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