Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Muriel Spark’s first five novels—The Comforters (1957), Robinson (1958), Memento Mori (1959), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), and The Bachelors (1960)—have much in common. All are set in the late 1950’s, and all draw on urban London and its environs for locale (the island castaway Jan in Robinson continually thinks about her relatives in the city). Further, they (and later novels) focus on a small, self-contained group. Finally, they share Spark’s techniques of narrative looping or the play between past and present, a short denouement or coda that wraps up loose ends and synopsizes characters’ later lives, and rather pointed symbolism in characters’ names.

All of Spark’s early novels evoke the dark part of human nature lurking in the depths and ready to erupt, manifested by some version of both murder and blackmail; life’s capacity for the sudden appearance of the occult or mysterious; and the importance of the religious sphere, implied more by negation in The Ballad of Peckham Rye than in her other works.

Virtually all of Spark’s novels, including The Ballad of Peckham Rye, are short and artistically finished, pervaded by symbolism and mordant humor or satire. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye the business world and urban working class receive more attention (unflattering) than in Spark’s other novels; this novel also differs from her other early works in its greater quantity of amusing farce (her most humorous book is probably Not to Disturb, published in 1971).