“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”
It is 1945 and the end of war is in sight. Britain’s young people are having to refocus their aims for a world no longer at war. For the girls at The May of Teck Club (an establishment "for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years" in Kensington, London), the end of war will effect no significance change: they will go on, each seeking their own personal goals, be they a job in publishing, an inch off one’s waste, or – most popular a goal – a nice young man who could be considered marriage material.

Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) is a patchwork tale of the girls who live at The May of Teck Club as their independent stories stitch together to form a shared narrative of the Young Single Lady. We have Jane, who works in publishing and eats heavily to fuel her “brain work”, Joanna with her religious assuredness, Selina who collects men, and many more besides. The narrative circles around the small quarrels that are unavoidable when so many people are thrown together, the stories the girls tell one another and the small cruelties that are inevitable, but also the collegiate spirit, the Schiaparelli dress that is shared between them for special occasions, the bartering of small rationed luxuries for necessities and vice versa. But while the narrative circles around the small issues of daily life, one cannot help but feel disaster looming for the girls given the backdrop of (albeit fading) war and the rather slender opportunities for young ladies.
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark book cover
Spark captures the essence of shared living - of small concerns over weight, what one might wear on an important date, how to negotiate rationing to continue with daily beauty routines, and the like – and demonstrates the essential skill of a novelist of foregrounding the mundane while cranking up the stakes in the background. It is a trick that Austen pulled off in all her novels, where the heroine’s opportunity for happiness and security through a good marriage ticked away in the background. Spark achieves a similar balance here.

Her characters may be concerned with whether they can barter some soap or how they can lose an inch from their waist, but they are all looking for a future, all preparing for the day when they must decide upon their raison d'ĂȘtre. Spark’s women may have more options available to them than Austen’s did more than a century earlier, but they are not so spoilt for choices that they can afford to be profligate with their time.

It would be easy to miss the weightiness of subject in such a slim volume where the focus seems to be on the bickering of young ladies who are at a loose end, but that is Spark’s brilliance. She has created a narrative that has that rare thing in fiction – the ring of quiet but absolute truth. Written in short scenes that are arranged not in a linear chronology but jumping about, the narrative never lacks a sense of rootedness. Even Spark’s comedy is wry and straight-faced, and interweaves with (rather than jutting out from) necessary exposition. Take this description of one of the characters:

"We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal: that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was."

Spark is wonderful at clipped but effective prose and in The Girls of Slender Means she avoids having the story carry her into extremes. This is a brilliantly simple but deceptively effective look at life in all its smallness at the end of the war. It is a perfectly formed nugget from (in my opinion) an undervalued writer.

As much as this is Paul’s story, it is It would be easy to miss the weightiness of subject in such a slim volume where the focus seems to be on the bickering of young ladies who are at a loose end, but that is Spark’s brilliance. She has created a narrative that has that rare thing in fiction – the ring of quiet but absolute truth. Written in short scenes that are arranged not in a linear chron ology but jumping about, the narrative never lacks a sense of rootedness. Even Spark’s comedy is wry and straight-faced, and interweaves with (rather than jutting out from) necessary exposition. Take this description of one of the characters:
"We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal: that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was."
Spark is wonderful at clipped but effective prose and in The Girls of Slender Means she avoids having the story carry her into extremes. This is a brilliantly simple but deceptively effective look at life in all its smallness at the end of the war. It is a perfectly formed nugget from (in my opinion) an undervalued writer.

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