The Abbess of Crewe
Date Published: May 1, 1995
Number of Pages: 106
Print Price: $9.95
eBook Price: $
There is a wrong way to read Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe and then there is a right way. The critics seem divided on it. The right way is to read it like a “morality tale” – as it calls itself – with the moral namely being: Laugh at human drama, big or little, because it all amounts, every blasted thing, to a tempest in a teapot.
This is what I say the moral is.
The other critics read it the wrong way. They keep it on the shelf near Orwell’s Animal Farm, or Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, and derive from it a thrill that might have even tickled the heart of Bunyan. They say it is a satire on Watergate.
But it is not a satire on Watergate. Watergate – everyone agreed – was an unpleasant, shameful occurrence, an occasion of authoritarian power corrupt. Watergate, if anything, was an impetus for Spark when she wrote The Abbess of Crewe: it was conveniently at hand, manageable, fun.
Whereas Orwell’s and Golding’s fables are meant to be prophetic and tragic, Spark’s book is pure farce. It is meant to be a lark, first and last, alpha and omega. The epigraph to Spark’s novelette even gives it away before everything else does. “For we,” goes the epigraph, “traffic in mockery.”
The movement is not in “mimicry,” in other words – though there is certainly that going on too. Spark mocks the great men’s mockers as well as the great men themselves because she is on the side of the “levelling wind” that “listeth where it will.” It is, ultimately, that same ancient lesson that comes from the words of the Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. “Even this too is vanity,” is what Spark is saying.
Spark’s novelette is set in a post-conciliar Benedictine abbey in the north of England. The time sequence begins at the end and ends at the beginning. Quixotic Alexandra has just become the all-powerful Abbess by means of surveillance and Machiavellian virtue. She bugged the convent and manipulated the sisterhood into electing her their supreme governor.
She controlled the electronics laboratory that is established at the heart of the abbey, where the nuns work and pray in holy ignorance. Alexandra, like an incarnation of power itself, cast away the imperative of historical fact because she claimed that those nuns at Crewe were at last come into an age of mythology—an age of Romance.
“The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered,” she says, “the age of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost, so interpreted, is the spirit that listeth on the abbey that guideth so felicitously, too, Alexandra’s infallible heart. It is what she believes compels her to set up surveillance strategies in order to ensure her dominion. So huge and hard a task was it to found her sovereignty…! But she’s done even all this, she tells us with sibylline gravity, because it was her destiny.
There was one, however, who might have thwarted destiny’s choice if only she could. The shameless nun Felicity, who shamelessly “tumbled” with some Jesuit priest between the holy hours of prayer, was the lone threat to Alexandra’s monarchy. Felicity was dangerously the favorite of the younger nuns—dangerous because the fate of the convent came about, as St. Benedict commanded from his ancient past, only at the end of a vote.
Felicity promised, if she won, to make the nunnery into a “love abbey” to observe a spirit born of the Second Vatican Council. Alexandra, conversely, offered to impose a holy tyranny so tyrannical that only a Rule as Ancient and Tyrannical as Benedict’s could be appeased by it.
The Abbess of Crewe is a narrative of the unfolding of these mythical events; namely, it is how Alexandra assumes power over the Abbey by means not very impressive to papal Rome. At the end, as well as at the beginning, the Abbess of Crewe faces trouble. It is a romp, in any case. The fun is not in finding out what happens but by watching how it happens.
Something should be said about the novelette that is characteristic of Spark and her genius. Muriel Spark, sub-creator, continually delighted in writing stories about small, exclusivist communities influenced by some Romantic authoritarian figure—in some cases a man and in other cases a woman. We see it in Jean Brodie, Loitering with Intent, and with Aiding and Abetting. It comes up again and again.
What is sublime and so amusing is how these figures are raised by self-apotheosis to a level of mythology in an attempt to make their authority unassailable. They conceive of themselves in a way that is similar, not univocal, to the way that the Christ character conceived of Himself in the gospels. Each speaks as “one with authority,” and it is this seeming cocksureness, this far-thrown vision, that is Romantic.
The lesson to be learned here is not that Spark’s characters are actually free of the moral law or that they are arbitrators of it. Usually these characters are overcome, eventually, by absurdity. Neither is it, furthermore, a practice in blasphemy. The lesson to be learned here is that these characters all long to unite themselves to some divine authority, that is, to the Creatorhood.
In Spark’s debut novel The Comforters, we see this same theme operating: the creative tension that exists and continues to exist between author and character. Spark’s characters long to be creatively joined to their author – to exercise that freedom of authorial power –just as Spark longed to be creatively joined to her Creator by her particular method of sub-creation.
The practice of Literature, indeed, is the practice of Life, of Freedom; it is vocation, never avocation. Muriel Spark saw herself as a novelist because she believed she was in the midst of some mad, divine plot, and she wanted to imitate this plottedness.
The Abbess of Crewe is then a practice in divine imitation, complete with a moral tone of mockery shaded by the author of Ecclesiastes. If Muriel Spark is a Catholic artist – and obviously she is – it is especially because her novels are so obsessed with this figure we call God, as well as with that creative patrimony artists claim by being His.
One final note: Critics have drawn a line of comparison between Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark. Both were women who lived round the same time and, sometimes, even on the same side of the Atlantic. Both authors were also superb ironists and out-and-out Catholics.
But their styles are too different to be compared. Irony is not always the same, even if it feeds at times on the stuff of satire. Evelyn Waugh in reality is O’Connor’s literary counterpart, and together Waugh and O’Connor affect literary culture on both sides of the Atlantic similarly.
As yet, we have not seen Spark’s literary counterpart, though the twenty-first century should no doubt change that.
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Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 4.7 x 0.4 x 7 inches
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