Who else but the
idiosyncratic Muriel Spark would write sentences like "The people . . .
were undeniably communist intellectuals, as one could see from the
variety of dyspepsia remedies on the bathroom shelf."
Yet underneath Spark's wit and breeziness lies a seriousness that can catch the reader by surprise. Such is the case in The Girls of Slender Means.
The story concerns a group of young women (girls of slender means) living in a London boarding house just after the German surrender in World War II. There are Jane, overweight but with some status because she works for a publisher and does "brain work" in her room; beautiful but soulless Selena, who lives by a mantra of "elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment"; Joanna, a rector's daughter who gives elocution lessons that vibrate through the whole house; a handful of other named women under 30 and a couple dozen unnamed ones, plus three over 50 who were allowed to stay past the age limit. For three-quarters of the short novel we are amused by their resourcefulness in coping with genteel poverty in 1945 London, when, Spark tells us, "all the nice people were poor." It seems charming that the girls share a Schiaparelli gown that one inherited. We smile at antics like their smearing their bodies with margarine so that they could slide through a narrow lavatory window and on to the roof. As a male visitor put it: "It was a community held together by the graceful attributes of a common poverty. . . . at no point did the poverty arrest the vitality of its members but rather nourished it."
We are so taken with the how "delightful" and "ingenuous" the girls are — the words with which Spark describes them in chapter 1 — that it isn't until tragedy strikes toward the end of the book that we remember that the adjective "savage" was used in the same sentence. A light-hearted story becomes deadly serious, and Spark achieves a perfect balance of satire and compassion. Only 120 pages long, this is a gem of a novel, considered by many to be her best.
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