Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Expanded from a short review at Girl Detective.

My copy of The Abbess of Crewe notes it is "a wicked satire of Watergate." The novel opens with a discussion between Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, and Sister Winifrede, "land of the midnight sun." Alexandra cautions Winifrede that their conversation in the avenue of meditation is not private. Winifrede pauses, then speaks.

'You mean, Lady Abbess,' she says, 'that you've even bugged the poplars?'

Very little is private at the Abbey, which Alexandra oversees with a bizarre mixture of medieval religious practices combined with the study of "modern" electronics. Surrounded by her cronies Walburga and Mildred, and advised at a distance by the deep-voiced, traveling Gertrude, Alexandra was not suprised to be elected the new Abbess. She had worked hard to ensure it would be so. Alexandra's rival was Sister Felicity, and a scandal has erupted in the outside world due to the election, and something about a missing thimble of Felicity's. Like other books of Spark's, the story begins near the end, then loops back and forth in time, layering new details until a whole picture is achieved.

I assumed I would dislike tall, attractive Alexandra, who serves fine food and wine to herself and her inner circle, while the rest of the abbey dines on other, less attractive, things:

...a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk.

But short, homely Felicity, who is having an affair with a Jesuit and preaching free love to the other nuns, is pathetic, rather than sympathetic. By contrast, Alexandra is sharp and darkly funny, and so wickedly adept at obfuscation, that I couldn't help but root for her as the book progressed.

The Abbess of Crewe is dated, both by its subject and the electronic equipment it references. Spark nevertheless made her story timeless by setting the power struggle in the removed culture of an abbey, and expanding it far beyond a one-to-one analog to Watergate. It is filled with snarky one liners, and is much funnier than the other three Spark novels I read: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver's Seat, and The Finishing School.

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