Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
Muriel Spark’s forte has always been satire. With a track record that includes such novels as Memento Mori (1959), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), and The Abbess of Crewe (1974), her books are always anticipated for their insight and wit. Her previous novel Reality and Dreams (1996) used filmmaking and films as the vehicle for exploring, among other themes, the line between fantasy and reality and the economic realities of a Britain sharply divided between the wealthy “haves” and the unemployed “have-nots.” This, her twentieth novel, takes on a different target: the British aristocracy.
The factual basis of the novel is a famous incident from 1974. In that year, Richard John Bingham, seventh earl of Lucan—nicknamed “Lucky”—mistakenly bludgeoned to death the family’s nanny (Sandra Rivett) and then critically wounded his intended target, his estranged wife. Aided by aristocratic friends and a fumbled police investigation, Lord Lucan managed to leave the country and has evaded capture ever since. Like other famous missing persons, he is occasionally sighted around the world, but none of these incidents has led to anything more than a deepening of the mystery of how he has managed to remain at large for more than twenty-five years. Spark’s novel, then, is an imaginative musing on the facts of this case and another, that of a fake stigmatic which, according to the author, is also based on a true incident.
Although the novel is quite short (under forty thousand words), its structure is fairly complex, as there are at least three story lines. The story of Lucky Lucan opens with his visit to Dr. Hildegard Wolf and his confession that he has sold his soul to the devil by committing murder and attempted murder. Dr. Wolf is shocked by his confession, not so much by its grisly content as by the fact that she is simultaneously treating another patient who claims to be the famous fugitive, a man calling himself Robert Walker. Dr. Wolf’s uncertainty over which, if either, is the real Lord Lucan thus becomes the reader’s uncertainty as well, and for a time it is the book’s chief point of suspense.
The parallel story of Dr. Wolf, whose real name is Beate Pappenheim, begins in her student days. The daughter of pig farmers, she studied medicine to become a psychiatrist. Supporting herself with a part-time job selling handbags in a department store, she grew tired of being poor. Acting on a chance remark by her landlady, she conceived the idea of claiming to be a stigmatic, using her menstrual blood and fake wounds as “proof” of her powers. Thousands of pamphlets distributed strategically resulted in visits by pilgrims, purported miracles, large amounts of money, and finally an exposé that forced her to leave Paris for Marseilles, where, with the help of a forger, she reinvented herself as Dr. Hildegard Wolf. Like Lucky Lucan, she has survived and prospered in part through the collusion of friends. Robert Walker complicates her life by threatening to expose her if she does not provide money, eventually causing Hildegard to flee to London temporarily.
The third strand of the plot concerns Lacey Twickenham, the recently divorced daughter of two of Lucky’s upper-class friends who had concealed his movements and thus aided and abetted his escape. When a new sighting of Lord Lucan is reported in the papers, Lacey decides to investigate and write a book on what she learns. The only one of Lucan’s former acquaintances who agrees to help her is Joe Murray. He knows enough about Lucan, Lucan’s friends, and the general operating methods of the English aristocracy to be of assistance. Besides, Lacey is young and pretty, and the retired widower is interested in her. Together, they go in search of Lucan and, in some of the book’s most interesting and tense scenes, nearly apprehend him several times. Unfortunately for Lacey’s planned book, their interest in the chase eventually succumbs to their interest in each other.
Spark weaves these three plots together with her usual skill, shifting points of view from omniscience to the perspectives of the various characters and back again with aplomb. Once again, Spark demonstrates that old-fashioned fictional techniques can yield interesting results and genuine drama. The ending (which readers should discover on their own) is at once fitting, surprising, and somewhat politically incorrect.
Spark’s characters, too, are sharply drawn and generally engaging, although both Lord Lucan and Robert Walker are limited by their own lack of intelligence and imagination. This is part of the satire, since the British aristocracy is often accused of being hopelessly mediocre as a group. Lucan makes a feeble attempt at being interestingly eccentric by eating smoked salmon and lamb chops at every meal—a trait that helps Lacey and Joe to stay on his trail. Even Lucan’s most ardent aiders and abettors, however, admit that he is dull, almost predictably addicted to gambling and sadistic sex. The most interesting characters, therefore, are Hildegard and her lover Jean-Pierre. Unfortunately, Jean-Pierre has a relatively small part to play and hence is not well developed, but his shrewd observations and witty dialogue make the reader wish to see more of him. Hildegard bears much of the novel’s weight as its most lively and interesting creation. Indeed, she is bright, resourceful, and shrewd, so much so that, like those who have aided and abetted her, the reader is prone to forgive her scams.
The heart of Spark’s case against the self-protecting and snobbish instincts of the upper class, however, is way in which Lucan’s friends first protect him from arrest and then continue to provide him with money and cover. They are motivated by the fact that Lucan killed a nanny, a person from a lower order whose death scarcely merits remorse. Lucan’s chief supplier of money, Benny Rolfe, excuses the crime as merely “a bungle like any other bungle,” thus connecting the seventh earl to his ancestor who led the charge of the Light Brigade immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Their case, for them, is clinched by the fact that Nanny Rivett had such a quantity of blood to be spilled. “Perhaps murdered nannies have more blood to spill than the upper class, do you think?” asks Rolfe. Lucan agrees, in what must rank as one of the most grimly ironic uses of “blood” as a justification for aristocratic superiority.
Yet pretenses are not the exclusive property of the English upper classes. Hildegard’s phony claims to being a stigmatic, followed by her equally bogus credentials as a psychiatrist, suggest that once again the middle classes are imitating their aristocratic “betters.” Even Lacey and Joe are less than they appear, since Lacey has no credentials as a writer, while Joe is far more interested in his young partner’s looks than in her cause.
Taken together, then, the three intertwined stories suggest that the whole world is made of shams and phonies, pretenders and wanna-bes. The only genuine person in the novel, perhaps, is Jean-Pierre, whose honest craft and frequently penetrating insights provide a contrast to everyone else’s pretenses. However, even he is an aider and abettor. He and the others, such as Benny Rolfe, lead to the conclusion that phonies could not prosper if the rest of the world did not collude in their deceptions.
Given the reelection of the Labour Party’s Tony Blair as prime minister in 2001 and Britain’s attempts to put merit ahead of class, the question arises whether Spark’s concern with the snobberies and prejudices of the aristocracy is still relevant. Certainly, attitudes have changed, even within the novel’s characters. Marie Twickenham admits that if Lucan came to her today with blood on his hands and a dead nanny in the basement, she would call the police. As Joe says, “We are not the same people as we were a quarter of a century ago. We are necessarily different in our ideas. In my view it is an economic phenomenon. We cannot afford to be snobs. Since Lucan’s day, snobs have been greatly emarginated.” In fairness, however, it cannot be claimed that England’s exaggerated respect for those of noble birth has died. Aristocrats still sit on more corporate boards than their economic or business prowess would suggest, and a title may still be an asset when dealing with the police and courts—as seen in the real-life libel and perjury case of novelist and politician Lord Jeffrey Archer.
Granting these social concerns, it nevertheless seems fair to say that this is not among Spark’s most biting novels. Because the primary target is a social caste of increasing irrelevance, Spark’s sharply drawn characters and their cynical observations seem a bit off the mark. As in the case on which the novel is based, they and their concerns fall a trifle flat. Lacey herself “was hardly expecting to track down the elusive, the perhaps nonexistent earl; not really. It was the prospect of a chase that excited her, this promising and enjoyable beginning.” The reader is in much the same situation. Unlike the police and others still connected to the case, the reader has the luxury of enjoying the mystery for its own sake and taking pleasure in the suspense that Spark creates over whether her two phonies will ever be caught and punished. That sense of mystery and suspense has sustained interest in the case for over twenty-five years, but it, too, may be drawing to a close. In 1998, Veronica Lucan asked a court to declare her husband legally dead, as she believes he has been literally dead since the night following the murder. Meanwhile, to keep matters interesting, an Internet site claims that Lord Lucan is, in fact, alive and well under the name Georgios Stavros, owner of The Happy Fisherman fish and chip shop in Netherton. Of such stuff are delightful novels and the tabloid press made.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (October 1, 2000): 292.
The Atlantic Monthly 287 (February, 2001): 124.
Library Journal 125 (October 15, 2000): 105.
The New York Review of Books 48 (April 26, 2001): 7.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 11, 2001): 14.
Publishers Weekly 247 (November 20, 2000): 44.
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