Loitering with Intent

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

All the signs of a vintage Muriel Spark novel are here in this sixteenth novel by one of the best and most dependable English writers, but something central is missing; the cheeky style is here, the flamboyantly eccentric British types, the casual hints of dark doings beneath chic surfaces, but finally not much happens, and most of what does happen is reported by the central character in ways which appear calculated to rob the action of its immediacy. The surprising turns fail to surprise, for, likely as not, Spark (or her first-person narrator) has already told the secret.

This is not to say that Loitering with Intent does not entertain, nor that the book lacks insights to some inexplicable ways of the human heart and of literary art. Nevertheless, one has the disquieting sense that the novelist/protagonist Fleur Talbot manipulates characters in her life-story as she does in the several novels she alludes to in the course of telling what happened to her during a portion of a year just before publication of her first novel, Warrender Chase. The metaphysical issues never far from the surface in Spark’s novels sit squarely on the surface in Loitering with Intent, brought in by allusion to the autobiographical art of Benvenuto Cellini and John Henry Cardinal Newman. Aesthetic issues come out into the open, too, for Fleur Talbot’s story is more nearly about her as writer than as woman. When characters, themselves obviously confused if not actually deranged, speculate that Fleur is evil, the reader is likely to make no better defense than to substitute the word obsessed for evil.

The wily Muriel Spark obviously wants her readers to look beyond the surface comparisons of Fleur with the inepts surrounding her and to recognize the partial truth of her friend Dottie’s charge that she is guilty of “wriggling out of real life.” The implication is that to do so—to retain a Jamesian disinterestedness bordering on detachment—is the price the artist pays. Perhaps Spark is wilier yet, and wishes the reader to recognize Fleur’s delusion. The point of view in Loitering with Intent prevents the reader knowing characters other than Fleur except insofar as Fleur types them or relates them to her characters in Warrender Chase. This would not necessarily pose a problem were it not for Fleur’s essentially novelistic perception (and use) of the people she meets.

The structure of Loitering with Intent is self-consciously tidy and novelistic. Sitting “on the stone slab of some Victorian grave” in a Kensington graveyard, Fleur realizes, at mid-year in mid-century, that “this was the last day of a whole chunk, of may life.” Unemployed and almost broke, Fleur is unworried; she is writing a poem and exulting in her escape from the Autobiographical Association, where she “was thought rather mad, if not evil.” She writes, “I will tell you about the Autobiographical Association,” and tell she does for the bulk of her novel. Predictably, after doing so, she returns to the scene in the graveyard and reports her conversation with the policeman who questioned her presence there. She asks him what her crime would be called, if her being in the graveyard were a crime, and, with unexpected lyricism, he replies, “’Well, it could be desecrating and violating,” he said, ’it could be obstructing and hindering without due regard, it could be loitering with intent.’”

The phrase “loitering with intent” crops up elsewhere, as does the word “rejoicing.” Spark ends her book, as she ends chapters, with Fleur’s going on about her business of being a writer rejoicing. These structural devices, like the return to the opening graveyard scene, call attention to themselves, and do not particularly augment the book’s meaning. At the book’s end, Fleur has entered the “fullness” of her years and has followed Warrender Chase with other books, “writing . . . with great care.” She says she always hopes the readers of her novels are of good quality: “I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.” Fleur and her friend Dottie are both living in Paris, where, one gathers, Dottie continues to be silly and Fleur continues to be purposeful.

Sir Quentin Oliver’s Autobiographical Association, a small group of well-connected people who have lived essentially trivial lives but intend to record them for posterity, should provide Spark’s vital plot line, but the Association remains altogether too murky. Fleur accepts a job working for Sir Quentin, and her duties include correcting and livening up the barely literate memoranda the members put on file with Sir Quentin. Fleur undertakes her task with relish; her “improvements” are all in the interest of fun and liveliness, but, after a time, Sir Quentin begins to add his bits of a more sinister cast. From the beginning, one gets hints that Sir Quentin and his crew of aristocratic...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century,” rejoices narrator-author Fleur Talbot in Loitering with Intent; however, in this novel, author Muriel Spark goes beyond a paean to her gender and profession to challenge both social mores and patriarchal writing conventions. In order to achieve that end, Spark writes an autobiography describing her early life as a writer in the form of an amusing novel.

In the middle of the twentieth century, author-narrator Fleur Talbot is writing a novel entitled Warrender Chase. To support herself, she becomes a typist for the Autobiographical Association, a group of people who are writing about their apparently significant lives under the aegis of Sir Quentin Oliver. Mysteriously, the characters of Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase resemble the characters in Spark’s novel Loitering with Intent.

As a woman, Fleur Talbot is juxtaposed against a spectrum of female characters in the novel; she is found to be different and, perhaps for that reason, wanting in feminine characteristics. The character most typical of the dependent female image propagated by society and certainly the most vocal advocate of conformity to that image is Dottie, who calls Fleur “unnatural” for not caring deeply about her sexual affair with Dottie’s husband and for finding greater satisfaction in her writing than in relationships with men. In contrasting Fleur with all the female members of...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Loitering with Intent is not the first novel in which Spark chose to use an author as her protagonist. One of her earlier novels, The Comforters, centered on the trials of an author, Caroline Rose. In Loitering with Intent, however, the author is using the phrase “English Rose” to describe two characters, Beryl Tims, Sir Quentin Oliver’s marriage-aspiring housekeeper, and Dottie, Fleur’s disloyal friend. Although Fleur says that English Roses epitomize England’s ideal women, by using the phrase to describe two male-dominated women, she seems to be suggesting that society’s traditional feminine ideals not only are unsuitable standards for modern woman but also significantly undermine her mature development. As an indication of Spark’s shift in social values, her protagonist-writer could not remain a Rose; she had to become a different kind of flower: Fleur.

The content and form of Loitering with Intent offer some interesting thematic parallels and contrasts with those of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Both novels serve as thinly disguised autobiographies. Both authors address the dual problems of women: having a fully developed personal life while being taken seriously as writers. Both believe that society is pressuring them to conform to the image of women as attractive and subservient. Although similar in feminist themes, these two novels present their themes in strikingly different...

(The entire section is 426 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

America. CXLV, August 29, 1981, p. 98.

Bold, Alan, ed. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. “Fun and Games with Life-Stories,” by Valerie Bold, discusses Spark’s penchant for weaving her life into her fiction. Faith Pullin discusses Spark’s use of duplicity in her essay “Autonomy and Fabulation in the Fiction of Muriel Spark.”

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, July 13, 1981, p. B6.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark. Columbia: University of Missouri Press,...

(The entire section is 444 words.)