The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
What a strange novella this book is! It’s far from my favourite Spark, but it is possibly the most fascinating. This is because commentators have suggested that it is Spark’s response to the Watergate scandal of 1972 which led to Nixon’s impeachment in August 1974.
The story opens with the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, Alexandra is walking with Sister Winifrede in the Abbey grounds. They go past two policemen with dogs. Winifrede seems desperate to talk:
‘Sister Winifrede,’ she now says, ‘whatever is spoken in the avenue of meditation goes on the record. You’ve been told several times. Won’t you ever learn?’
… She stops walking, there on the lawn; Winfrede, land of the midnight sun, looks at the Abbess, and presently that little sun, the disc of light and its aurora, appears in her brain like a miracle. ‘You mean, Lady Abbess,’ she says, ‘that you’ve even bugged the poplars?’
This Catholic Abbey is run on the oddest lines. Strictly traditional in one sense, observing all the services through the day and night, yet Alexandra doesn’t read from the bible at Vespers. She’ll quote poetry, and the bible reading while the nuns eat will be accompanied by extracts from an electronics handbook. The nuns are nominally Benedictine, but have strong associations with the local Jesuits. It was the previous Abbess, Hildegarde, that put in the surveillance equipment, which Alexandra has inherited and is using to further her cause.
In the recent elections, Alexandra had a strong rival in Felicity. an advocate of embroidery and free love! Felicity spread her philosophy in the abbey’s sewing room, listened to by Alexandra and her team. This is never going to end well for Felicity who has been having relations with a Jesuit priest. It all comes to a head when her silver thimble goes missing. They could all be excommunicated if this gets back to the Pope.
The most hilarious character is Sister Gertrude, who works all over the world as a missionary, but can nearly always be reached on the abbey’s ‘green telephone’ for a pithy comment, like ‘Consult Machiavelli, but don’t quote me as saying so; the name is inexpedient.’ or when asked how to treat a paradox, she says, ‘A paradox you live with’. They fail to persuade the gung-ho Gertrude to return home to vote for Alexandra, she’s too busy trying to convert cannibals to vegetarianism.
‘Gertrude should have been a man,’ says Walburga. ‘With her moustache, you can see that.’
This is such a strange allegorical tale. I was a young teenager when Watergate happened, and have never really been interested in the complexities of it, but it was one of those events that has echoed through the decades ever since, to the recent phone-tapping scandals – there is never a good outcome for those who trample on other’s privacy.
This novella is Spark at her quirkiest, full of sarcasm and wit, but the strangeness of an abbey full of surveillance equipment doesn’t sit very happily with one’s normal view of nun’s lives. I could imagine Alexandra and co working by gossip and infiltration to find out Felicity’s plans, but the bugging felt a step too far – of course that’s the whole point of satire! (6.5/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe 1974. Pub New Directions, paperback 106 pages.
BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link below (other editions available):