The Abbess of Crewe
The Mystic Adventures of Roxie Stoner
There is a precision and a poise to Muriel Spark’s prose which suggest that we are in good hands. “The poplars,” we read on the first page of The Abbess of Crewe, “cast their shadows in the autumn afternoon’s end, and the shadows lie in regular still file across the pathway like a congregation of prostrate nuns of the Old Order.” Later, we inspect this careful scene: “The self-controlled English sun makes leafy shadows fall on this polished table and across the floor. A bee importunes at the window pane. The parlor is cool and fresh.” This is a quiet, straight-faced world in which wry, comic slips and falls are about to take place. As in the following speech by the future abbess of Crewe, addressing a pair of visiting Jesuits:
“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….”
The timing could hardly be better, and a lot of the jokes in the book are of this quality. Two Jesuits break into the abbey, and the abbess pretends to have forgotten what they are called. “Those boys—what are their dreadful names?” “Gregory and Ambrose.” The abbess prefers English poetry to Roman liturgy, murmurs Marvell and Pound and Auden in place of more orthodox responses, and was once heard to say, “To hell with St. Francis of Assisi. I prefer Sextus Propertius who belongs also to Assisi, a contemporary of Jesus and a spiritual forerunner of Hamlet, Werther, Rousseau and Kierkegaard.” When things get sticky at the abbey, she has a subordinate sign a confession (“Which confession?” “Oh, the usual form of confession”) which simply is confession (“I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”). The subordinate, somewhat bewildered, murmurs, “I don’t really like to commit myself so far,” but is reminded that even the Pope “offers the very same damaging testimony every morning of his life.”
Throughout the book, traveling Sister Gertrude checks in by telephone from time to time, as she dashes from the Andes to Tibet by way of Iceland—“Gertrude, where are you speaking from?” “It’s unpronounceable and they’re changing the name of the town tomorrow to something equally unpronounceable”—and there are interesting transactions taking a disguised Jesuit to the ladies’ lavatory at Selfridge’s and a disguised nun to the men’s lavatory at the British Museum.
This last touch is a bit heavy, perhaps, and several jokes about dog and cat …