Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

Muriel Spark – One of my Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century (and 21st)


Muriel Spark

Born:  February 1, 1918         Died:  April 13, 2006

This is a good time to write about Muriel Spark because we are still in her centenary year. With her economy of style, she was the master of the sparkling witty yet meaningful novella. I have been a great fan of her work since even before I became devoted to literature, having read ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ in my college Contemporary Literature class.

One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.”

Spark’s descriptions of her characters were not always kind. Take this one from ‘Jean Brodie’ which does finish with a bit of poignancy:

Mary Mcgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire,”

Her most famous novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is indeed a fine, fine novel, but it is not my favorite Muriel Spark novel. My favorite is ‘The Girls of Slender Means’. It also deals with a group of girls, but now they are very young women just out of high school living in a youth hostel in London. It begins with this excellent sentence:

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”

The young women have one Schiaparelli dress gown between them, and they take turns wearing it on dates. Later there is a fire.

Spark was born and spent her childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, but later she lived in London, Rhodesia, New York, and Italy. Graham Greene recognized her talent early on and financially supported her when she was a young struggling writer. She wound up writing 22 novels in all.

Reading Muriel Spark novels is the ideal way for a person to slide into literature as the novels are all novella length and easy to relate to. Spark is sometimes called a Catholic novelist, but I was brought up a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant and that did not interfere at all in my appreciation of her work.

Just about anything can happen in a Muriel Spark, and it isn’t always realistic. However it always does make a kind or cruel point. ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is about the head nun of a convent secretly recording the conversations of all the other nuns a la Watergate. ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ is about a London neighborhood beset by a Scottish migrant who wreaks havoc. Spark is one writer who was able to come up with a totally different plot for every short novel she wrote.

This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.” – Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker

I am going to finish with a list of some of the Muriel Spark novels that I personally have admired:

Loitering With Intent”

A Far Cry from Kensington”

The Girls of Slender Means”

The Public Image”


Aiding and Abetting”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

The Ballad of Peckham Rye”

I am quite positive there are some wonderful ones that I have missed.



‘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-


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