The Abbess of Crewe – Muriel Spark

As I mentioned last week whilst visiting Gran’s I always pack far too many books for the length of time I am there. I also have to plan which ones to take which sort of defeats my aim of reading by whim on the whole this year. However Gran has a vast selection of books in her house and perusing this actual gave me some short treats to read while I was there, one of which was ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by the wonderful Muriel Spark, subtitled ‘a wicked satire on Watergate’. How could I not read this when it so explicitly mixed Muriel Spark and wickedness?

**** Penguin Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, 104 pages, nabbed from Gran’s bookshelves

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is told in a rather strange way, as the book opens we find the Abbess and one of her nuns Sister Winifrede deep in a hinted discussion that they may have done something untoward which, as we read on, might relate to the reason that policemen and police dogs are patrolling the grounds of the abbey. You aren’t sure what is going on but then you flit back between now and the repercussions and what actually happened.

As we read on, though I don’t want to give too much away, it turns out that the whole abbey has been under observations with phones tapped along with hidden video cameras and microphones (even in the fur trees in the grounds) and which have been discovered around the recent election of the new abbess herself against her rival Sister Felicity.

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’
Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –‘
‘Silence!’ says the Abbess.  ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening.’

Here I am sure a more intellectual blogger might allude to, or indeed inform you of, how this all relates to the Watergate Scandal. I admit, partly because I felt that I should, I did go and read a bit about the whole affair though I then decided against it as I found myself trying to work out which characters in the book were in the real political scandal, and it started to take the fun out of reading about these barmy nuns instead. So I stopped. This does show that you don’t need to know of the Watergate Scandal to enjoy the book as Spark creates one of her most Machiavellian female leads in ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and a wonderful cast of cloaked characters around her.

I thought Felicity, the Abbesses main rival initially, was a wonderful character. Some people would say she was a ‘new nun’ in the fact that she is devoted in depth to God and also to free love, the latter of which she is having with a Jesuit monk called Thomas around the grounds as often as she can. This of course causes talk, I laughed very loudly when one of the nuns said she didn’t understand why on earth she didn’t do it in the linen closet where it’s warmer, and threatens to change the vision of the convent and abbey that many people, mainly the abbess, have for it. If one nun turns bad and gets away with it surely others may to and there could be a revolt.

‘Nobody knows where Felicity has been all day and half the night, for she was not present at Matins at midnight nor Lauds at three in the morning, nor at breakfast at five, Prime at six, Terce at nine; nor was she present in the refectory at eleven for lunch, which comprised barley broth and a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk. Felicity had not been there to partake of it, nor was she in the chapel singing the Hour of Sext at noon.’

I also loved Mildred and Winifrede who remain hard done by and a little bit ditzy throughout. There was also the wonderful Sister Gertrude who phoned often from one of her many missions around the world, such as trying to unite cannibals and vegetarian tribes on either side of a Himalayan mountain, to talk philosophical gibberish which never made sense and yet seemed to make the other sisters suddenly do very rash things. There are also some wonderful set pieces like a meeting of a nun to pay a bribe in a Selfridge’s toilet and much, much more.

It seems a shame then that ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is out of print. I do wonder if it is because people might think it has aged or will seem aged being a satire of Watergate. It seems a real same if that is the case as for a little book, at just 104 pages, it gives a lot, I ended up wishing it was a lot longer though. There was a lot of very wicked laughter for me throughout ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and it had some of my most favourite characters Spark has created so far in my reading of her. I also think it is one where her wicked sense of humour, which I love so much, shines through most devilishly.

Who else has read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and if so what did you think? Did you find you had to read all about Watergate or like me did you just enjoy it regardless? Which of Sparks’s books have you read and enjoyed? Oh and if you haven’t as yet one of her most famous ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (which oddly isn’t my favourite though it is deemed her classic) is current Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

8 Comments

Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review

8 responses to “The Abbess of Crewe – Muriel Spark

  1. I read and loved loads of Sparks during MS Week last year but avoided this one because I am never attracted to books about nuns and did not think I’d get the Watergate connection. Now I see how wrong I was — it sounds wonderful and I shall seek it out. Thanks!

    • Do you know what Harriet that is one of the things that put me off this book too. I really didn’t think it would be my cup of tea even though I love Spark. How wrong I was! Just goes to illustrate that the right writer can cover any subject. I am keen to read more of her lesser known books because of it too!

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  3. I did enjoy this one when I read it last year, but rather less than some of her others. I loved how surreal and daft it was, but… oh, I don’t know. Maybe it all felt a bit claustrophobic?

    • I think that was the point though. The claustrophobia (I was just going to make a very bad joke and say the cloister-phobia, oh dear) made people act all the odder and magnified it. I think I might have to try and watch the film.

      • Cloister-phobia! Ha! Brilliant😉
        Yes, you’re probably right that that *was* the point… I think I just prefer Spark when she’s being darker (like The Driver’s Seat) or sillier (like Loitering With Intent), and not so much when she’s being mentally unsettling – I felt the same about The Takeover.

      • I’m glad you liked my witty joke there.

        I thought this was dark whilst also being very funny. I have heard little of The Takeover if its one of her darker more unsettling ones then I will have to get my mitts on it.

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