I had 'The Girls of Slender Means' by Muriel Spark from the library as part of Muriel Spark Reading Week and having been disappointed by Finishing School I decided to give this one a try. I like Muriel Spark because her books are nice and short, in a good way; she sticks to the story, there is no waffle or padding. I like them too because, although they are often about women, the male characters are equally interesting and sympathetic.
Girls of Slender Means covers (roughly) the brief period between VE day and VJ day in 1945 and the lives of a group of girls who live in the May of Tech Club, a women's hostel in Kensington. It captures so beautifully the atmosphere of the time. The girls are most concerned about the rationing, sharing clothing, soap and tea, and the attentions of their suitors, and a tight knit bond of friendship has been built up between the residents. Jane works for a publisher and is respected as the brainy one; Joanna spouts poetry and give elocution lessons; Pauline Fox seems to have an imaginary suitor who takes her out for dinner; Selina is beautiful and glamourous and has several lovers, and a few potential husbands in waiting; Formality and decorum are maintained by the warden and three mature lady residents (Greggie, Jarvie and Collie), the girls may invite visitors to dine but only the suitably accompanied doctor would ever venture to the upper floors.
"Boy-friends were allowed to dine as guests at a cost of two-and-sixpence. It was also permitted to entertain in the recreation room, on the terrace which led out from it and in the drawing room whose mud-brown walls appeared so penitential in tone at that time - for the members were not to know that within a few years many of them would be lining the walls of their own homes with paper of a similar colour, it then having become smart." (p.27)
I like this quote, it sums up the kind of attitude that surrounded women's lives at the time:
"But on the floor above that, there seem to have congregated, by instinctive consent, the old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster's life, and those who would one day do so but had not yet discerned this fact for themselves." (p.29)
The story follows the arrival of Nicholas Farringdon and his obsession with the girls, in particular the intoxicating Selina. It is just about their shifting relationships and everyday life, focussing mainly on Jane and her employer George. There is a sense in which the war is over and the girls are living in expectation of the future, until an unexpected event disrupts their settled existence. Just a lovely readable period piece, taking you in to the immediate post war world. This quote gives an insight into the general feeling at the time:
"At the time Nicholas still worked for one of those left-hand departments of the Foreign Office, the doings of which the right-hand did not know. It came under Intelligence. After the Normandy landings he had been sent on several missions to France. Now there was very little left for his department to do except wind-up. Winding-up was arduous, it involved the shuffling of papers and people from office to office; particularly it involved considerable shuffling between the British and American Intelligence pockets in London. He had a bleak furnished room at Fulham. He was bored." (p.60)