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In the Company of a Master (ROUND 1) – Scottish Review of Books

A Far Cry From Kensington

Muriel Spark
Paperback £8.99 Little, Brown Book Group ISBN: 9781844085514
by Alasdair McKillop

In the Company of a Master (ROUND 1)

April 8, 2017 | by Alasdair McKillop

There are no more than a handful of major events in A Far Cry From Kensington but it would take a long time to convey a true sense of the novel.

The story is told from the perspective of Mrs Hawkins – christened Agnes and only Nancy towards the end – as she recalls the mid-1950s when she lived in furnished rooms at 14 Church End Villas, South Kensington. A war widow of ten-years standing by the time she is 28, everyone calls her Mrs Hawkins but patriotic deference has little to do with it: she likes being Mrs Hawkins because it recognises a personality she takes great satisfaction in having created. A popular confidant because of her reputation for precocious wisdom and because her weight makes her unthreatening, she enjoys the role because she is incapable of not giving advice: when she remarks that she accepted a sherry from her employer “only if he kept me talking after five-thirty” she expects us to conclude he was delivering a monologue of financial woe but we know better and Spark tips us off with her careful phrasing. Mrs Hawkins has a love of drama that’s not above a little manufacturing, and which can be both intense and shallow. When her housemate Wanda Podolak receives a blackmail letter, she buys a book about handwriting but quickly tires of the expectation she should emotionally engage with the event.

Although they have little to do with Mrs Hawkins’s identity as she understands it, Spark has some fun with the class and sexual connotations of her preferred form of address. At a swanky dinner party with the titled class, ‘Mrs Hawkins’ becomes a marker of membership of the ‘Ordinary Class’ and a hilarious failure to recognise gender segregation as after-dinner convention confirms her status. Similarly, given the premature desexualisation implied by the title, the wild claims made about Mrs Hawkins by the wife of one colleague take on a comical edge. In a private moment with the medical student William Todd, Mrs Hawkins confesses to feeling spooky and he reasons she is suffering from the absence of a sex-life. Shortly afterwards, the medical student performs an exorcism. In some ways, the novel is really about Mrs Hawkins being exorcised from Nancy Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins loses two jobs in publishing because of Hector Bartlett, a writer destined to be always aspiring. He worms and pouts and ingratiates himself about town, and at one point feeds mustard to a dog in an act of simple cruelty. His attentions and contrived meetings finally cause Mrs Hawkins to brand him as a ‘pisseur de copie’. It’s a lovely phrase that has the sting of sounding learned while being close enough to English to connect with the gut. She is sacked not because the label is inaccurate but because Bartlett is attached to the sought-after novelist Emma Loy. She finds employment at a more upmarket publisher but sacrifices her position by refusing to work on some dreary slab of words by Bartlett. In time, Mrs Hawkins learns that the pisseur has made other incursions into her world.

Spark’s control over the novel is silken and discrete, authoritative and therefore entirely natural. At all times the reader is happy to conclude, yes, that’s how Mrs Hawkins would’ve acted in that situation or, yes, that’s how she would remember what that person said. When Mrs Hawkins professes admiration for the way one character portrays her world in “inconsequential phrases, without any rancour, explanations or many details” she might easily have been describing Spark’s approach to setting the tone of the novel. It is a comedy of manners driven by poise and understatement in the face of events, no matter how absurd or grave. The story floats along in easy accordance with memory – sometimes we know how much time is passing between events, sometimes not – and goes by like a dream.

The novel is such a harmony of its different elements that we don’t mind that Spark occasionally peels back the world of Mrs Hawkins. Emma Loy, who knows about the strange goings on at 14 Church End Villas involving Wanda the Polish dressmaker, remarks: “As a novelist, I find the story enthralling, of course, Mrs Hawkins. There are no end of subtleties and interpretation involved”. Suddenly, Loy becomes a proxy for Spark. But by having confidence in the reader to notice, Spark removes all immodesty from the act and a little smile is shared. Mrs Hawkins takes delight in being spoken to as if she were a fellow novelist because Loy “usually reserved that side of herself for other writers on her own level” and the reader likewise enjoys being taken into Spark’s confidence because we know we’re in the company of a master.

Alasdair McKillop writes for a handful of publications and websites on current affairs, sport, and popular culture, and has also written a number of book reviews. His work has been published in the Scottish Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. He is the co-founder of The Rangers Standard and co-editor of two books about Rangers.


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