“Never have to do with a woman … they draw the virtue out of you.”
Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors, a tale of blackmail, fraud and skullduggery, focuses on a handful of thirty-something single men who live in London. London is, according to the novel, “the great city of bachelors,” and as expected, most of the novel’s characters are unmarried men who are connected, in various ways, to a criminal case of fraud against spiritualist/medium, Patrick Seton. Patrick Seton, a member of a spiritualist group, The Wider Infinity and its elitist, secret center, The Inner Spiral is charged for fraud and forgery. Seton is accused of forging a letter, purportedly from his former landlady, Mrs. Freda Flower, “a dumpy, much-powdered woman of middle-age.” The letter included a cheque for 2,000 pounds–the entirety of Mrs. Flower’s life savings. Barrister Martin Bowles is prosecuting Seton, and Martin’s acquaintance, Ronald Bridges, an epileptic who works as an assistant curator at a museum of Graphology, who is also a handwriting expert, is to be called as a witness in the upcoming trial. Other bachelors include art-critic, Walter Prett, Irish journalist Matthew Finch, grammar school master/spiritualist Ewart Thornton, and clairvoyant /male prostitute Mike Garland who is in the blackmail/pornography biz with Father Socket.
While the story centres of a group of bachelors, a few females enter the plot. There’s Ronald’s former ‘perfect’ girlfriend, Hildegarde, one of those awful know-it-alls. Diabetic Alice Dawes is Patrick’s pregnant, naive, girlfriend. She believes Patrick when he tells her that they will marry as soon as his divorce comes through, and she refuses, much to Patrick’s annoyance, to abort their baby. Elsie Forrest, Alice’s friend dislikes and distrusts Patrick, and she becomes embroiled in the forgery case. Elsie has a tendency to blackmail men into sex, and this habit has mixed success in the book. There’s also Marlene Cooper who heads the spiritualist group, and who runs it almost exclusively for her own purposes: after all she has both a husband and boyfriend on ‘the other side,’ and occasionally wonders “how Harry and Carl were making out together in the land of perpetual summer.”
The novel takes us into the world of Spiritualism where Patrick Seton is a much admired medium. While the date draws nearer to Patrick’s trial, immense pressure is exerted upon the impressionable Mrs. Flowers, and Patrick consoles himself with fantasies (as well as a concrete plan) to murder Alice. He doesn’t want to be tied down with a wife and baby, so Alice must go.
And I will release her from this gross body. He looks with justification at the syringe by her bedside, and is perfectly convinced about how things will go in Austria (all being well), since a man has to protect his bread and butter, and Alice has agreed to die, though not in so many words.
The Bachelors is the funniest Muriel Spark novel I’ve read to-date. Authentic vs fake is a theme: for example, while Patrick takes medication he doesn’t need to enhance the showman side of his contact with the other world, Ronald takes the very same medication to control his epilepsy. Most of the characters, spiritualist or otherwise are frauds in one way or another, and most are not what they seem. While deceit controls the action, sex is the currency, so the subject of sex weaves its way through the lives of the characters: the lack of sex, post-coital guilt, onion as a weapon of abstinence, homosexuality, and pornography all play a role here. Great fun. It’s rare for a book to cause me to laugh out loud.