I’ve not read a Spark novel since 2008 when I really enjoyed The Ballad Of Peckham Rye. I chose another of her 1960s novels for MSRW…
The Girls Of Slender Means
Set mainly between VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of WWII, TGoSM follows the lives and loves of a group of young women who live in a hostel in Kensington called the ‘May of Teck Club’ after Queen Mary, the wife of George V. The story flits back and forth to before and after something big happens (which I am not going to give away, unlike some of the alternative book covers out there!). Let’s meet the main girls…
There’s Jane – a publisher’s assistant who puts great store by her ‘brain-work’ not being as thin or attractive as the others. Her boss sets her to work on potential authors to find out their weaknesses, so he can exploit them in their contracts.
Joanna is a rector’s daughter, who has moved to London to avoid her propensity for falling for curates. She gives elocution lessons in the Club, and the air is often full of her declaiming poems as she teaches.
Selina, is beautiful and, well, slender; qualities which give her many ardent admirers, whom she happily strings along and sleeps with, with ne’er a thought about morals going through her pretty head. Indeed Selina is so slender that she is one of the few girls who can fit through the tiny window in the attic washroom to sneak out onto the roof – a secret place for assignations.
The other inhabitants of the Club are also real characters. From the three ladies in their 50s who’ve lived there forever, despite it be a Club for young ladies under thirty. There’s the warden who ‘drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one.’ And there’s Dorothy …
Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’ …
… It was some months before she was to put her hed around Jane’s door and announce, ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.’
I love the Sparkian bon-mot, ‘phrase ripples’.
The Club is very lively. The girls have lots of visitors in to dine, and get taken out all the time, hiring a designer dress one of the other residents in return for ration coupons, although the haggling can get a bit petty:
You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy… it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.
I haven’t mentioned any of the men yet. There are boyfriends, suitors and colleagues, but only one is important to the story. Nicholas Farringdon, a self-styled anarchist intellectual and poet, is trying to get published. Jane is working on him, and brings him to the Club where he falls for Selina.
The above is all told as flash-back. At the beginning of the book, Jane, who is now a journalist, is ringing round to tell everyone that Nicholas is dead, murdered in Haiti. No-one understands quite what he was doing there, as they all remember him rather differently from before ‘it’ happened. This foreshadowing brings a very dark edge to this comedy about frivolous young women trying to escape the privations enforced on them by the war.
It’s not a long novel, 142 pages in my edition. Although full of descriptive passages and dialogue, Spark is sparing in what she tells us, meting out the story in small sections, flashing back between Jane’s later conversations. There are many interjections of poetry from Joanna which punctuate the Club’s activities, all of which keep you on your toes to concentrate on where you are and with whom at any one time. I must say, I didn’t really warm to any of the characters other than Jane who does have some gumption; Spark satirises all the silly girls perfectly. Joanna, the curate’s daughter, retains an air of mystique, mainly being present as a soundtrack of poetry in the background. Having stayed in a YWCA hostel myself when I started my first job, I could understand the goings-on in the club perfectly, (’twas ever thus!).
I enjoyed but couldn’t quite love this book with its sombre undertones, unlike The Ballad of Peckham Rye which I adored and found more wickedly funny. I realise I still haven’t read her most famous book that comes between these two yet either – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – something to rectify, especially as I have a Folio edition. (7.5/10)