Date Published: September 17, 1994
Number of Pages: 204
Print Price: $12.72
eBook Price: $
Laurence Manders is a nice young man, a reporter for the BBC, whose family varies between the gypsy-like independent grandmother, Louisa, and his mother, the rather distant and naïve Lady Manners. Lord Manders barely features as he is always away on retreat or about to go on a retreat.
Laurence becomes worried both about his former lover, Caroline, who claims to be plagued by a phantom typewriter which narrates her thoughts and deeds, and his grandmother who appears to be conducting a diamond smuggling racket with the aid of some unlikely friends.
Caroline is being shadowed by a former Manders employee, the dreadful Mrs. Hogg, who appears friendless and insane. Caroline turns for help to Willi Stock, AKA “The Baron,” a friend who’d like to become her lover but who also appears to have only a tenuous grip on reality.
The plot revolves around Caroline and Laurence trying to resolve their challenges and is set between London and some imaginary Sussex villages.
The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel, published in 1957, and has her trademark mix of wit and humour with a backdrop of central London not long after the second world war. It is written in the third person point of view, so there is distance between the reader and each character which makes it hard to empathise with any one of them.
The two main characters of Laurence and Caroline are well drawn, though they seem to exclusively inhabit the bourgeoisie part of the English class system of the 1950s (or even before). They have enough time on their hands to worry a lot about their immediate family but little much besides; yes, the author is making a satirical study of them, but it gives the novel a very unworldly and narrow perspective by today’s standards.
The minor characters are more of a mixed bag: Mrs Hogg is excellent – with her lack of social graces, religious hypocrisy, and general nastiness, but Louisa the grandmother is unconvincing as a gypsy queen married to aristocracy running a strange gang of petty criminals. The Baron is also an oddity, again a mixture of contrasting traits and another character that doesn’t seem burdened by any form of employment beyond a dusty bookshop.
The central theme appears to be one of madness; Caroline is plagued by a phantom typewriter which repeats her thoughts, though it is unclear whether it dictates her thoughts or that she is appearing as herself in a novel that she is writing. This part of the plot I found very unconvincing, indeed quite off-putting, as though it were some literary cleverness hoisted on the reader; I thought the novel would have been a lot better without this form of madness which was so bizarre as to be unbelievable.
Baron Stock also seems quite crazy – why would anyone sane wish to pursue England’s leading Satanist, not for any moral purpose but just for the hell of it (no pun intended)? It is also unclear why Caroline would choose someone like this as a confidant or friend.
The plot moves along at a reasonable pace but has some rather unlikely twists and turns; why on earth would Louisa put diamonds in a loaf of bread as a means of transport around Sussex? Why would anyone employ and then help someone as obviously nasty and crazy as Mrs. Hogg?
There is a lot of cultural Catholicism in the novel as the Manders family, Caroline, and Mrs. Hogg are all Catholics – indeed the satire seems as much aimed at Catholicism as the rather dim witted Lord and Lady Manders and their entourage. Laurence is floating out of Catholicism, and Caroline is floating back into it whilst the Manders parents practice in a rather blind and unquestioning fashion.
Catholicism is discussed at a quite theoretical level, in a way which appears quite alien today to an everyday observer. Here is a typical excerpt:
‘You’re always bad tempered after Mass,’ Laurence observed…
‘I know,’ she [Caroline] said. ‘It’s evidence of the truth of the Mass. The flesh despairs.’
‘Pure subjectivism,’ he said. ‘You’re something of a Quietist, I think. And quite Manichaean. A Catharist.’
It is hard to detect any moral theme in the novel – the only character the reader feels close to is Laurence – the rest are too distant, too mad, or just plain unbelievable. There is little by way of love or forgiveness – the main characters appear to be driven by more ethereal concerns – with the exception of Laurence’s unrequited love for Caroline, but even he doesn’t seem too fussed by her rejection.
The novel ends with a climactic scene on the river and a death by drowning, with Lord Manders left to narrate the outcomes for the main characters, inevitably leading to disgrace for his family. There does not appear to be redemption for anyone, and certainly not Laurence who is left to post on some notes for Caroline’s novel; he reads them and has this to say:
- You misrepresent all of us
- We are martyred by your misunderstanding
- I love you. I think you are hopelessly selfish
- I dislike being a character in your novel. How is it all going to end?
So the novel closes with the realisation that it is Caroline who has narrated it with her phantom typewriter; like Laurence I disliked this concept – it smacked of intellectual showing off for no real purpose.
This book is well written and has a great sense of place around London and Sussex in the 1950s. But it was hard to care about what happened to Caroline, Louisa, and the Baron, and for me the novel was spoilt by the phantom typewriter, the device of the characters knowing they were living in their own novel, and the excessive references to Catholic theory. The lack of any moral theme left the reader with a feeling of ‘so what?’ Probably its greatest legacy was propelling Muriel Spark into the public domain and allowing recognition for her subsequent, more complete works. Loitering with Intent is a much less irritating and more rewarding read.Publisher: New Directions
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.6 x 9.8 inches
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.