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In the footsteps of Dame Muriel

I’m not the first novelist inspired by The Wreck of the Deutschland. I hadn’t realised it when I started out, but I’m following in the footsteps of Muriel Spark.

Her novel The Girls of Slender Means – slender itself, yet characteristically dark – is set in the May of Teck Club, “an establishment for the pecuniary convenience and social protection of ladies of slender means”, in London in 1945.

The residents are concerned chiefly with diets, dresses and desirable husbands – with the exception of Joanna Childe, a rector’s daughter who appears mostly offstage. Unlucky in love, she has turned to teaching elocution.

Joanna “had been drawn to this profession by her good voice and love of poetry which she loved rather as it might be assumed a cat loves birds; … she would pounce on the stuff, play with it quivering in her mind, and when she had got it by heart, she spoke it forth with devouring relish”.

Her taste became the accepted taste of the club: “she had a deep feeling for certain passages in the authorised version of the Bible, besides the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and had newly discovered Dylan Thomas”.

So that’s the status poor Father Hopkins had acquired by the middle of the 20th century: up there with the all-time greats, to be declaimed from pulpit and stage. There’s waspish irony in Spark’s description, of course; but I don’t think she’s sneering. The author is letting us know that Joanna’s tastes aren’t exactly subtle, but she is not afraid to aim high.

Hopkins becomes a soundtrack to the novel:

Everyone in the drawing-room could hear the loud lesson in progress beating out the stresses and throbs of The Wreck of the Deutschland.

And when Joanna turns to Wordsworth instead – I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy/ The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride – it’s all a bit of a let-down:

‘I wish she would stick to The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ Judy Redwood said. ‘She’s marvellous with Hopkins.’

Joanna turns out to be crucial to the plot of what novelist Carol Shields calls “the light, light, light novel that Muriel Spark holds like a balancing shadow under her deadly serious work of art”.

No spoilers here, but you can hear the whole thing discussed by Jenny Eclair and Christopher Biggins on my former tutor Harriett Gilbert’s radio programme A Good Read. Biggins was inspired casting for this episode: he played one of the gentleman callers in the Seventies ITV adaptation of Spark’s novel, alongside Miriam Margolyes, Patricia Hodge, Mary Tamm and Rosalind Shanks as Joanna.

It’s a very funny discussion, and Biggins’ throwaway line that he wishes he could drop names as deftly as his old friend Joan Collins could have been written by Spark herself.

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