The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Despite the novel’s pervasive symbolism of black and white, through emphatic descriptions of the nuns’ and Abbess’ attire, Spark’s portrait of the adversaries, Alexandra and Felicity, is neither all one nor all the other, an absolutism perhaps anticipated of a Watergate satire (villains against the heroes). Alexandra is on occasion treated sympathetically and Felicity, caustically. Mixed with ironically implied censure for the Abbess’ misuse of her talents or natural endowments is Spark’s admiration for them and scorn for their lack in Felicity.

Furthermore, Spark’s satiric characterization at times has the added complexity of reproving her historical targets by antithetical rather than parallel traits in the fictional equivalents.

The Abbess, for example, is fond of quoting from memory passages from masterpieces of British poetry. She is advised by Sister Gertrude to delete these passages from the audiotapes of her surreptitiously recorded conversations because the Congregational Committee at Rome will be outraged by these quotations more than by her actual misdeeds.

In actuality, tapes released by President Nixon had, in the notorious phrase of the time, “expletives deleted” because of vulgarity in inner-circle White House conversations. In this instance, the Abbess’ learning and tastefulness are admirable. Yet Alexandra’s private recollection and substitution of these poetic passages (many drawn, allusively, from seventeenth century lyric poetry) for parts of the service in which she is participating show a tendency toward secularism and also hypocrisy, since the Abbess publicly advocates a rigid, reactionary ,conservatism in returning to the original Latin language in all ritual. Also satirized here, through the Congregational Committee, are the American Congress and public for Victorian prudery (more concern for...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Alexandra, the recently elected Abbess of Crewe, a Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey in the English Midlands. Tall and slender, with white skin and light eyes, the forty-two-year-old abbess bears herself with a clear consciousness of her aristocratic lineage. In her quest for power, she will stop at nothing. To win the election, she bugged the abbey and the grounds, entered into a secret pact with the Jesuits to commit a burglary, and even accused her rival of being a bourgeoise instead of a lady. When she is exposed, Alexandra casts the blame on her loyal aides. She is last seen en route to the pope to be exonerated. In the parallel Watergate scandal, she represents President Richard M. Nixon.

Sister Felicity

Sister Felicity, Alexandra’s unsuccessful rival for the position of abbess. A tiny, red-haired woman, usually breathless and disorganized, Felicity is a crusader for change, justice, freedom, and love, demonstrating her principles in a sizzling liaison with a Jesuit named Thomas. In her headquarters of the sewing room, however, she is very tidy; therefore, she notices immediately the theft of her thimble from her workbox. When she later finds Jesuit seminarians stealing love letters from the same box, she calls the police. After fleeing the abbey with Thomas, she exposes Alexandra and her aides. Felicity represents Senator George McGovern as well as presidential counsel John Dean.

Sister Walburga

Sister Walburga, the prioress. A long-faced, middle-aged woman from a wealthy family,...

(The entire section is 645 words.)