The Abbess of Crewe satirizes politics in the United States as well as most of the principals and details of the Watergate affair (which eventually caused President Richard M. Nixon to resign, following a congressional committee’s vote for impeachment), humorously criticizes shortcomings in human nature and in the Catholic Church, and enunciates many of Muriel Spark’s favorite themes.
Using the present tense of her later novels but the narrative looping she has employed from her first works onward, Spark opens in chapter I with events far advanced (two years’ worth), enabling her to inject her trademark of mystery and strangeness into the plot, puzzling the reader with questions such as what the Abbess means by “the traditional keyhole method” she seems to advocate to Sister Winifrede and why police and police dogs roam the abbey’s grounds, which should be free of such sordid reminders of the outside world. In an extended flashback, chapters 2 through 4 explain how after the death of Abbess Hildegarde, sub-Prioress Alexandra and her cohorts became concerned that Sister Felicity, given little chance to be elected the next abbess, was gaining on Alexandra with a flabby, sentimentally vague philosophy of love. Spark here satirizes both the Alexandra (Nixon) faction’s oxymoronic “evident happiness of shared anxiety,” since no action was necessary for Alexandra to win in any case (the group simply created adversity for adversity’s...
(The entire section is 602 words.)