I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark

Many (many) years ago I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I’d guess that it’s the only Muriel Spark most people have heard of (because of the film). It was excellent, but somehow I wasn’t prompted to read more. It felt like I’d read the essential work. I hadn’t of course. I’d just read the famous one.

Recently I decided to give Spark another try and I chose A Far Cry from Kensington for the simple reason that I grew up in Kensington and it seemed that might lend it some personal interest. It’s a pretty random reason to read a book, but it worked out because Far Cry is quite simply superb.

Superb incidentally is very much a post-reading judgement. Early on in Far Cry I thought it rambling and baggy. It isn’t and by the time I’d finished I realised it was one of the more tautly constructed novels I’ve read this year. Stick with it.

farcry

The book opens with the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, lying awake with her mind turning back to her time living in Kensington in 1954. Years have passed. She no longer lives in London and it wouldn’t matter if she did because the Kensington of her today is a far cry from the Kensington of back then. This is a reverie of a lost world.

In 1954 Mrs Hawkins is young and enormously fat (it’s relevant). She works in an upmarket publishing house in the West End, mostly fobbing off authors and print companies who’re all chasing payment. The business is going bust and she soon reveals that her boss Martin York eventually went to jail for fraud.

Martin York isn’t a bad man. He overextended and overjuggled and ultimately comes unstuck committing a stupid forgery in the hope of buying a little more time. At his trial the judge reproves him with the words “Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest” before sentencing him to seven years. A harsh penalty for a foolish misjudgment, but the penalty for honesty is one of the themes of this book.

In the evenings Mrs Hawkins goes home to a rooming house in downmarket South Kensington. Her landlady, Milly, is a charming but still respectable Irishwoman who runs a reputable house. The other tenants include a quietly middle-aged married couple, a medical student, a district nurse, a young woman with family income, and a polish dressmaker named Wanda Podolak. Like the publishing house few of them have much money. The difference between the people at work and at home is one of attitude, or perhaps of honesty:

At Milly’s in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly’s, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked ‘bus-fares’, ‘gas’, ‘sundries’. Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view.

Both at Milly’s and at work Mrs Hawkins is much relied upon:

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

There are two more key elements to throw into the mix. The first is at work:

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story. I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase ‘pisseur de copie’, but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett.

Hector Bartlett: he’s hanger-on to the famous and highly regarded author Emma Loy; a writer of terrible prose who uses his connections to get published; a man so petty that when in one scene a dog in a pub snaffles part of his sausage roll he dunks the remaining bit in mustard before feeding it to the unsuspecting animal.

Bartlett is entirely without merit, but nobody in the publishing world dares say so because Emma Loy is too important to upset. Nobody that is save Mrs Hawkins who calls him a “pisseur de copie” to his face and then repeats the phrase to anyone who asks what she did to offend him. If challenged why she said such a thing she merely replies that it’s true and says it again.

The second key element  is at home. Wanda Podolak receives a poison pen letter:

Mrs Podolak, We, the Organisers, have our eyes on you. You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities. Take care. An Organiser.

The only people who know about Wanda’s business are her friends, housemates and clients. The letter must come from someone she knows and trusts and that fact poisons her life. Someone is smiling to her face but intent on harming her.

Emma Loy has Mrs Hawkins fired for the pisseur de copie remark and over the course of the novel continues to make Mrs Hawkins’ life difficult. Loy has power in Hawkins’ world but Hawkins isn’t willing to cover her truth with a convenient lie. Mrs Hawkins suffers for her honesty, but at least knows where she stands and who stands against her. Wanda by contrast is completely lost.

Perhaps at this point you can see why I initially found the book a bit baggy. There was so much going on: the collapsing publishing house; the feud with Hector Bartlett and Emma Loy; Mrs Hawkins’ subsequent publishing jobs; the poison pen problem. Amidst all this Mrs Hawkins constantly makes retrospective asides to the reader commenting on the situations she encountered or the people she met while all this was going on. All I can say that Muriel Spark knows what she’s doing and is in complete control of her material. You can trust her.

What particularly stands out for me in Far Cry is the lightness of Spark’s touch. This is a very funny book. Mrs Hawkins is constantly offering advice, both to those around her and to the reader. She loses weight by just eating half of whatever’s put in front of her and offers this as a tip to the overweight reader “without fee, included in the price of the book”. Every few pages she passes someone “some very good advice”, and much of it is pretty good but there’s certainly a lot of it. My favourite, easily, was this:

It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.

Quite. What could one add?

The comedy leavens the tragedy. There’s a lot of serious stuff here: embittered hack writers; an imprisonment for fraud; the poison pen letters; and later some of the characters attach far too much credence to the quack-claims for an obviously fake box-apparatus that supposedly can be used to heal the sick (to me fairly obviously based on Orgone boxes save that here you don’t climb inside).The material could choke, but as with Bainbridge the treatment is so light that even at its darkest the book is a delight to read.

I’ll end with one final quote, taken from one of Mrs Hawkins later jobs where she becomes a literary editor. Her approach is one I would recommend to anyone else considering that profession:

‘When you are editing copy, Mrs Hawkins, what sort of things do you look for?’ said Howard Send. ‘Exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis,’ I said. ‘And I take them out.’

My advice to any aspiring writer who may happen to read this is to do as Mrs Hawkins does. She is, in this and many other things, quite right.

Other reviews

I actually don’t have any noted, but I suspect I may have missed some. If I have please let me know in the comments.

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18 Comments

Filed under Spark, Muriel

18 responses to “I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

  1. I loved this one, and I’ve read a few times. Personally, I found the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to be one of my least favourite Spark novels. Weird how it ended up so famous, but you see that from time to time. A pity if that’s the first and only Spark a reader tries.

  2. I’ve had that same feeling with Spark – initially thinking there seems to be a lot going on but by the end seeing it all slot into place. Coincidentally reading The Ballad of Peckham Rye at the moment – set at the time this novel harks back to.

  3. Guy, I think it’s famous because of the film, simple as that really. I did like Prime though. This is excellent however, and does encourage me to read more Spark which much as I liked it somehow Prime didn’t.

    Grant, I’ll have more confidence next time having seen Spark pull it off so confidently this time. Early on I was rather wondering if I’d just picked a dud.

  4. Oh I love Muriel Spark. Her short novella The Driver’s Seat is one of the creepiest, most disturbing books I’ve ever read. I haven’t read A Far Cry From Kensington but your review has reminded me I have a couple of Sparks on the shelf that I haven’t read yet, and this might be one of them. She’s very astute and generally quite acerbic and blackly comic. Great reading for dark, cold nights. Great review.

  5. I’ve read Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat ( which I loved) but not this one. I often meant to read more of her work.

  6. I’ve read several Sparks (though not this one yet) and I tend to agree with those who think Brodie is not her finest work. In fact, it’s a shame it overshadows her other books so much, because she’s a fabulous writer, and surprisingly dark.

  7. Really like the distinction between essential and famous. I’ve only read the famous and liked it well enough (those flash forwards worked for me). But it didn’t stay with me, so haven’t been motivated to try more. Now I will.

  8. bookbii, I was planning either The Driver’s Seat or Memento Mori as my next, probably Driver’s. Glad to hear you think so highly of it. Thanks for the comment.

    Cathy, more praise for Driver’s Seat. I think you’d enjoy this.

    Kaggsy, I do think Brodie is good, but Spark is far from the first writer to be famous for the “wrong” book as it were. Do you have any particular favourites?

    Banff, the flash forwards worked for me too. Curious how neither of us were motivated to read on though. Perhaps that does suggest some kind of flaw.

  9. If you enjoyed this one by Spark, you’ll enjoy THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS and LOITERING WITH INTENT, which also do that same postwar through the 1950s London thing. Years ago, I read one of these and then the other two in quick succession, enjoying them a lot.

    MEMENTO MORI is good, too, but in a grimmer, slightly different kind of way. Spark wrote in different modes — or better to say took different angles of attack — and she was capable of being dark and also very weird for her era but in a way that, as you say, indicates she’s in complete control of her material.

    Regarding THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE, one of the modes Spark could work was compact to the point of being slight. Arguably, BRODIE and PECKHAM RYE are good novels, but God do you wish more was going on. Conversely, another ‘compact’ Spark novel — or novella — is THE DRIVER’S SEAT. But that one, whether or not it’s slight, you don’t forget once you’ve read it. I’d love to know what Spark was thinking there

  10. I’ve been meaning to read something by Muriel Spark for a very long time and never, for some unknown reason, managed to do so. I have The Driver’s Seat. I should move it up the list.

  11. Let me put in a word for the deliciously, wickedly comic and somehow profound “Memento Mori”. The characters are brilliant. It’s a sort of detective story. I’ve reread it many times.

  12. Eric P

    I actually did not care for this book very much. I can’t recall if it was in the forward or afterward of my edition, but Spark had to make it clear that she had never had the weight problems of Mrs. Hawkins. In fact, I consider Spark to be a snob of the first order, and that impression was deepened after I read her essays in The Informed Air. Mrs. Hawkins is more of a secretive snob, with the exception of Hector Bartlett, and I didn’t enjoy my time in her company.

    Embedded in this positive review (https://theawl.com/better-boundaries-with-muriel-spark-a71c5f0ca84c#.4tccs25sa) are some thoughts about a mixed review by Susannah Clapp. I am much more attuned to Clapp’s position. I just can’t admire a character who says an author is a hack writer to his face. That’s not discerning judgment, that’s just outrageous bad manners, particularly as Bartlett had really done nothing to her at this point (other than be annoying and not agree with her slotting him in as an encyclopedia salesman). Even when he turns out to be the snake that she somehow knew he was from the very beginning, he really damages the novelist Emma Loy (who is sort of another stand-in for Spark) and not Mrs. Hawkins.

    I’ll probably try two or three more Spark novels before completely giving up on her, but it seems evident to me that she and I are not on the same wavelength.

  13. I also wonder if Mrs. Hawkins is a reference to Jane Austen’s “Miss Hawkins of Bath” who becomes the dreaded supercilious self-important Mrs. Elton in EMMA. Of course August Hawkins Elton would never permit herself to be overweight, unless it was some delicately delicious embonpoint.

  14. Really pleased to see this review as I’ve been meaning to give Spark another try for quite a while. A little like you, I read Brodie several years ago and really liked it, but it was the connection with the TV series (featuring Geraldine McEwan) that sparked my interest (if you’ll excuse the pun). Then I read The Comforters (her first novel) and didn’t get anywhere with it at all. Your review has encouraged me to pick her up again. I have a little set of her novels which includes Kensington, but I’m tempted to give Memento Mori a try first. She sounds like a spikier, more acerbic version of Barbara Pym.

  15. Mark, thank you very much for that. I think Driver’s Seat will be next based on the various comments. Slender and Loitering have been bumped up the pile though as possibly not the most complex but probably enjoyable.

    Literary, you should! I could read your thoughts before reading it myself then…

    Gubbinal, it’s definitely high up my list. The pseudo-crime element makes it particularly interesting. The crime genre more than any other seems suited to borrowing elements from. To my everlasting (well, until I read it) shame I haven’t actually read Emma but I wouldn’t be surprised if you were right.

    Eric, I’m fairly snobbery resistant for some reason. Anthony Powell’s riddled with it but it never hugely bothered me. Mrs Hawkins is definitely something of a snob, or at least highly judgemental, but then I found her entertaining rather than wishing to be a friend of her. Her habit of constantly offering advice clearly flags that she considers herself wiser than those around her, in a position to offer advice, so I think Spark is aware of that flaw in her character’s character.

    Thanks for the link to that piece, which is fascinating. As I say, I’m not persuaded we’re supposed to think of Mrs Hawkins as necessarily likable. The book’s fairly clear that people place faith in her because of her appearance, and she places faith in herself because of her absolute certainty as to the rightness of her judgements. It never occurred to me she was a stand in for Spark.

    In a sense Spark stacks the deck, because Hawkins condemns Bartlett on instinct and yet is proved wholly correct about him. That though is the novel. It is what it is. I would agree that there’s a coldness in Spark though which is perhaps a kind of flaw.

    Jacqui, did you review the Comforters? What put you off it? She’s much spikier than Pym.

  16. No, I didn’t. It wasn’t that long ago either, only a year or two ago so there was quite a gap between the two books. I just didn’t gel with it at all. In fact I can’t remember much about it, so maybe I picked it up at a bad time. It seemed heavy on the references to Catholicism and Satanism, the former being one of my least favourite themes in literature. (I had a few problems with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair on that front too, even though it’s a much better book than the Spark imo.)

  17. I’ve had a mixed run with Spark over the years, but it’s on an upward curve.
    I read Peckham Rye many years ago and was somewhat mystified by it. Then The Driver’s Seat which is so superbly odd and disturbing. A couple of months ago I got to the much lighter but still very sharp Memento Mori.

    Loitering will be next, although it was a toss up between it and this one when I chose a new title. Quite randomly my mother in law did a Masters on Spark many years ago as part of her teaching career. She seems a perfect writer to study: her output is highly variable, and her books seem slight but invariably have real depth and resonance.

  18. Hm, well, unless I become a Spark completist that one may stay off the list then Jacqui, thanks.

    Ian, clearly you’re not alone in having a mixed response. Driver’s Seat and Memento Mori seem almost universally praised, her high water marks.

    Variable output seems fair.

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