The Abbess of Crewe Essay - Critical Essays

Muriel Spark

Critical Context

The Abbess of Crewe in many ways preserves a continuity with Spark’s earlier work and immediately preceding novels The Driver’s Seat (1970), Not to Disturb (1971), and The Hothouse by the East River (1973), though there are important variations. All the later novels are narrated in the present tense and contain Spark’s distinctive narrative looping (the return to an earlier incident or statement) to achieve ironic revelation. In addition, all these novels are set at the time of their publication and focus on a small and self-contained group of characters. Differences in technique and tone include the more driving straightforward plot line, emphasizing inevitability or fate, of the aptly named The Driver’s Seat (a young woman on the way to her predestined rape and murder) and Not to Disturb (the twenty-four-hour period of the servants’ preparations to gain advantage from their confidently expected employers’ inevitable and lucratively lurid deaths), versus the flashbacks of The Hothouse by the East River (Paul’s World War II days versus the 1970’s) and The Abbess of Crewe. In tone, The Abbess of Crewe is most like Not to Disturb (probably Spark’s most amusing work, parodying the Gothic genre and thus herself); both The Driver’s Seat and The Hothouse by the East River are gloomier and more melancholy.

As a specific political satire, The Abbess of Crewe differs from Spark’s other works, and, like all such satires, risks the dangers of becoming dated and thus unintelligible to readers unfamiliar with the original incidents, people, and details forming the original targets of the mockery. Yet like the satires of Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope (the latter quoted by the Abbess), this one by Spark will probably continue to illumine readers with its own light because of the author’s broadening of the work’s scope to apply to general human types, social institutions, and enduring moral and philosophical concerns.