‘The most gifted and innovative British novelist of her generation’. (David Lodge). “One of the greatest British writers since 1945” (The Times). When Anthony Burgess, created his list 0f The 99 Best Novels in English since 1939, he singled out The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark’s 1963 novelette, calling it “Brilliant, brittle, the production of a fine brain and a superior craft.” Reading these accolades created high expectations in my mind that The Girls would sparkle with the kind of comic, waspish style of prose for which Muriel Spark was renowned.
The novel was indeed clever. It appears to be a simple story about a group of women who live in The May of Teck Club, a rather shabby but genteel boarding house in central London. It’s 1945 and the war in Europe is over but the girls who live in the club still struggle suffer with clothing rationing and shortages of basic food items like tea. Jane is the brainy one, forever using her work in a publishing house as an excuse for eating; the elocution teacher Joanna is the cultured voice of the community, whose voice can be heard throughout the house as she recites poetry with her pupils, while Selina is the beautiful, wilful inhabitant who cares little for the men she sleeps with beyond the fact they give her entry to parties.
There is much larking about; swapping of lipsticks and dresses and merry escapades including smearing their naked bodies with butter in order to squeeze through a narrow bathroom window and get onto the roof to sunbathe (inevitably one of them gets stuck). But as we get to know them and their eccentricities, the darker sides of their lives become more apparent. Joanna’s devotion to her work is the product of an unrequited love for a curate while Jane’s much vaunted ‘brainwork’ involves writing letters to famous authors to try and wheedle money out of them.
Burgess’ review of this novel talks of Spark’s ability to look at human pain and folly. While there is a darker side to the novel (particularly in the ending), the pain and violence that Burgess saw in The Girls of Slender Means wasn’t as obvious to me. This maybe because the darker tone is masqued by the way that Sparks uses the omniscient narrator to constantly undermine any pretensions these girls have about themselves. Jane for example, becomes attracted to Nicholas Farrington (a man who seems to be something in British Intelligence yet professes to be an anarchist).
She felt she had a certain something to offer Nichols, this being her literary and brain-work side. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own prference for men of books and literature their proference for women of the same business. And it never really occured to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.
The difficulty I experienced was that the novel was too short to really see the main characters developed fully so by the end I didn’t feel particularly engaged with their lives and experiences. The novel structure also worked against my engagement – it’s comprised of very short scenes which switch the focus of attention quickly from one girl to another in a mix of dialogue with prose and snatches of poems and told in a non linear chronology.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it but wouldn’t consider it as a particularly remarkable book.