By Muriel Spark
“Such a scandal could never arise in the United States of America. They have a sense of proportion and they understand Human Nature over there; it’s the secret of their success.”
Published in 1974, The Abbess of Crewe is a reductive, irreverent take on the US Nixon/Watergate debacle, ingeniously relocated to a Catholic convent in Cheshire. Subtitled ‘A Modern Morality Tale’, it is derived from contemporary press reports of the scandal and is often described as ‘political satire’ – though many, according to Muriel Spark’s biographer Martin Stannard, see it as “another version of [her] recurrent theme” of complex relationships between individuals plotting or exploring various scenarios, “which is dependent on lies and evasions”.
On her sickbed, Abbess Hildegard makes it known she would like her favourite, Sister Alexandra, to take her place once she has gone, but dies moments before publicly endorsing the succession. Using the narrative looping of her early novels and the present tense employed in later works, Spark opens her novella two years hence, when Alexandra has indeed been elected to the desired position but is embroiled in an open scandal concerning a missing thimble and accusations of the convent being heavily bugged.
In extended flashbacks we see how in the run-up to the election, sub-Prioress Alexandra and her cohorts become apprehensive that the flighty but charismatic Sister Felicity, once regarded as out of the running, has, with her fatuous philosophy of love, gained in the popularity stakes, leaving Alexandra to manage a “crisis of leadership in the Abbey”.
“Fathers, there are vast populations in the world which are dying or doomed to die through famine, undernourishment and disease; people continue to make war, and will not stop, but rather prefer to send their young children into battle to be maimed or to die; political fanatics terrorize indiscriminately; tyrannous states are overthrown and replaced by worse tyrannies; the human race is possessed of a universal dementia; and it is at such a moment as this, Fathers, that your brother-Jesuit Thomas has taken to screwing our Sister Felicity by night under the poplars…”
In the midst of numerous intrigues, the “daily curriculum” of “book-binding and hand-weaving” has been replaced with courses on electronics and surveillance equipment. Realising her collection of love letters to a young Jesuit priest have been stolen and suspecting her conversations have been recorded with “eavesdropping devices”, Felicity calls the police, leading to journalists and TV crews descending en masse on the provincial Benedictine Order and consternation in Rome.
The narrative is, of course, strewn with Sparkian adaptions of historic figures in the guise of nuns, and liberally incorporates tropes used by the media, which are instantly recognisable to those who recall Watergate. However, The Abbess also comically criticizes the fallibilities of both human nature and the Catholic Church – the author having famously converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954.
The Abbess was adapted for the big screen in 1977 (as ‘Nasty Habits’) with Glenda Jackson, one of my favourite actresses, playing Sister Alexandra, though the setting was transposed to a nunnery in Philadelphia – but it wasn’t a particularly successful film. The possibility of an opera based on the book had also been mooted by the classical composer Gordon Crosse only two years earlier but sadly it came to nothing, though Spark was said to be “intrigued” by the suggestion.
I’ve read several works by Spark since first ‘discovering’ and thoroughly relishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in my mid-teens. This, however, was my first experience of The Abbess and I wasn’t disappointed. She was, in many ways, an experimental novelist and you can never be quite sure what to expect from one book to the next, but this story of holy skulduggery is, in my opinion, yet another coup de maître from a virtuoso of literary satire.
While not one of her most popular novels, partly, I’m sure, because modern readers are unlikely to pick up on the Watergate references, The Abbess of Crewe remains devilishly clever and exceedingly funny. Another Sparkian work of brilliance to add to her many others.
“…not to gratify the desires of the flesh. To hate our own will and to obey the commands of the Abbess in everything, … remembering the Lord’s command … systems of recording sound come in the form of variations of magnetisation along a continuous tape of, or coated with or impregnated with, ferro-magnetic material. In recording, the tape is drawn at constant speed through the airgap of an electromagnet energised by the audio-frequency current derived from a microphone. Here endeth the reading.”
I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019
Wow, Paula! What a premise! While I may not pick up this particular book, this brilliant review has certainly inspired me to try another! Shall I start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? ♥️
Many thanks, Jennifer. TPOMJB is definitely Spark’s most popular novel (beautifully written) – I imagine if you didn’t enjoy reading it then you probably wouldn’t get into her other stuff, but I could be wrong. Her fictional works are hugely entertaining if you enjoy her brand of understated satirical humour. Have you seen the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith as Brodie (she’s another great favourite of mine)? She has the posh Edinburgh accent off to a tee. Anyhow, I digress, because there are many other fabulous titles: The Girls of Slender Means and Memento Mori, to name but two. I really do hope you come to appreciate Spark. She had such a brilliant mind. 🤗
I love Maggie Smith and I have not seen that movie, so I am taking note! Thanks so much, Paula!
It’s a real comedy of manners, Chris.
I really enjoy Spark and I’ve not read this. It sounds as if there is a lot to enjoy!
As someone who already enjoys Spark, I feel sure you’ll lap this one up, Madame B. Like many of her fictional works, it’s short (about 115 pages long) and punchy, so it may be suitable for Novella a Day in May 2020! 😊
A really interesting review which flags up several important issues. Is it the case that Watergate exposed a racist political liar whereas the deceit and racism of certain political leaders is simply factored in well before they come to power these days? I agree that Spark was something of a bright spark (especially in terms of style), a writer’s writer if you will, but I never feel that she actually liked ordinary people. Do you think her realism about human nature spilled over into cynicism? Glenda Jackson became an unorthodox Labour MP, so she is one of my favourite actors too.
Many thanks, John.
I think you are right as regards political leaders being quite openly racists or deceitful these days and it making little difference to their careers. Politicians ‘get away’ with all kinds of things nowadays that would once have wrecked their reputations – imagine something like PigGate happening here in 1972!
I’m not sure that Spark disliked ‘ordinary people’ but she was very definitely a cynic – though she put that cynicism to good use. Her books were wickedly mischievous and she painted the rich and powerful in their true colours (often making them look rather silly), however, she was a complex person, to say the least, and liked to keep her private life private. She certainly had a reputation amongst journalists for being a ‘difficult woman’, but I’m inclined to think that, much like Margaret Atwood these days, she was a formidably intelligent person with a naughty sense of humour and could no doubt run rings around those who thought they could get the intellectual better of her.
Ahh yes, Glenda Jackson. Regardless of her political leanings, she was (still is!) a fantastically talented actor, but like you, I had a great deal of respect for her as an MP.
Oh I wasn’t doubting the intelligence of Spark (I’ve been reading Mary Wollstonecraft recently if that helps 🙂 ), but I feel (perhaps mistakenly) that Atwood understands people better than Spark did. I’m not great at watching the television, but I’ve seen documentaries about both writers, and I couldn’t imagine my opinion would matter one jot to either of them!
No, I absolutely didn’t think you were questioning Spark’s intelligence. Apologies if my comments came across that way. You’re one of the good eggs in this world, John. 🤗
It seems to me, Atwood has an almost imperceptible smirk on her face and a glint in her eye when she’s being wicked. She’s also quite a different writer to Spark, but they’re both famously smart female authors, hence the comparison. I suspect the different nationalities and eras partly account for Spark seeming more detached than Atwood (although, Canadians can be quite reserved) – she also came from a period when successful, independent women were still much frowned upon, so I daresay she took some flak and that must have played a part in her apparent disdain for people. However, ultimately, while Spark was keenly observant of situations and general human behaviour, Atwood has both a universal wisdom and an almost terrifyingly acute perception of people as individuals, so in that sense I completely agree, Atwood definitely “understands people better than Spark”.
Muriel Spark is high on my author to-read list. My struggle is deciding on which on hers to start with, So many of her books sound fascinating, including this one.
Spark wrote so many brilliant novels, which makes it difficult to advise anyone new to her work where to begin. However, my introduction was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and I’ve been an admirer of her work ever since, so that’s possibly as good a place as any to make a start. Anyhow, I’ll be really interested to discover how you get on. I’ll keep my eyes peeled on your blog. 😊
You’re quite right – you never know quite what you’ll get when you read Spark which is a real joy! I haven’t read this, but I remember Watergate so shall probably enjoy it… ;D
Many thanks, Kaggsy. I think this is definitely one of Spark’s lesser known novels. Very few people say they have read it when it comes up in conversation.
I didn’t know Spark wrote a Watergate-inspired satire and now I’m quite intrigued – thanks for the review, Paula! 🙂
I hope you find it as entertaining as I did, Ola. It’s short but stimulating! 😃
I read The Abbess a couple of months ago, and must admit that it took me a while to pick up on the Watergate connections — and perhaps the only reason I did was because I’d just seen All the President’s Men. Spark writes a great send-up of political shenanigans, and the idea of nuns training in surveillance made my day.
Thanks, Lizzie. Yes, the mere thought of nuns ‘listening in’ on eavesdropping devices made me chuckle. 😂
What an interesting exchange (in the comments above) about comparing Spark and Atwood. Both writers I enjoy for their sharp observations and sharp tongues. This isn’t one of the books by Spark that I’ve read but I can see where, not only would the story be satisfying on its own terms, but given the current political upset in the United States and various parallels with the Watergate era, that there’d be another layer of interest here to contemporary readers as well. And how superbly you are trekking along with your summer challenge too!