The hurtle of hell

St Paul’s Cathedral on the night of VE Day, 8th May 1945 (Daily Herald)

The Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark.
Penguin 2013 (1963).

“The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?”

—Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland

With flashbacks to 1945, specifically the period between VE Day and VJ Day, Muriel Spark’s novella has one character – JaneWright, who’s now a news columnist – responding to news of the fate of another by contacting some of her former acquaintances for their reactions.

What starts off as a mildly askant look at a group of mostly young things in a women’s hostel slowly assumes a bleaker hue as we start to get their measure, but we never lose sight of Spark’s razor-sharp asides which, while encouraging us to sympathise with the principal actors, allow those of us dissimilar in age to these girls to view them with a degree of detached compassion.

One might ask how Spark achieves a sense of detachment. It’s essentially to do with the term ‘slender means’ referring here not just to their relative impecunity – this was a time of general rationing, after all – but also (another reflection of the times) to their limited horizons, goals, and even imaginations.

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