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.
Named after the wife of George V, the May of Teck Club is a hostel near Kensington Gardens, not far from the Albert Memorial. As the war in Europe comes to an end with rejoicing in the streets we turn our attention to a select few of the “Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” These few include a publisher’s assistant, a trainee teacher of elocution, a shorthand typist and a willowy student on a Poise Course, who repeats the following mantra twice a day:
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.
The hostel – which has a warden, a management committee and, unexpectedly, a resident trio of elderly spinsters – allows the girls to invite male friends for communal meals. Among them is a certain Nicholas Farringdon whose interactions with Jane Wright, Joanna Childe, Selina Redwood et al will have unforeseen consequences, especially his liaison with Selina on the hostel roof and all that follows.
Spark’s commentary on the girls is both witty and barbed, so many passages proving temptingly quotable:
Their eyes gave out an eager spirited light that resembled near-genius, but was youth merely…
Selina’s long unsurpassable legs arranged themselves diagonally from the deep chair where she looked in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll…
Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression […] she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers…
But the author’s intention is to lull the reader into thinking these distinctive but often vapid individuals are somehow inconsequential. Yet it would be a mistake to forget that they inhabit a world full of consequences for those who ignore tell-tale signs – and in the novel these include warnings of unexploded armaments, the unforeseen dangers in excitable milling crowds, the inadvisability of proselytising in politically unstable situations, the risk from unplanned pregnancies, and so on.
Jane, who with her talk of “brain work” and involvement in “the world of books” sees herself as an intellectual, is – all unaware – our innocent guide to these few months between May and August, including the surprise election of a Labour government; but with our bird’s eye view, and forewarned by elocution student Joanna’s poetic texts serving as a pointed commentary, we can sense an unexpected event, one that only hindsight can confirm, that may serve to confound everything.
Spark’s writing, seesawing between honeyed words and caustic wit, results in a story which is at once entertaining and disturbing. We begin by smiling at the girls and end up feeling dreadfully sad for them all. Author Carol Shields gets to the nub of the narrative when she writes of the girls,
Each of them is in peril, each frightened by a direct question concerning her raison d’être (that daunting phrase they are just beginning to hear).¹
The girls have survived a war; can they survive the peace that follows to achieve perfect balance and attain the self-confidence they seek?
¹ Carol Shields, ‘Beautiful youth’, Guardian. 26th July 2003. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jul/26/classics.fiction