For The Abbess of Crewe, published in 1974, think Wimplegate, because this was the era of Nixon and Watergate and I might have lived through it but for reasons various my memories are hazy.
1973/74 would have seen me in my second and third years as a student nurse, enjoying a new life in London, being a bridesmaid at my brother's lovely, funny, happy wedding and then three weeks later having to come to terms with his diagnosis of Acute Leukaemia. Life truly would never be the same again and looking back on that phase of my life really no amount of scandalous news was going to penetrate that sadness with any permanence.
However, intrigue is afoot at the supposedly traditional Benedictine Abbey of Crewe where prayers are said around the clock including Lauds at 3am, and where the senior nun stands at the refectory lectern reading the from the great and ancient Rule of Benedict.
'To fear the day of judgement.
To be in dread of hell...
In every place to know for certain the God is looking at us...
To keep our mouth from low and bad talk...'
And so it goes on to the percussion of forks clinking on plates and on this occasion fish pie on the menu, but the unsuspecting nuns are frequently served something 'unnamed on toast' which might be either a cat-food by the name of Mew or some rather tasty dog food.
As one reading stops the nun calmly closes the book and begins another...
'A frequency is the number of times a periodic phenomenon repeats itself in unit time.
For electromagnetic waves the frequency is expressed in cycles per second or, for higher frequencies, in kilocycles per second...'
It is clear, if the bugging of the trees in the first chapter hadn't already alerted me to the fact, that the Abbey of Crewe is up to its bell tower in corruption as Sister Alexandra vies with the rather emotional Sister Felicity for the election to the post of Abbess. Sister Alexandra certainly stoops to conquer, employing the lowest of methods and all in the name of God to achieve election, and I roared.
The inner sanctum contains a bank of electronic equipment monitoring every word spoken in the Abbey, though they have stopped short of bugging the Confessional, and even I, with the scant facts of Watergate to hand, spotted the significance of the characters and much that happens which mirrors the original political scandal.
Be assured you'll find the peripatetic Henry Kissinger in a wimple.
It's pure Sparkian humour, deliciously funny as she casts her ascerbic eye over religious and political hypocrisy and delivers her verdict.
So I wasn't as up on Watergate as I should have been and it has been Martin Stannard and his biography to the rescue, filling in the gaps and offering much more detail about how Muriel's imagination, fired up by political scandal translated it into her convent setting and 'high theological comedy'. Martin Stannard (who I also thank immeasurably for his book, it will be a golden read ) quotes Frank Kermode and so will I because, as you'd expect it throws even more light on the novel,
'If you impose [the novel] on Watergate you get not a simple transparency but a distortion: and it is in the distortion that the real interest of the book resides.'
In retrospect I can see that distortion clearly but I'm not going to elaborate because if you decide to read the book you will want to find it for yourselves. In amongst the humour, as is always the case it seems with Muriel Spark, there is a huge amount to ponder.
An interesting anecdote from Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark was at the height of her writing career and in the midst of a lucrative three book contract when the rather slender Abbess of Crewe was submitted. There was a sharp intake of breath and undisguised alarm at the publishers; thin pickings for the money on the table and actually had the Nixon debacle passed?
'the former President was now a broken man, confined to a wheelchair'
as Martin Stannard suggests, was this really the best moment to market a political satire?
Muriel Spark exempted The Abbess of Crewe from the contract, negotiating a separate deal for it and the book received excellent reviews on both sides of the pond.
Reading thirty-five years on there is much that translates into 21st century life too. The thought had occurred to me as I read and I was about to seize on it as original and my own and present it for your delectation, except I've had to concede that David Lodge also read The Abbess of Crewe and thought of it first back in 1974,
'a parable on the familiar theme that absolute power corrupts absolutely.'