Top positive review
THE LADY OF AMPLE TALENT
on 31 July 2017
Any reader who has already been bitten with the Muriel Spark bug but has not got around to this story should embrace it eagerly. I’d call it one of her best (I have never yet read a bad one by her), but it probably needs some appreciation on the reader’s part of the atmosphere of England immediately after the war. Myself, I am not quite old enough to recall 1945 with any clarity, but come to that Dickens is before my time too. A little historical background goes a long way, and novelists of the calibre of Dickens or Spark will do the rest for us.
Dame Muriel is very good at first pages, and the first page here is as good as any, easing the reader into the general scene and the particular atmosphere of middle-class young women improvising their lives in a house of multiple occupancy that has itself seen better days. The cast is fairly large for a short novel, but the effect created is of a kind of kaleidoscope, with the vivacious young things, plus a few who are not so young, flashing in and out of the narrative. There may or may not be a central character, and if there is it is presumably Jane, the first character named. One does not go to Muriel Spark for moral lessons, but this time she stays neutral – they do what they do because that is who they are. Conspicuously absent are the real rotters we find in some of her other novels, such as Patrick Seton or Father Socket in The Bachelors.
One or two other standard Spark personae are given a rest this time. There are no Catholics for instance, unless one counts the young missionary, which I don’t. There are no Scots either, only one middle-aged spinster with a Scottish name. In particular there is a complete absence of the irrational, such as Mrs Hogg in The Comforters disappearing when alone because she has no private life. The author does not even tease us this time with inconclusive hints like the vague suggestions of a diabolic theme in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, much less go totally overboard into irrationality as she does in The Hothouse by the East River.
The time-perspective flits around a bit, and that is certainly a Spark mannerism. However what I find very special here is the way the story bursts into abrupt action towards the end. It would be wrong to be specific about that in a review, and wrong in a different way because of the totally chance coincidence between my reading this book and a ghastly recent tragedy in London. The colours of the Spark kaleidoscope flare up threateningly, but the author stays in control, and there is maybe even a touch of rather uncharacteristic humanity this time.
So, do I ‘recommend’ this novel? To tell the truth, I don’t know. I think it is rather marvellous, as I usually find Muriel Spark, but she may or may not be your cup of tea.