The air of the city in The Bachelors is reminiscent of the atmosphere encountered in Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, particularly those set in London and written before and during the war. In The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear and other light novels, Greene seems determined to draw attention to the mundane particulars of existence, and Muriel Spark, having absorbed much else from her mentor, is happy to follow.
In Ronald Bridges’s bachelor flat, ‘a heap of . . . unwashed laundry lay on the carpet’, and when Ronald’s friend Matthew Finch arrives, ‘he stumbled over the laundry, put on his damp shoes, then went off to the lavatory’. Not everybody did, in novels of the time. It’s perhaps no wonder. ‘We had outdoor sanitation,’ another character declares, in an effort to stress his working-class credentials, ‘which we shared with two other families.’ Life had its dreary side in the 1950s. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who pronounced Sunday ‘not a day, but rather a gap between two other days’, and Spark catches the mood. ‘Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon and the long jaded evening – the very clocks seeming to yawn – occurred all over London.’ Especially, she adds, ‘in Kensington, Chelsea, and Hampstead’, the principal locations of the bed-sitting rooms where ‘the bachelors stirred between their sheets’ as daylight peeped through the curtains.
Spark began writing The Bachelors in Wales in the summer of 1959, and it was published by Macmillan in October 1960, one of two novels by her to come out that year (The Ballad of Peckham Rye was published in March). It appeared at a time when, in the words of her biographer Martin Stannard, she ‘sensed the possibility of a radical change in the direction of her career – towards the theatre’. Her next book, Voices at Play, was to be a collection of short stories and ‘ear-pieces’, which is to say brief radio plays originally broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme. In a prefatory note, Spark acknowledged that her producer, Rayner Heppenstall, ‘sometimes . . . clamoured for more visual bits to be written in’, whereas her inclination was to entrust exposition and understanding to the voice alone. She was already at work on a full-length stage play, Doctors of Philosophy, which would be produced in London in 1962.
The theatrical infatuation cooled down, but The Bachelors bears its mark. It is a novel written largely in dialogue, inhabited by people fated to reveal themselves by what they say. The ‘visual bits’ – city streets and the journeys through them, drinking clubs and shivery bedsits – are sketched in to provide background to a tale that proceeds mostly by talk. Few other novelists would evoke seven separate London districts in the opening three sentences, without pausing to delineate their varied outlines. Spark was not a writer of ‘scenery’. She happily admitted she didn’t much care for it. Her narrative threads seldom lead her out of the city towards the banks and braes, unless by way of philosophy or a verse from a Border ballad, as in The Only Problem and Symposium. In an amusing story in Voices at Play, ‘A Member of the Family’, written at the same time as The Bachelors and originally published in Vogue, she gives her character Trudy a similar view. Arriving at an Austrian Alpine resort for the first time in her life (as her creator had, shortly before writing the story), Trudy suggests to the hostess, who is taken aback, that it is ‘all rather like Wales’. Indoors, Spark was apt to disregard the furnishings in order to attend to the silent manoeuvrings of her characters’ spiritual well-being (or ill-being). As Alan Taylor states in his memoir, Appointment in Arezzo, the kitchen was not her habitat. It was voices – inward voices as well as outward ones – which she paid attention to. ‘Ever since I can remember,’ she said in a radio talk in the year The Bachelors was published, ‘I’ve had the habit of going over conversations which I have overheard, or in which I have taken part, recasting them in neater form.’ The habit turned out to be just the thing for the writing of a novel.
The London of The Bachelors, set in the autumn of 1959, is depicted with minimal brush strokes. The odour of ration books and clothing coupons still clings to the surroundings. Not even Trudy would say that it is ‘all rather like’ this place or that one. At the time she wrote the novel, aged forty-one, Spark was familiar with just one other city in the world: Edinburgh. In Rhodesia, where she passed the unhappy interlude of her only marriage, she and her husband had lived in provincial small towns. Spark’s visit to the Welsh-seeming Alps, where she went at the invitation of the novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, was her maiden voyage in what people still called ‘Continental Europe’. I mention this because the sense of confinement is discernible behind the scenes of The Bachelors, in which little of the conversation is suggestive of the wider world. Few members of the cast, one might guess, have ever been to Europe, a common limitation among lower-middle-class people at the time. As much as they are marooned in unproductive bachelordom, of both male and female kinds, they are stranded in a metropolis with small-town features.
Is there no escape? Actually, yes, there is. Not to the enchanted land of ‘abroad’, but to another realm altogether. Spark once said that it was her ambition to make ‘the supernatural’ world seem part of the natural one. The supernatural was already a well-represented feature of her fiction. In The Bachelors, in which ‘fraudulent conversion’ – theft, in a word – is proposed as the MacGuffin of the story, the otherworldly part is given to spiritualism. Adherents of the ‘Wider Infinity’ sit round a table while a dubious medium lapses into a trance, conveying messages from a better place in which departed husbands continue to wear Harris Tweed suits and play golf. Memorable holidays are recalled from the hereafter, and even the enjoyable meals consumed on them. It can only be Harry getting in touch from the other side, Marlene Cooper insists. Who else could know about that lovely omelette they were served at the inn?
Ethnic variety in the London through which readers pass here is provided by Matthew Finch, correspondent of the Irish Echo, and the Scottish policeman, Detective-Inspector Fergusson. Resentment of foreigners is unlikely to go further than Ronald Bridges saying tactlessly to Matthew, ‘I can’t bear the Irish’. In addition to Mr Fergusson’s presence, the novel contains a minor Scottish ingredient – always a pleasure to encounter in a work by Spark. Marlene is on the sleeper heading out of King’s Cross, hoping to evade the responsibility of testifying in court against the feckless but strangely charismatic medium, Patrick Seton.
The train to Dundee was a rocky one. She stood up in her bunk and tried to adjust the air-conditioning equipment of the sleeping compartment, but failed. She pressed the bell. No one came. She wondered if Patrick might have some spiritual power over her, even in Scotland.
Surely granite-steady D.I. Fergusson will be up to the task of dealing with Patrick Seton (which half-rhymes with ‘Satan’)? The appearance of the policeman reminds me of one of my favourite Sparkisms, which need not be explained to Mr Fergusson’s compatriots: ‘It’s better to be Scottish. Morally better, somehow.’ It is often noted that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Spark’s only Scottish novel, but small northern dramas of the spirit realm turn up in others, notably The Ballad of Peckham Rye and Symposium. They usually involve a tussle between good and evil: not a soul wrestling with a haunting torment in the deep of the night, but a rehearsal of the contest fought by God and the Devil – good and bad, if you prefer – in the thick of everyday life, where it is most likely to be encountered.
Such a tussle is at the heart of The Bachelors. There is only one thoroughly bad person in the novel. For the others, it is a matter of choice. You can choose to be good, up to a point. In the absence of good, evil spies an opportunity. This is the central plank of the novel’s theology, which Spark shared with Greene and others. Towards the end of The Devil Finds Work (for idle hands, needless to say), a book-length essay on film by James Baldwin published in 1976, the author leaves a cinema in the company of a friend, after a screening of The Exorcist. ‘So we must be careful,’ Baldwin’s friend remarks, ‘lest we lose our faith – and become possessed.’ I can’t say if Spark read Baldwin, or whether Baldwin knew The Bachelors or any other Spark novel, but the two are connected by a fundamentally religious, not to say Christian, outlook on life. Some members of the London circle at the seances held in The Bachelors are terrified of losing faith in what Patrick Seton relays from the other side, and of facing the unknown without a familiar figure for company, golf clubs, Harris Tweed suit and all. That’s where the conman Seton (Satan was a conman too, remember) sees his chance.
It is easy to forget that Spark was approaching forty when her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957, and that she was already an experienced woman of letters. She had edited the Poetry Review, published poems of her own – The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952) – and co-written, with Derek Stanford, biographical studies of Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley, among others. By the time she came to write The Bachelors, in that miraculous feat of creativity that produced eight books between 1957 and 1961, the year of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she was fully in command of a style that, notwithstanding its debts to Greene and Evelyn Waugh, was hers alone. Many writers envy the fluency of their own letters. Spark absorbed this lesson at the beginning of her fiction-writing life, and set it out as primary advice: Write as if settling down to compose a letter to a friend, using as few words as possible.
It is tempting to say that the London of The Bachelors no longer exists; but it does. Not so much in Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead, as in the suburbs to the distant south and east of the city, some of the names of which are foreign even to other Londoners. In dimmed rooms, solemnity is imposed and seances are held; widows and widowers receive consoling messages; gurus, mediums and priests like Father Socket in this novel are believed in – often they believe in themselves. ‘Fraudulent conversion’ takes place in a variety of forms. The voices which Spark overheard and recast in neater form are all around, funny and grave at the same time.