Everybody seems to be reading A Far Cry from Kensington. Well, maybe not everybody, but several people have mentioned or reviewed it, favourably I am happy to say. Because this is a most interesting as well as entertaining novel. Like many of Spark's novels, it has what you might call a double time-scheme -- or at least it is narrated in the present, or rather the 1980s (it was published in 1988) by someone who is looking back to 1954, when she was living in furnished rooms in a tall house in Kensington. This, and the fact that her life has changed beyond recognition in those 30 years, is one reading of the novel's title, and she does in fact make that point at the beginning and also at the end -- it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s. Yes, but the title has, I think, another resonance -- an actual physical cry for help, which comes much later in the novel and which the narrator chooses to ignore. The narrator is Mrs Hawkins, a widow of twenty-seven. Here's what she says about what she was like in those days:
There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and a fat backside.
As the novel progresses, though, we see Mrs Hawkins gradually transforming herself into Nancy, slender and attractive, which she does, rather charmingly, by eating exactly half of what she used to eat before. In the 1950s, though, she works for a publishing company, and indeed, in the novel's world anyway, working for a publishing company seems to be the most desirable job available and several of the characters including Mrs H are constantly getting sacked and trying to find new jobs with new publishers. Her own reasons for getting sacked are connected with someome she meets during the course of her work, a man by the name of Hector Bartlett. Hector Bartlett is unpleasant, pretentious, and a terrible writer, and into Mrs H's mind springs a phrase she thinks she read in some 19th century French symbolist writer, who described a very bad journalist as a pisseur de copie - a urinator of bad prose, in other words. Unfortunately it not only springs to her mind but also to her lips, and every time she says it, either to Hector himself or to anyone else, it has disastrous repurcussions, though she decidedly won't stop.
That's one strand of the story. The other strand, or perhaps another strand, is the goings on in the boarding house where Mrs H lives. All the tenants have become very friendly, and thus she gets to know Wanda, a Polish dressmaker, who, as the novel begins, is becoming very distressed by some unpleasant anonymous letters she has been receiving. Nobody can figure out who on earth could be sending them, but as time goes on it seems possible that the sender is none other than the pisseur de copie himself. Why and how this might be I will leave to you to find out. But for me this was one of the best of MS's novels, though perhaps not in the absolute top rank.
And what is in the absolute top rank? Well, I love Loitering with Intent to bits, but I tell you, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, I think, an astonishing piece of work. Interestingly enough not many people have reviewed it yet*, and I suspect that might be because they read it ages ago, or they saw the film, and they think they know all about it. Well that's what I thought too, and I might not have read it at all if Open Books had not kindly sent me a free ebook, which I read on my iphone (yes, sadly, I do do this from time to time). And I now think it is a deservedly important novel. Because of the format, I'm not sure how the length compares to other of MS's books -- perhaps someone will tell me -- but it seemed to me to be much fuller than most of them, which tend to be on the short side.
I hardly think it necessary to tell you the story of this novel, but of course I will anyway. We are in a select school in Edinburgh (based, apparently, on the school Spark herself attended), between the wars, and Miss Jean Brodie, powerful and charismatic, has gathered around her a small group of girls whose minds she is setting out to form. As she tells the girls constantly, she is in her prime -- a statement that becomes more and more questionable as the novel goes on. Her little group -- the creme de la creme -- does indeed get an excellent education in one sense, as Miss Brodie scarcely ever sticks to the curriculum, instead telling them stories about her own life and her love affairs as well as broadening their minds in more literary, artistic and political ways. The politics, as we soon realise, are a bit of a problem, as Miss Brodie admires Hitler and Mussolini, and indeed she does in some ways resemble a dictator herself, as Sandy, the most complex of the group, comes to realise: the Brodie set was Miss Brodie's fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need . At the beginning of their association with Miss Brodie the girls are ten-year-olds, but as the chronology progresses they become teenagers and their attitude to their teacher gradually modifies as they start to see her as perhaps she really is and to resist her attempts to form them in her own mould. This is very obvious when she sends one girl to be painted by her erstwhile lover, art master, and hopes she will become his lover. She does not, though Sandy later does. Miss Brodie is hated by the headmistress who is longing to get rid of her, and finally does so when one of the girls "betrays" her.
A chronological account of this novel is very hard to give, because of the way it is constructed. Spark constantly moves back and forth in time, so that we know things that are going to happen in the future and things that have happened in the past, all more or less simultaneously. Introducing Rose Stanley, for example, Spark comments who six years later had a great reputation for sex, and Mary Macgregor, we are told, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire. This has a most peculiar effect, and I don't remember any other writer using it in exactly this way. This, I think, is one very important reason for reading the novel rather than making do with the film which, as far as I remember, doesn't try to reproduce this quite unsettling effect. And of course you miss so much when you turn a novel into a film, and great though Maggie Smith was, I don't think she had quite the multi-layered extraordinariness of Jean Brodie. What Spark does so brilliantly here, I think, is to make you simultaneously admire her and be somewhat repelled by her. My own final reaction was to feel deeply sorry for her -- despite her obviously strange and sometimes misguided opinions, she had the most remarkable qualities, and the girls, though many of them rejected her and her teachings, generally came to realise this long after her death.
I was hoping that by now I might have got a handle on Spark and would be able to say in some succint and wise words what the overall characteristics of her novels were. But right now I don't feel able to do that, which is a shame! Perhaps by Sunday, the end of MSRW, I may have come to some conclusions. In any case, there'll be a round-up of some kind, and please do keep reviewing and sending us the links.