[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how it would turn out until I reached the end.]
12 August 2017
Chapters 1-7 (of 16)
Nearly half-way through, I find I’m enjoying it. All I can remember from the time I first read it, decades ago, is its most surreal element: Dame Lettie Colston, one of the novel’s cast of elderly main characters, keeps receiving telephone calls. A man always speaks the same ‘familiar sentence,’ before ringing off, and soon we learn what it is: ‘Remember you must die.’ The police have been informed, and Lettie’s brother Godfrey – who had previously doubted the truth of her story – takes a message for her on his own phone from the same man. How could he have known she was there? She had gone to stay with Godfrey at his insistence, and now he knows that her mind isn’t playing tricks on her.
What I’m really enjoying is the satire. In earlier life, the characters might have appeared in any of the English novels of successful, wealthy middle-class life of the mid-20th Century. There’s the tireless member of so many important committees she’s rewarded with an OBE (Lettie). There’s the successful novelist (Charmian) and her philandering husband, the head of the family brewing business (Godfrey). There’s the man endlessly working on the painstaking research project that he’s unlikely ever to finish (Alec Warner)…. There’s also the companion – or is she merely the maid? – who has more common sense than the rest of them put together (Jean Taylor). And, inextricably threaded through their lives, are vestiges of the rivalries and intrigues that fill the kind of novel that Spark is sending up. Old age might have brought infirmity, but it hasn’t brought wisdom. Most of these people have the same flaws they always had, only more so.
Godfrey, who always seems to have been looking for ways to overcome the insecurities of the man with the more talented and famous wife, now reads the obituaries every day and loves to hear of the worsening condition of his living acquaintances. Charmian has had a stroke and has lost so many of her faculties she’s away with the fairies. Lettie, used to having influence in this little world, is infuriated that anyone would be so impertinent as to make unsolicited telephone calls to a woman of her standing. Alec, once a well-known sociologist, now obsessively makes cross-referenced notes on his own condition, and scrutinises every move of anybody else who is ‘one of us’ – that is, aged 70 or more. It’s become his key to all mythologies. The exception is Miss Taylor, incarcerated in a nursing home that seems no better than a female geriatric ward. She endures her worsening arthritis with stoicism, and seems to have none of the illusions either of the other main characters, or of the paranoid old women in the other beds on the ward. She had been maid to Charmain – who calls any female staff Taylor now – but it’s Lettie who visits, perhaps trying to gain some clarity. Alec haunts the ward too, looking for material. He seems to have had affairs with both Taylor and Lettie in the past…
…and all around them are the tattered remnants of their old lives. Godfey was the serial adulterer, but now it’s Alec who rents ‘rooms’ in a location he is pathetically careful to keep secret, in which all he hides is his research. Meanwhile Godfrey visits a younger woman, Olive, for what appears to be a faded memory of sexual gratification. He pays her to raise her the hem of her dress high enough for him to see the tops of her stockings. We see him watching this and, for the first time ever, feeling nothing. What he realises, which Olive knows nothing about, is that he is now far more aroused by the scheming new housekeeper that Charmian has taken on. She, we know, is happy to accept far less money for the same small service. It’s a gruesome parody of serial infidelity.
And there have been some plot developments. First, we find out why Guy Leet, an almost Dickensian caricature of crippled old age, attends the funeral of another of these people’s circle. She is Lisa Brooke and, following an affair with Godfrey, she never married. Except, it transpires, she did. She made Guy marry her in secret many years ago – I can’t remember why, but it might have been to do with Charmian having wanted him then – and now he has returned to claim his inheritance. Fine. Except Lisa’s family, led by the ferocious Tempest Sidebottome, don’t like this one bit and are going to kick up a fuss. And Charmian’s new carer – one of the people she calls Taylor – was Lisa’s housekeeper until her death and says there is a will with her name on it. She is Mrs Pettigrew, and I told you she was a schemer. Nobody believes she looked after Lisa out of the goodness of her heart… but then they wouldn’t, would they?
There’s one other member of the circle, Percy Mannering, and his behaviour is beginning to make me think of this novel as one big morality tale. Percy is a poet who thinks that both he and Charmian have always been at the epicentre of literary fashion, and he tells Olive, who is his granddaughter, that the only reason she hasn’t heard of Charmian is because the young never read anything. Olive puts him right. Charmian’s novels, she says, are all out of print – but they are about to be reprinted by a small press. Olive gives Percy three pounds as a sort of goodwill gesture – which he spends on a garrulous telegram to Guy Leet telling him how wrong he is in his opinion of some other obscure poet. Percy is Vanity personified, and there are plenty of other deadly sins represented. There’s lust, obviously. Envy, anger, pride…. I bet they’re all in here somewhere. And, of course, another favourite figure in the mediaeval morality plays was Death. He’s in here too, it seems, and his telephone voice is very polite.
This seems a good place to pause, because things are hotting up. And what I called the novel’s most surreal feature, those telephone calls, are beginning to feel like the new normal. At the end of Chapter 9, during the course of a Catholic Mass – and I’ll come back to religion in this novel – ‘an irrational thought streaked through Miss Taylor’s mind. She dismissed it….’ Well, perhaps so, but we can guess what she’s begun to think. Those phone calls, as Muriel Spark has another character remind us, urge no more than what all good Christians are taught to do. But it’s pretty clear that Miss Taylor’s ‘irrational thought’ is that the voice on the line – she doesn’t get the calls herself, although the other characters begin to – is really that of Death himself. As readers, we might already have been having this idea and…
…two chapters later, Spark spells it out. Most of the main characters have assembled at the house of the retired Inspector Mortimer, the one Dame Lettie he is nagging to do what he can to get the police to move the investigation on. (She suspects the slowness of the investigation might be owing to the fact that it’s Mortimer who is making the calls.) In turn, and doing his best to ignore their irrelevant interruptions and suggestions, he asks them about the calls they are now all getting. It seems that every one of them hears a different voice, and this doesn’t surprise Mortimer at all. The calls he gets – and he hasn’t told the others he gets them – are, unlike anybody else’s, always from a woman. This information comes at the very end of Chapter 11, which is the point I’ve reached, and just before it his wife has been talking to him about the gathering. ‘How I wish,’ she says, ‘you could have told them outright, “Death is the culprit.” And I should like to have seen their faces.’ The point, of course, is that none of them would have taken him seriously. They don’t know they are in a dark existential comedy. They think they’re in a whodunit.
But we know. And while I haven’t changed my mind about the morality tale elements, I would say that things are becoming more subtle: we are learning what it is about this world that each of the characters is so reluctant to let go of. Time spent in their company tells us, for instance, that Godfrey is more than a comic personification of worn-out lust. He is fixated on bodily existence and never, ever thinks beyond it. When he gets his first telephone message – it’s the first we get to know about anybody else getting the calls – he simply cannot believe that the caller has not made a mistake. The implication, obviously, is that he wants to deny his own mortality – and, indeed, the thing that interests him most is outliving everybody else. He continues to read the obituaries every day – there’s a surprise for them all when the (relatively) young Tempest Sidebottome is the next to go – and thinks only about his own appetites. There’s been no mention of anything sexual in these chapters, but Alec Warner congratulates himself when Godfrey is the one who looks so delighted to hear that they will be getting a proper tea at the Mortimers’. He knew it. And, all the time, Spark feeds us little bits of information about how Godfrey is aging. He has always been a large man, but now his bones seem too big for the rest of him.
There’s more. When the appalling Mrs Pettigrew begins to blackmail him – we saw her making an impression of the lock to his private papers some chapters back – he keeps paying up, no questions asked. For this octogenarian, his worldly reputation comes first. A sensible character – it might be Mortimer, in private – tells him to go to the police, but he is never going to do that. So he’s getting short of money, keeps persuading Charmian that she doesn’t need to move to the expensive, high-class nursing home that she, and the reader, knows would be best for her.
Muriel Spark makes sure we are left in no doubt about what motivates any of the main characters. Dame Lettie, offended by the idea that there could possibly be anything that she can’t influence, threatens to have questions raised in Parliament. We aren’t told that Mortimer rolls his eyes, because we know how he must feel about such ineffectual threats. Alec Warner isn’t out to influence anything, but goes to obsessive lengths to itemise every tiny detail of the aging process. It’s as though he aims to minimise the threat by knowing and naming it, and has been doing it for years now. And as for Percy Mannering… Muriel Spark hasn’t mentioned him for a while because she doesn’t need to. We know he’ll be in denial until the day he dies.
Which leaves, firstly, those two other very determined women. Tempest Sidebottome, never a central character but known to us through her formidable reputation, has met the fate that colleagues on her committees feared would not arrive for years. It scuppers one of Mrs Pettigrew’s stratagems, because she had been relying on her to pay for the lawyers to raise question about the will. She, like Guy and Percy, is in denial about the inevitable, complacently subtracting years from her true age and spending all her time plotting schemes to guarantee her comfort in this world. Maybe she’ll be the next to go.
And finally, there are the characters who have thought about the meaning of the telephone calls differently. Mortimer and Miss Taylor we know about. But there’s Charmian too, politely accepting the message spoken by the voice and accepting her fate. In the lucid moments she often seems to enjoy now, she recognises it as a simple truth – so that at the meeting convened by Mortimer, she is clearly the only one who understands what he is trying to tell them. (Inevitably the others choose to see this as a sign of her dementia.)
So, underneath the sparkling satirical surface of this novel, Muriel Spark is clearly taking her moral responsibilities seriously. As a recent convert to Catholicism she goes beyond merely showing us how we get it wrong – she’s showing us the right path too.
Chapters 12-16 – to the end
There’s plenty of plot, but not many surprises. Obviously. We know how it’s going to end for most of these characters almost from the beginning, so it seems to be Muriel Spark’s job to make it all as entertaining as possible and tie up all the loose ends. Meanwhile, she brings in a couple of characters who have previously always been off-stage. One of them, an ancient lunatic Alec Warner has been visiting for years, turns out to be important, owing to the secret misdemeanours, decades ago, of a dead woman. She is Lisa Brooke, and it transpires that Guy Leet isn’t her only living husband. Her first marriage had been dissolved perfectly legitimately, but Guy is her third husband: her second had not died in 1919, as she always pretended, she’d had him committed. And when he does finally die – along with several others in the final paragraphs of the novel – Mrs Pettigrew becomes the sole beneficiary of the will.
A fat lot of good it does her. She is now ending her days in the pointless luxury of an expensive hotel, complaining of the terrible service and the shortcomings of the staff. It’s hardly any better than the place where Jean Taylor sees out her own last days, certain of the true identity of the anonymous caller and doing her best to seek solace in the knowledge that the endless pain she suffers serves only to make her spiritually stronger. Believe that if you want to. Another beneficiary of a different will is Eric Colston, the drone of a son we’ve only heard his parents and Aunt Lettie talk about. He has never truly grown up, had always blamed everybody else for his own failings, and is an all-round waste of space. He had been happy to pretend to conspire with Mrs Pettigrew against his father – but, in fact, he was going to reveal the squalid details of Godfrey’s adultery anyway. Of all the people he blamed, his father was the worst, and now he was going to exact his revenge.
What neither he nor Mrs Pettigrew know – and I realise I’m telling the plot backwards – is that Jean Taylor has asked Alec Warner to reveal all Charmian’s secrets to Godfrey. She knows that Charmian, in full knowledge of Godfrey’s infidelities, had always been very careful indeed to hide the truth of her own long affair with Guy. Miss Taylor’s motive is to put a stop to Mrs Pettigrew’s scheme to force Godfrey to change the will in her favour. Alec Warner’s motive in gleefully acting as messenger is that he will be able to monitor the effect of the revelation on Godfrey. He, Alec, has allowed his obsession with his so-called research to blind him to the realities of normal human behaviour, hoping to get Godfrey’s permission to take his pulse before and after he gets the news.
Jean Taylor is right, of course. The news brings the fading Godfrey fully back to life, and he confronts Charmian with what he has discovered. He is about to tell her about his own affairs when she gets in first. She lists all the women he has slept with, and lets him know that she always knew exactly what was going on. Godfrey isn’t as deflated as you might expect. He’s relieved, because now he is free not only to tell Eric to get out of the house – he’s made a special train journey from Cornwall to take his revenge – but to sack Mrs Pettigrew on the spot.
But… this is a Muriel Spark novel, and she likes to let the reader know who’s in charge. She is, and among the dead by the end of the novel is Godfrey, from complications after a road crash that kills the young occupants of the other car. Charmian has also died by now, and Lettie is already dead following the exit of a gossipy maid who accidentally alerted the local low-lifes of her former boss’s existence. When the old woman wakes and tries to stop ensuing burglary, she gets her head bashed in. So it goes, in this novel. And it means that Eric, at the very end of the novel, ‘is getting through the Colston money which came to him on the death of his father.’ This is Muriel Spark doing a Jane Austen, thwarting the reader’s expectations by letting the bad guys get away with it. The point is, in the moral universe she’s created, we can be satisfied that the lives of both Eric and Mrs Pettigrew are completely meaningless.
By the end of the novel, one of the very few elderly survivors – possibly alongside the centenarian whose pointless birthday we witness being pointlessly celebrated – is Alec Warner. But, following a catastrophic fire in which all his research notes are lost, he tells Jean Taylor that he now feels dead. She will have none of it, of course, but as far as he is concerned there is no point at all to his continued existence. He totters on following a stroke, comforting himself by cataloguing, in his head, ‘the case-histories of his friends, both dead and dying…. What were they sick, what did they die of?’ And he recites a list of seven of them, the name of each one followed by the cause of death or the affliction that will soon kill them.
This is the penultimate paragraph. But Spark, after confirming that most of the original group of old women in the women’s geriatric ward have died, lets Jean Taylor have the final sentence. She spends her time ‘employing her pain to magnify the Lord, and meditating sometimes confidingly upon Death, the first of the four last things to be ever remembered.’
So, are we supposed to believe that Muriel Spark is offering a viable strategy for leading a good life? Of course not. Jean Taylor might be one of the few worthwhile people in this novel, and she cares nothing for the vanities of this world… but even her efforts to make the best of a bad lot in order to ‘magnify the Lord’ has a faintly ridiculous ring to it. In this universe, nobody has the answers.