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the girls of slender means
4 december 2019
The Girls of Slender Means is a savagely bitchy little novel that turns lyrical – in fact, Muriel Spark, in spite of herself, allows the lyricism to filter through the bitchiness all along, till you realize that neither mode would work quite as well in the story, without the other to temper it.
Spark's 1963 novel is set in 1945, in a residential club for unmarried women in London. Spark herself lived in a similar establishment for a while, though her characters are hopefully imaginary and not precisely traced over real-life models. Though that part hardly matters. The May of Teck Club houses women working in various jobs, many in the vast British war machine. They share the "slender means" of the title and at least a purchase on genteel respectability. Most are in their twenties, though a few much older "spinsters" have lived at the club for decades.
The Girls of Slender Means, despite dozens of female characters and long, all-female scenes, may not strictly pass the Bechdel Test. The women at the May of Teck think about little else but men. Male lovers pass through the club, some of them more marriage-eligible than others; the residents know that sex is their likeliest way out, one way or another. Lesbian themes are muted below the level of perception, if they're even present, and few of the women, despite their smarts and their work experience, have careers firmly in mind.
One who does, Jane Wright, provides one of the vantage points of Spark's narration. A factotum for a wheedling publisher, Jane becomes fascinated with the seductive anarchist poet Nicholas Farringdon. Jane is fat, Spark tells us, a compulsive eater who feels that her snacking is legitimate because it provides brain-power. And Nicholas in turn is fascinated by Selina, the slimmest and least-inhibited of the residents. Jane is attracted more to the idea of Nicholas than to his writing or even his person, but she would not mind consummating her semi-intellectual crush on him. Alas, Spark tells us,
It never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls. (76)The "slender means" of the title becomes more literal than financial. The thinner the girl, the greater her success in the terms that mean most to postwar girls. As the book draws on, the dimensions of the May of Teck girls become a matter of urgency and then even of life and death, as passage through a window too narrow to accommodate any but the slimmest becomes a key plot point.
Extant photos of Muriel Spark don't show her with much of a weight problem, though weight is notoriously subjective. But reading The Girls of Slender Means, I thought about the diet that a character devises in A Far Cry from Kensington: basically, whatever you get on a plate, no matter what size the plate, send half of it back. A few ounces here and there become crucial to Spark's characters at various points in her work, and never more drastically than in The Girls of Slender Means.
But for all its late-adolescent concerns with boys and hip dimensions, and for all its representation of seething jealousies and muted catfights, The Girls of Slender Means, as I noted above, is ultimately lyrical despite its best efforts at cynicism. Another of the May of Tecks who draws Nicholas' attention is Joanna, a vicar's daughter. Unlucky in love, Joanna has thrown herself into mastering, and then teaching, elocution. Her declamations of classic English poetry form a counterpoint to the trivial goings-on at the club.
Everybody's mildly embarrassed, at best, by Joanna and her middlebrow achievements. The thing is, the poems that she recites with such suburban rotundity are actually beautiful. Some are familiar: Tennyson, Arnold, Coleridge. Hopkins' "Wreck of the Deutschland" is lugubriously prominent. Some of her texts are now more obscure. One of Joanna's favorites is John Drinkwater's "Moonlit Apples":
At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,One can imagine this chanted in plummy elocutionary tones, and soon wish for earplugs. But as quoted a couple of times in passing on the page, it's austere and evocative.
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.
As the plot gathers quickly toward the end of Spark's novel, Joanna's obbligato to the surrounding action takes on a sudden nobility. All the book's cynicism reverses itself, like a glove. It is very neatly turned.
Spark, Muriel. The Girls of Slender Means. 1963. New York: New Directions, 1998. PR 6037 .P29G5