A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2017, 181 p, plus iv p Foreword and vii p Introduction by William Boyd. First published 1988.

These are the memories from much later in life of Mrs Hawkins, who in the early 1950s lived in 14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, a rooming house owned by Milly Sanders. The other occupants are childless married couple Basil and Eva Carlin, dressmaker and alterer Wanda Podolak, district nurse Kate Parker, young (and single) Isobel Lederer – a secretary who wants a job in publishing – and medical student William Todd. Mrs Hawkins – she is referred to as such by the other characters until very late into the book – had married during the war but her husband was killed at Arnhem. She does editing work in publishing, firstly at the beleaguered Ullswater Press, later with the more successful Mackintosh & Tooley, both of which jobs she loses because of the relationship of successful author Emma Loy with aspiring writer Hector Bartlett, a man for whom Mrs Hawkins has no time at all. Her considered opinion of his talents is that he is a pisseur de copie, a phrase which really requires no translation. Unfortunately she says that to his face, and repeats the assessment to her employers when asked. Of one particular example of Bartlett’s deathless prose which she had been asked to make publishable, she tells her boss, “‘I consider that it cannot be improved upon.’” A non-commital but barbed assessment. Later Mrs Hawkins is invited to work at the Highgate Review.

Describing herself as fat at the start of the book, Mrs Hawkins has begun to slim down; by the simple expedient of eating half what she did before. Even when eating out she will only have half a sandwich or half a cup of coffee etc.

At first an insignificant seeming character, Bartlett’s influence weaves in and out of Hawkins’s story. It is his baleful effect on Wanda Podolak which is the motor of the book’s plot though. He has persuaded her, most probably by blackmail, to operate a machine (known as the Box) for the propagation of radionics – to Mrs Hawkins an entirely spurious activity but one on which one of her employers is very keen – to undermine Mrs Hawkins’s health. Her apparent wasting away, though of course not due at all to the Box, distresses Wanda to the point of suicide.

Spark’s publishing experiences are mined fruitfully. The scenes in the various publishing houses bear the stamp of authenticity. A publisher opines, “The best author is a dead author,” and Mrs Hawkins gives us her advice to authors, “You are writing a letter to a friend ….. as if it was never going to be published.” Throughout, Spark, via Mrs Hawkins, never misses an opportunity to deliver the phrase pisseur de copie. And why not?

William Boyd’s introduction, as is usual with these things, reveals some of the plot. Do not read until after finishing the novel proper. His consideration that the portrayal of Bartlett is at odds with the rest of Mrs Hawkins’s generally kind character depictions is somewhat off the mark, though. Bartlett is not meant to be sympathetic and the text provides ample evidence of his iniquities. And that Bartlett is a thinly disguised depiction of someone whom Spark knew very well indeed in real life, whether A Far Cry from Kensington is a piece of revenge fiction or not, is of little relevance to the 2021 reader. It is his function in the book, and only that, which matters. And pisseur de copie is a wonderful description.

I generally find Spark frustrating to read, but this caught and held my interest. It is the best Spark novel I have read so far, by a long way. A far cry, even.

Note to the sensitive. A woman on a bus is referred to as a negress. (It was referring back to the 1950s.)

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “the The Sunday Times has an extraneous ‘the’,) Mrs Hawkins’ (several instances; Hawkins’s.) Otherwise; Sanders’ (Sanders’s,) “and I him in about Wanda” (and I filled him in,) paranoically (I would have thought this to be spelled ‘paranoiacally’ but it seems it can be both,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “she was doing this with the idea of getting rid of him easier” (more easily.)

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