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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

by Muriel Spark

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
The Girls of Slender Means is a novel of taut perfection – a wonderful precursor to A Far Cry from Kensington. Told in flash back from the present (1963) looking back at the summer of 1945, and those months between VE day and VJ day. The London streets are scarred by bomb damage and rationing bites those who have put up with it so long already.

“The May of Teck Club exists for the pecuniary convenience of and Social Protection of 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.”

The May of Teck Club has had its windows shattered three times since 1940. It is a hostel for young ladies under thirty. Spark herself lived in a very similar establishment, and she recreates the community perfectly. That atmosphere of everyone being in it together – endless chatter, borrowing and swapping belongings, young men visiting, careers just beginning. The upper floors look down over Kensington gardens, the Albert Memorial just around the corner, it’s a rather nice area of London to be residing in, even in 1945.

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit”

Despite being over fifty, three middle aged spinsters have been allowed to stay at the club since before the First World War, and though one of them insists that one of the bombs that dropped into the garden of the May of Teck Club is still there, no one listens. These three older women hold something of a privileged position at the Club and are generally tolerated by the younger women.

The younger women are an interesting mix, there is Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who requires extra food for her brain work. Some of this work is writing letters to famous writers, on behalf of Rudi Bittesch – who Jane thoroughly dislikes. During the day Jane works in publishing. Joanna Childe gives elocution lessons from her room, her beautiful voice ringing out through the house. ‘Mad’ Pauline Fox frequently goes out to dinner with her imaginary companion; well-known actor Jack Buchanan. Beautiful, Selina Redwood, who daily recites an incantation to maintain her well-practised poise. Dorothy Markham is the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, who is a member of the club’s management committee. Then there is the worldly Anne, who owns the coveted taffeta Schiaparelli dress. The dress is shared between the girls slender enough to wear it, swapped for little pieces of soap or coupons.

In the back ground of all this there is a sense of darker goings on, largely ignored by those girls of slender means, but nevertheless there. The reality of war is everywhere, in the landscape all around and the coupons they trade for the right to wear the Schiaparelli dress. Whispers of another great bomb being prepared, remind us that the world was on the brink of frightening great change.

It is important to be very slim at the May of Teck Club, not only so girls can fit into the Schiaparelli dress, but because girls who are slender enough are able to squeeze through the lavatory window to the flat roof. Here girls can sunbathe unseen or meet lovers who climb over from the building next door.

Selina is quite the expert in getting through that window, while Jane of course can only stand and watch. This ability, or not to get through the tiny aperture of the window to the roof beyond becomes very important as the novel progresses.
Into this all female world that runs smoothly enough, comes Nicholas Farringdon an aspiring writer to unwittingly unsettle the status quo.

“We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was.”

As the novel opens in the present time of 1963, former residents of the May of Teck Club pass along the news of Nicholas’s death in Haiti where he had worked as a missionary. In those former days he had made great friends of several of the young women from the May of Teck Club, and becomes a regular visitor. He decides he would like to do nice things for Jane (though not sleep with her) he takes her to parties and poetry readings, introducing her to other writers, but it is Selina who really turns his head. Many hot summer nights are spent with Selina out on the roof of the May of Teck Club.

Nothing lasts forever, and the days of the May of Teck Club are sadly numbered. In typical Spark fashion the conclusion of the novel is shockingly dramatic. The Girls of Slender Means is a slight novel, in which not a word is wasted – Spark re-creates the atmosphere of a hostel for young ladies, in 1945 with absolute perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the nice poor people in 1945 who live at the May of Teck Club across the road from Kensington Gardens and have a share in a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

I persuaded my very small book group to join in #ReadingMuriel2018 and pick this for our March read. We meet on Wednesday to discuss it. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Apr 2, 2018 |
This is probably Spark's best-known book after The prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And - of course - it turns out not to be quite what we would expect. Just about any other writer, inspired to write a book about a period she'd spent 20 years ago living in a hostel for young women, would have come up with - and many of them did! - a light, nostalgic, romantic comedy, essentially a boarding-school story spiced up with a bit of grown-up sexual jealousy, in which the heroine falls for the wrong man but realises just in time and marries the quiet one instead. But not Muriel Spark. She somehow manages to turn this unpromising material into a formally and linguistically experimental novel-of-ideas which is at the same time a satire of experimental novels-of-ideas...

As usual in a Muriel Spark novel, you find that your sympathy is being bound to characters who later turn out not to be sympathetic at all (tip: nobody comes out of this story well), the narrator is constantly butting in with opinions that contradict or undermine your preconceptions, and everyone criticises everyone else. Two parallel lines of narrative from different time periods switch places without warning, and apparently random overheard fragments of Great Poetry (recited by the offstage Joanna, training to be an elocution teacher) act as an ironic commentary on everything else (or possibly vice-versa...).

But it is also a wonderful comic novel about growing up, about rationing and shortages and youthful poverty, about being hungry but afraid of getting fat, about sex and religion and literary and political posing, about beauty and whether it matters, and many other things that you couldn't imagine would fit into such a slender book. Endless fun!

Just a few random bits of Sparkery about poetry:
Joanna Childe had been drawn to this profession by her good voice and love of poetry which she loved rather as it might be assumed a cat loves birds; poetry, especially the declamatory sort, excited and possessed her; she would pounce on the stuff, play with it quivering in her mind, and when she had got it by heart, she spoke it forth with devouring relish.
...she wrote poetry of a strictly non-rational order, in which occurred, in about the proportion of cherries in a cherry-cake, certain words that she described as ‘of a smouldering nature’, such as loins and lovers, the root, the rose, the seawrack and the shroud.
...he took Jane to a party to meet the people she longed to meet, young male poets in corduroy trousers and young female poets with waist-length hair, or at least females who typed the poetry and slept with the poets, it was nearly the same thing.
( )
1 vote thorold | Mar 15, 2018 |
“You don't know what it's like trying to eat enough to live on and at the same time avoid fats and carbohydrates.”

This novel, as the title would suggest, is about a group of girls living in London in the spring of 1945, in a converted Edwardian mansion known as the May of Teck Club for "Ladies of Slender Means". With the exception of three old spinsters all the occupants of the May of Teck Club are under 30, all have moved away from their families to take up jobs in London during the War and enjoying the freedom that this entails. The building itself is showing its age and although the girls occasionally refer to it as a "hostel" they generally liked liked living there because this is somewhere that they can entertain their men friends in the hope of getting a suitable marriage proposal. During the War a bomb landed but did not explode in the Club's garden and according to one of the ageing spinsters who had been there at the time another one also lay unexploded and missed by the bomb disposal teams. This is a time shortages when the girls squabbled but also bartered chocolate for soap and shared one evening dress among them.

The main action takes place during this period but the author is very fluid with her time line and regularly flits forward to the present when the girls have long since dispersed after its violent culmination. Time mat have dimmed the memories of those who were present but news of the execution of a young male visitor,Nicholas Farringdon, whilst on missionary work in Haiti brings back stark memories.

Jane Martin, one of the former residents and now working as a columnist, breaks the news of Nicholas Farringdon's death in the hope of capitalizing on the story. Back in 1945 Farringdon had submitted a manuscript to a publisher that Jane was working for at the time but it was never published. Back in 1945 Jane had befriended Nicholas but he was only interested in Selina Redwood, the Club's reigning beauty at the time. It is the after effects of Selina's treatment of him as well as what he witnessed that ultimately starts him on his path to his unfortunate fate.

However, Farringdon's death only really gives the story's meaning. Ultimately. it is the girls and their escapades, especially their pursuit of various men, that are the main focus for the story. In particular, Joanna Childe, the daughter of a country rector who knew the psalms off by heart and recited poetry as part of the elocution lessons she gave in her spare time. She is the most admired but the least well known of the girls yet she will rise to be most remembered of them all.

On the whole I found this well written but some the abrupt shifts in tense were a little confusing at times and I struggled to see the relevance of many of the verses Spark quotes throughout. However, it is really only a novella. This has the effect that the 'Slender' of the title seemingly has three very differing meanings. Not only are the girls relatively poor but also it is only the thinner girls who easily escape the demise of the girls and obviously the story itself is relatively brief. If you have not read Muriel Spark's works before then this is as good a place as any to start. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Jan 30, 2018 |
All hail Spark for her inimitable style, unique characterisations, and ability to wrap universal themes in seemingly light-hearted anecdotes of everyday life. The way she seems to be just slapdashing random broad strokes together to create a character and midstroke deciding to introduce another and another and another, then you step back and realise that she has created this incredibly detailed tableau of personalities of postwar London women (of slender means).

Aside: The climax in this book is particularly incredible, with Chekhov's gun firing off all over the place and everything coming together like an very well-directed play. ( )
1 vote kitzyl | Dec 26, 2017 |
Dated humor, misogynistic tone. I feel like Sparks was smart enough to make a name for herself before feminism, but she chiefly did this by lampooning her own gender. ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Muriel Sparkprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kennedy, A. L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
may, nadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vranken, KatjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 081121379X, Paperback)

"Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions," begins The Girls of Slender Means, Dame Muriel Spark's tragic and rapier-witted portrait of a London ladies' hostel just emerging from the shadow of World War II.

Like the May of Teck Club itself—"three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit"—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel's harrowing ending reveals that the girls' giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called "one of this century's finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:04 -0400)

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The lady inhabitants of a London ladies' hostel emerging from the shadow of World War II, do their best to act as if the world were back to normal, all the while maintaining a front for some tragically painful war wounds.

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