Tag Archives: Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

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.

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review

Books at Bedtime and Audiobooks Again…

Just over a year ago I did a post that caused some quite interesting responses and debate. It was a post on audiobooks and one where I said that, for me personally, audiobooks felt like cheating. The debate ranged from people feeling the same (though people mainly emailed me this, it seemed they didn’t want to put it in print) as me, to people thinking I couldn’t be more wrong and even people taking umbrage and saying I was being discriminatory towards people with certain disabilities. The last bit I tried not to dwell on as anyone who knows me would know this wasn’t the case. I also said I would try more audiobooks out… and then didn’t really (well actually I tried some Agatha Raisins but more on those shortly).  I’d not thought about this much until BBC Radio 4 had ‘My Dear I Wanted To Tell You’ by Louisa Young as their Book at Bedtime.

For anyone who doesn’t know of it ‘Book at Bedtime’ is a show on Radio 4 each weekday evening which chooses a different book each fortnight to adapt into. ‘My Dear I Wanted To Tell You’ is a book that I have ummmed and ahhhed about reading because it has had some great praise but not ever quite seemed my thing (it’s a war book and sounds a bit like lots fo other war books if I am honest), however as Olivia Coleman was reading it – I love her acting, her comedy, her voice – I thought I would try it. I enjoyed it, I felt taken back to my childhood and the nights I would put a tape in my tape recorder to fall asleep to. Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘The Norman Conquests’ was a favourite. Yet I didn’t want to run out and buy the book, I think this is meant to be a small part of ‘Books at Bedtime’ the main being that it is, well, a book at your bedtime-ish!

This came up again when Will Wiles tweeted me the other night, when I was debating a book to actually read at bedtime last week, that his book ‘Care of Wooden Floors’ was going to be the latest Book at Bedtime choice and I should tune in. I thought about it and decided not to because I actually wanted to read the book. Hear me out before you all say ‘it is like reading a book’ because the main reason was that it would be an adaptation and if I listened and really liked it (which I have been told I would) I wouldn’t have quite had the full story, but I would know the end and might not therefore be inclined to read the entire book knowing the main spoiler. Interestingly when I listened to Agatha Raisin last year, I liked it a lot but it wasn’t the full unabridged stories and I felt a little cheated. But what about trying audiobooks again?

Fate kicked in at the weekend twofold. Firstly I realised I had ‘Nocturnes’ by Kazuo Ishiguro as an audiobook which I had no idea of (sorry Gemma at Faber as I think you gave this me, oops) and I also had the book so I could cull a book, awful reason but I was desperate, plus it was one about music and apparently this has the music in it. Then I spotted ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris on audiobook in the library and so I thought ‘I loved that book, I know it inside out, what could be a better audiobook to compare the listening-reading to reading-reading’ so I borrowed it and one more for good luck.

 

I now have about 65 hours of listening delight ahead. I think this mix of a book I know well, some short stories plus a non-fiction tome on a subject I love with Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder; How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime’ which sounds right up my street to try out. So I now have some hopefully wonderful ‘listening-reading’ experiences ahead. Gav has been trying to convert me on The Readers so deserves a mention as I probably wouldn’t have been quite so likely to go so whole heartedly into this experiment without his pestering. I will report back and let you know my findings.

In the meantime what are your thoughts on audiobooks and Book at Bedtime/adaptations on the radio? Are they like reading-reading a real book? What have been your favourite audiobooks and what made them so good?

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Thoughts