find an hysterical wife. In the telephone calls Jane attributes Selina’s reaction to shock: Nicholas’ presence must have stirred up horrible associations with the Teck, she thinks. Yet Jane has had little access to Selina’s character; and gossip is an unreliable narrator. We cannot trust these telephone conversations. Jane, we are sure, is wrong. Selina is screaming not because of pain but out of fear and in rage; this old lover, inescapable evidence of her disreputable wartime career, is a threat to a safe marriage, that longterm peace-time goal. Nicholas was a throwaway man. A bit of holiday fun. Junk by now, and forgotten, until he turns up at the door, threatening to disturb her present luxury. With Nicholas on the threshold we imagine Selina’s experiencing the awful realisation that she has misread his character: this is a soft one: he is in love; he loves me! A horrible toxic substance, likely to spoil all present comforts. Oh no! This is a disaster! She hates him! The shock to our lovestruck hero would be enormous, and would stir up other memories; such as the sailor knifing a woman in the VJ crowd; and about Selina herself, rushing back to the burning club not, as he thought, to rescue a girl, but to steal a glamorous dress. A dress?! Here, we surmise, is the moment of revelation: it is when he thinks back to that Schiaparelli rescue… The gorgeous Selina is wicked; not because she does evil deeds; no, this girl is no tyrant; the reason is subtler, more exquisitely attuned to the requirements of art: Selina is wicked because she is indifferent to other people. Christian theology explains it nicely, when it defines evil not as some active attribute but as a lack of all humane qualities, a moral vacancy.11 Behind the beautiful façade there is just. empty. space. A devastating rejection, coupled with a complete loss of meaning, fused with the knowledge that he has fooled himself…what intellectual wouldn’t join some fanatical sect; the quickest, most effective way to secure an unanchored mind? The intellectual’s self-image is formed out of his ideas; a collapse of meaning disintegrates the personality, almost guaranteeing a fall into the false certainties of an alternative faith, one that in rejecting the horrors of past offers the illusion of a present solidity; no intellectual able to exist as a mere collection of fragments, flotsam on the high seas of contingency.12 The signs were there in his previous belief: Nicholas was an anarchist, that most mystical of secular creeds.
The telephone calls highlight the essential meaningless of the Teck tragedy and the intellectual foolishness of Nicholas’s Christianity; by the 1950s ideas had become an illness; long gone their promise of society’s salvation. For Jane these events are the raw material for her column; his death an opportunity to make money from that unpublished book, by now unreadable (Spark will have her poke at the publishing game). Jane, in giving up her intellectual pretensions, has kept her sanity; Nicholas is less lucky, done over by his own mad ideas. Though can we trust Jane’s account of those last days in Haiti? When we think back to our own reactions to the Teck and its aftermath our sympathies are with Nicholas; his evangelical fanaticism off page we respond to his fragile and desolate ego, and feel the sadness of that terrific loss. It is Jane and her listeners who seem odd. So little understanding. Such poor imaginations. This should not surprise us. The sane - and no one is saner than Selina - cannot truly comprehend love’s madness, the inspiration for all that is transcendental in thought and life.
I can give not what men call love,
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not, -
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?13
Spark’s forthrightness masks her reticence. Yes, we have returned to that unmistakable voice! It overpowers - clever, quirky, knowing - it amuses, it instructs; in telling us what to think the voice forces us to judge these people, but then, where the conclusion should be, there is a…gap…an elision…silence; the final judgement, the unassailable evidence that proves the case, she omits. This voice refuses to say quite enough, leaving us to find the missing sentences and complete the novel’s message. We are like the survivors of an air raid - like the Luftwaffe our author delights in wrecking buildings - clearing up the smashed glass and boarding up the broken windows of a house that from a distance appears whole and untouched. That strong voice: a façade of omniscience.
Nicholas marvelled at her stamina, recalling her in this image…
A concerned bystander. A friendly assistant. The local glazier, doing his morning rounds. The novel’s final paragraph is all of these things. It can help us. Jane, being serious and book-obsessed, is out of the main social run of the Teck; she therefore cannot be its representative, even though she exhibits some of its traits and behaves just enough like the other girls to give the impression that they are all like her - at base solid and reliable - so confirming the respectable image that the club projects onto Hyde Park and the Albert Memorial. In truth, Jane is a mirage, easily mistaken for the real thing by a sentimentalist such as Nicholas, who prefers his own ideas to his limited experience of the place; thus his use of the stock images of the age - “sturdy”, “meek”, “unselfconscious”, poor - to describe these girls; a faulty caricature. Contrast this Socialist Realism, by now congealed into idealised memory, with how the girls act outside the canvas; we follow the Schiaparelli dress around the various bodies; watch Selina’s crazy but selfish rescue; listen in to the girls’ desire to share its beauty and their knowingness about its effects: its use is rationed to reduce its conspicuous display. And while admiring this dress we cannot but observe how the girls are taking new lovers every week… Nicholas is shocked! How can their emotions change so rapidly; be so fluid, so shallow? he asks. These are lives outside his ken.
VJ night is the summation of this life. Funny, sexy, savage, it is for a few brief hours utterly consuming, but then, after this crazy night… Nothing. On the morrow all has… Gone! like that murderer who vanishes into the crowd. Most of us accept this transience, a light lingering nostalgia for lost times our only vice. Intellectuals cannot be so insouciant. They need something more permanent than fleeting experiences; they hanker for the solidity of an idea, by which they create the illusion of a permanent reality. This is no longer possible for Nicholas; his ideas mixed up with a collapsing building, Selina’s rejection and his own impotence…
….close by the knifer. There was no sign of the wounded woman. Nicolas waiting to move, took the letter from Charles Morgan from his pocket and thrust it down the seaman’s blouse, and then was borne onwards. He did this for no apparent reason and to no effect, except that it was a gesture. That is the way things were at that time.
A letter faking his own praises is used to assuage an instinct for justice. It is pitiful. This man’s ideas are useless. Events not concepts, the senses not ideas, these are the important things in life; that brief exhilarating interlude, when poets were sprouting like weeds, and Horizon magazine could sell eight thousand copies, hiding this simple fact; the war a weird holiday when the intellectuals came out and played, winning the hearts of clever girls like Jane and bedding the beautiful ones like Selina, the loveliest of London’s prizes. One brief post-war meeting makes him brutally aware of these uncomfortable facts. Selina cares only about Selina. Fun then; financial security now; and for the future? discreet entertainment, with those who know the rules, is the fortune we foretell. A “crooner” for a husband? She chooses her men so well! The mistake over Nicholas is that more surprising. We put it down to the poetry of war.
Victory is a terrible time for Nicholas. A victim of his own unexploded bomb, which blows up after Selina’s disappearance, which releases his love, shattering his mind, to leave it in ruins. And as he walks through the wreckage of his own psychology he turns his search for Selina into a holy quest: she will put me back together again, is the idea. Selina will save him! Poor chap. He is not thinking. Nicholas has forgotten why he had previously held back - no love could be confessed between the armistices, for Selina would have left for someone more flighty, less serious. But he is desperate. He has lost his sanity. He is acquiring a fanatical belief… Of course! Of course! Her love will be like…like…glue! When he finds Selina…he will be whole once more. They meet. She rejects him. Absolutely nothing is left.14 Voided of all meaning. Pathetic sod.
After this shocking encounter we imagine a breakdown, followed by a slow recovery, where a few carefully selected memories knit themselves into a new meaningful life-sustaining pattern; there will be the image of Jane at the end of VJ night, and the spirit of the beautiful Joanna, and Joanna’s powerful and lovely voice reading the Psalter to the frightened girls, waiting for their rescue. That voice makes the strongest impression. Its music transcending the disaster seeps into the memory enabling Nicholas both to return to this period and to imbue it with a fresh feeling, a quite distinct atmosphere; the source, we guess, for the new spiritual emotion that propels his leap into the Christian faith. He has recovered! The past is safe. He can return to the conceptual realm, once again idealising the Teck, now securely founded on the rock-like image of Jane.
Jane mumbled, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have missed…
Very little of what Jane actually said - we think of those disquieting revelations - is recalled; instead, Nicholas is left with a few comforting words and that strong image - “sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass” - confirming the old idea of a sound institution with its good girls.
…the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty…15
When Jane talks of girls of slender means is she referring only to their financial status; might she not have a very different figure in view? Of just the sort that Nicholas actually prefers: it is not Jane’s fleshy contours that fill his bed. Here is the typical tension between an ideal and banal desires that in most circumstances is easily resolved into a pleasant hypocrisy; our words covering up for our bodily indiscretions; Nicholas idealising the poverty but it is the slim girls that attract his eye. A crisis disturbs such lax conceptual tolerance. Suddenly, cataclysmically, we need a purpose; that state of being where idea, feeling and action are integrated into a single, coherent and dynamic whole. Intellectuals are especially susceptible to such crises and their millenarian resolution. Nicholas believes in ideas, although until he met Selina he lived a loose conceptual life, the tensions between what he believed and what he did painlessly avoiding each other, like enemies who walk on different sides of the same street. No more! After his collapse, ideas and life fuse into an inflexible faith that requires the suppression of an equally powerful truth - for the urge of ideas is to transcend reality not describe it; the motor of this transcendence a rage against one’s own weaknesses and the resistance it encounters, from ourselves and the outside. Stop! Stop! Driving too quickly we have once again driven past our destination… A strong faith is different from a fanatical one.16 In Haiti Nicholas is behaving like a maniac (though we should be wary of both those newspaper stories and the gossip, with its malicious exaggerations). For Nicholas we must ask the following question: has the fusion - between ideas, feeling and behaviour - suppressed too much reality, causing an unresolvable tension that can only be released into a fanatic evangelicalism, with its intolerant, passionate energy? We believe this is so. In that last scene there are many unassimilable facts, and it is not possible for Nicholas to reconcile them; he cannot really fit these girls of slender means into…”sturdy”…“meek” and fat Jane, that purveyor of lethal delicacies.
That last and abiding image of Jane is ambiguous. Added to the memory of the VJ celebrations there is also the hint of…the loose hair, the bare legs, Jane’s hesitancy… Did they have sex during the night, and was it perfunctory, Nicholas’ mind on another girl and on other times; this brief encounter, Jane’s hymen rip, a slight anti-climax? We easily imagine Nicholas suppressing the act of copulation in favour of this later reflection, where his earlier ideas about the Teck become embodied in a woman he never fancied, and whose drunken ecstasies he has forgotten. In the old pre-Selina days such mental sleights of hand would have been easy for him. Not now. After the war Nicholas’ mind is too fragile for such darting, effortless dodges; instead, the hard and clumsy efforts now required to maintain the idea against the facts induces religious mania. Fat Jane… The girls of slender means… Is Ms Spark laughing at the handsome chap; tangling him up in a complicated conflict between word and image? Almost we are there… We think of the title; consider the contents of the book… Their slender means. Closer and closer we are… Is Nicholas undone by a double entendre! Spark’s cruelty is more subtle, much less Freudian.
Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.
Selina quotes this catechism twice a day. It is the depth of her mental life. Behind that exceptionally beautiful body is a mind of extremely slender means. Existentially confronted with this fact few intellectuals - and no wartime New Romantic - could simply accept its truth. The poverty of beauty! Such a revelation inside a disintegrating mind will have disastrous effects, blowing apart Nicholas’ aesthetic belief, to leave a ruin. Selina, what have you done? She has destroyed this man’s conceptual world, the foundation of his personality. To survive he must chase after a new god. Jehovah will do nicely.
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions…
These are the opening, unforgettable words of this novel. By concentrating on these “exceptions” Spark destroys the cliché that “long ago in 1945” had become, and which by the early 1960s was producing some rather worrying effects…it was inspiring a new generation of young Left wing radicals, keen on their own brand of austerity: the beauty of poverty. The cliché, embodied in Nicholas, has to go. This novel kills him off.
1. See my review Get Me Out of Here!
2. Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Spark’s novel completely undercuts Larkin’s later poem: these girls didn’t have to wait to that “quite unlosable game”, the 1960s, to “break their bank”. One wonders... Did Larkin lose his inhibitions after reading The Girls of Slender Means?
3. Compare with Angus Wilson’s short story Such Darling Dodos in his collection of the same name.
4. A possible failing in Rose Macauley’s interesting The World My Wilderness; a novel about Austerity Britain, with its dreams of more flamboyant times, made dangerous by the war and its aftermath.
5. Contrast the sexual insouciance of these women with the primness of Jenny in Take a Girl Like You, a lower-middle class girl from the North. The Angry Young Men were actually writing about the louche bourgeoisie. And here is Virginia Woolf, speaking from direct experience…
What depresses me is that the workers seem to have taken on all the middle class respectabilities which we - at any rate if we are any good at writing or painting - have faced and thrown out. (Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, in Congenial Spirits.)
6. Though is the Teck a synecdoche for London? Compare Elizabeth Bowen’s view of the capital - an island of criminals in the British sea - in The Heat of the Day.
9. Many women weren’t too happy to see the war end: those dull husbands seem even duller after years of fun. That this was a widespread feeling is indicated by Marghanita Laski’s romp about a female Don Juan, To Bed with Grand Music. The existence of this book, knowingly aimed at the mass market - there are the corny dialogues, the carrier bags brimming over with clichés, and the crude generalisations, less ideas than adverts - suggests that the belief about sexual liberation was widespread; for no work was required of Mrs Laski’s reader; they were expected to already hold such sentiments.
10. The novel also looks forward to the freedoms of the post-war period, when a new human character came into being: the middle class graduate who drops out for a few years in his early twenties (my review of John Wain’s Hurry on Down follows Charles Lumley around his youthful manhood). That the Teck and universities are both institutions of young adults is surely no coincidence…
11. Mary Midgley’s Wickedness has an excellent analysis.
12. The classical description is Hume’s; although the greatest British philosopher was unusual in returning to life and the body for this sanity; most intellectuals seek salvation in an alternative constellation of ideas; Arthur Koestler a typical albeit extreme example.
13. From To — by Shelley. Love is so precious that to even utter the word describing it is felt as a sacrilege.
14. The references to Labour’s election victory are suggestive: the millenarian dreams of the New Romantics and the war-inspired Left ideologists were disappointed by the pragmatism of a Labour government whose progressiveness was mixed in with a strong conservatism. We can imagine quite a few Marxists breaking down under this disillusioning tension, as they realised that capitalism was not going to be replaced in their lifetime. With the prospect of an earthly revolution over some turned to the heavens; it never lets us down.
15. It captures the quotidian details of a conversion; a mix of old and new faith that leaves some feelings and ideas intact, while others are radically transformed or freshly minted.
16. For a penetrating description of an intellectual faith and its equally powerful critique see the dialogue with the Spanish War vet in Rex Warner’s Why Was I Killed?