It had been some time since I picked up a novel by Muriel Spark, so when Caroline mentioned Muriel Spark Week, I decided to join in. For her quirky world view and dark sense of humour, this author is a great favourite of mine, and so I returned to A Far Cry From Kensington–a marvellous novel set in 1950s London.
While the story is set in the 1950s, the events that take place are recalled decades later by a woman who now lives in Italy–”a far cry from Kensington.” During her long nights of insomnia, the woman, once known as Mrs Hawkins reminisces about her post WWII life as a vastly overweight “comfortable in her fatness,” 28-year-old war widow. Mrs Hawkins recalls how she lived in a Kensington boarding house with an assortment of fellow lodgers and worked in a small publishing house, Ullswater Press.
Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy as we eventually discover) has the ability to reassure people. Perhaps this is due to her matronly figure, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that she listens and freely dispenses advice (to become thin “you eat and drink the same as always, only half,” and to improve concentration, you need to adopt a cat). She has a responsible position at work, appears to be much older than she actually is, and at the boarding house, she’s perceived as reliable.
However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.
Mrs Hawkins may be a source of comfort to those around her, but she’s also a woman of firm principles, and those principles are tested, mainly through her professional life. There’s something fishy afoot at Ullswater Press, and it’s here that Mrs Hawkins first falls foul of the very shady character, Hector Bartlett. They become enemies, and this is a relationship that plagues Mrs Hawkins for some time and follows her on to future employment.
A Far Cry from Kensington is full of Muriel Spark’s dark, off-kilter humour, and her novels have the tendency to skewer hypocrisy while exploring beneath the surface of everyday, seemingly respectable life. Here’s Mrs Hawkins and her landlady, Milly, at night, standing on the landing watching the “Cypriot husband and his English wife” next door fighting.
Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. we sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. so far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.
Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. but finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.
“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.
The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”
The British publishing industry which may first appear to be a bastion of respectability in the novel, becomes the target of Sparks’s merciless humour. Mrs Hawkins works for the small, ever-shrinking publisher, Ullswater Press, a publisher of “serious books.” One of the partners is largely absent, and that leaves the younger partner, Martin York in charge with various creative financing plans to revitalize the business which include his knowledge about how to ”throw off” the Income Tax inspectors. Mrs Hawkins moves on to the publishers Mackintosh and Tooley, and while this firm appears to be eminently more respectable than Ullswater Press, again there are darker forces lurking beneath the surface. With one of the office mottos, “the best author is a dead author,” the culture at Mackintosh and Tooley appears to be pro-reader and pro-employee, but as always Muriel Spark shows us that appearances can be deceiving.
As fate would have it, all of the strands of Mrs Hawkins’s life connect with a “glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path,” and eventually, she finds herself mixed up in blackmail, anonymous letters and suicide as she determinedly confronts evil for the first time in her life. Ever stalwart, Mrs Hawkins sticks to her principles simply because she can do no less:
I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.
A Far Cry From Kensington is one of my favourite Spark novels–a must-read for fans, and a great place to start if you’ve never read this brilliantly entertaining and vastly amusing author.