In Muriel Spark’s eighteenth novel she returns to a setting similar to that of her Loitering with Intent (1981). Both novels are set in London in the years of austerity following World War II, and both feature a female first-person narrator who is involved in the literary world. Both touch on fringe religion and the occult, as well as blackmail (the latter features in almost every novel Muriel Spark writes), and both have a cast of brilliantly created, eccentric, but believable characters, who never lose their effectiveness for the reader by slipping into caricature.
Writing from the perspective of the 1980’s, the narrator of A Far Cry from Kensington, Nancy Hawkins, recalls her ups and downs as a twenty-eight-year-old widow (her husband was killed during the war), working as an editor for a struggling, and shortly to fold, publishing house in London during the 1950’s. At that time, the most immediately noticeable thing about Nancy (who was known to all of her acquaintances as Mrs. Hawkins) was her bulk: “I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside.” Her appearance gives her an air of matronly wisdom; others readily confide in her (although she notes that later, when she began to get thin, people no longer did so), and everyone holds her in high esteem as a “capable woman.” She finds this reputation more than a little irksome, however, and her advice “to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is to not demonstrate her ability too much.” Mrs. Hawkins herself, however, never makes a serious effort to follow this advice, and some of the pleasure of the book results from her many tips, often made directly to the reader, on topics such as how to get thin (with an accompanying tip about the nature of willpower), how to get a job, how to concentrate (acquire a cat—its tranquillity will help to soothe one’s excited mind), how to deal with casual correspondence, and, the best tip of all, how to write fiction. Here is only part of her advice, offered to a writer who has something to say but little idea about how to go about it:You are writing a letter to a friend . . . a dear and close friend . . . Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you. . . . Before starting the letter rehearse in your mind what you are going to tell; something interesting, your story. But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along, especially if you write to a special friend, man or woman, to make them smile or laugh or cry, or anything you like so long as you know it will interest. Remember not to think of the reading public, it will put you off.
Excellent advice indeed, and there is no doubt that Mrs. Hawkins—levelheaded, sensible, calm, intelligent, and, yes, capable—is an attractive protagonist.
The plot in which she finds herself bound up has two strands. They appear at first to be separate, but later are cleverly and unobtrusively woven together. The first strand features an unpleasant, talentless hack and literary hanger-on named Hector Bartlett, who has ingratiated himself with a well-known novelist, Emma Loy. Hector—who in addition to his literary pursuits is an adept of a pseudo-science called radionics—attempts to befriend Mrs. Hawkins as well, but she has her own phrase to describe him: pisseur de copie. “Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.” With a bluntness that is not her usual manner, she uses this epithet not only to Bartlett’s face but also to anybody else whenever the subject comes up. Her remark runs like an irreverent leitmotif throughout the book, its unexpectedness and inappropriateness frequently producing a comic effect. In sticking to her self-appointed task—she thinks that it is one of the prime duties of her job to inform her colleagues that Hector Bartlett is a pisseur de copie—Mrs. Hawkins alienates Loy, who twice sees to it that she is fired from her job.
The second strand of the plot centers on Wanda Podolak, an excitable and neurotic Polish dressmaker, who is one of a half dozen tenants in the boardinghouse Mrs. Hawkins shares in South Kensington. Podolak receives an anonymous letter threatening to report her to the tax authorities for not filing a return. Other notes follow, varying the attack, and are followed by telephone calls. Podolak becomes fearful and paranoid, thinking that everyone in the house is conspiring against her. Eventually she drowns herself in the Thames.
As Mrs. Hawkins unravels the circumstances of Wanda’s death, she learns that Hector Bartlett was the blackmailer. He had been...
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