‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by Muriel Spark – A Whole Lot of Bugging Going On


‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by Muriel Spark    (1974) – 116 pages

Only Muriel Spark could get me to read a novel about a convent – an abbey – of nuns (with the delightful exception of the children’s Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans of course).  I have read just about everything else Muriel Spark wrote so it was finally time to read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’.

“You mean, Lady Abbess”, she says, “You have even bugged the poplars?” 

Yes, ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ was Muriel Spark’s answering satire to Watergate where US President Richard Nixon had bugged his office, recorded all of his conversations, and which ultimately led to his downfall.

The novel is mainly played for laughs but does have a significant point.  Alexandra considers it her destiny to be the next Abbess of Crewe, and she will let nothing or no one stand in her way.  She has a team of nuns including Mildred, Walburga, and the gullible Winifrede working for her, setting up the electronic equipment.  There is also Sister Gertrude who is out in the field and calling in from the African jungle or the Andes or Tibet or Iceland with philosophical advice. Alexandra is opposed by the rebel nun Sister Felicity “with her insufferable charisma” who is rumored to be having romantic trysts with a Jesuit priest.

“Clear off,” says Mildred, which Winifrede does, and faithfully, meanwhile, the little cylindrical ears in the walls transmit the encounter; the tape-recorder receives it in the control-room where spools, spools, and spools twirl obediently for hours and many hours.

Perhaps the best way to describe ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is that it is “horrifically comic” like so much of Spark’s work is.  It does capture that mood of Watergate as I remember it with all these underlings furiously working for their harsh unethical boss.

Muriel Spark writes of all the shenanigans going on in this abbey with her usual economical spirited sparkling style.  I can fully understand why Graham Greene provided Muriel Spark enough money early in her career so she could write full time, a good investment.  I wish there were more writers like Muriel Spark or Penelope Fitzgerald who could provide a dazzling entertainment in a hundred or so pages.  Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the 1296-page ‘War and Peace’, I feel I can speak out in defense of the short novel.

During her writing career, Muriel Spark eventually refused to be edited.  She insisted, “If I write it, it’s grammatical”.

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ was adapted into a movie called ‘Nasty Habits’ in 1977.


Grade:   A-


5 responses to this post.

  1. This one is definitely going on my list for my Spark reading later this year.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. I am agreed about the short novel/novella. War and Peace needed to be long but most of today’s chunksters do not need to be, and increasingly I find myself unwilling to invest my time in them…

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      If I am going to invest my time in a long novel, I hold it to a higher standard. I want to make real sure it is worth the time first. Ulysees at 714 pages was worth the time and Anna Karenina and a few others



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