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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 39 (next | show all)
This is the only novel of hers I've read, but Spark has a lot in common with [a:Shirley Jackson|13388|Shirley Jackson|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1196262589p2/13388.jpg]: a keen ear for dialogue that on the surface says little but reads volumes, a building aura of foreboding, and a sympathy for the outsider that doesn't exclude them from scrutiny.

The Girls of Slender Means is set in a boarding house for single young women in blitzed London in the last years of World War II. The girls make an effort to go about their lives: dating, work, sunning themselves on a hard-to-reach spot on the roof, but a repeated phone call in the future throughout the short novel hints at a disaster on the horizon.

Bitterly funny. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
maybe this suffered from having read [b:An Experiment in Love|101926|An Experiment in Love|Hilary Mantel|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1312023506s/101926.jpg|98267] immediately prior, but i never felt i had a proper grasp on the book. it's not that it was too complex; it's that it was too slight. i think i get what spark's intention was here - that knowing a person is impossible - but it didn't land for me. ( )
  livingtoast | Jan 23, 2019 |
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark is a short novel that showcases the author’s acerbic wit as she writes about a group of young women who are living in London in 1945, shortly after the end of the European war. These girls live in a slightly shabby Edwardian mansion called the May of Teck Club that has been converted to a residence for working girls below the age of 30 who have to live away from home in order to “follow an occupation”.

The author captures their conversations, hopes, aspirations and their pursuit of men as they go about their daily lives. While I can’t say that I loved this story or it’s characters, I did find it very interesting as the clever, elegant tone moves the reader back and forth through time and leads us into ever darker territory.

The Girls of Slender Means paints a vivid picture of a specific time in post-war London but the story definitely reminded me of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with it’s female cast totally zoned into their everyday concerns while history unfolds in the background. As these young women go about their daily lives, they are far more involved in their love affairs, gossip and in the sharing of a designer evening gown than in the politics of the day. The ending of the story which seemed like a play on the title word of “slender” was definitely unsettling and memorable. I listened to an audio version of this book as read by Juliet Stevenson who, once again, did a stellar job. ( )
1 vote DeltaQueen50 | Oct 2, 2018 |
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. ( )
2 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 |
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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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