This week I have been reading Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). It’s a short book so – unlike last week, when I (re)read A Dance to the Music of Time – I have also been able to sleep, which greatly increased my enjoyment of Ms Spark’s sparkling prose (and life generally).
Anyway, to get to the book itself: it follows the fortunes of a group of women who are holed up in the May of Teck Club in Kensington, an establishment where well-born but impecunious young ladies can reside ‘in Order to Follow an Occupation in London’. The action, largely set in the last days of the Second World War, takes place in the capital, which means that any Midlander reading the book as a Midlander – that is, pursuing my new practice of lecture midlandaise – will feel pretty much excluded from most of the goings-on.
However, I draw your attention to chapter 3 and the passage where we come upon a marginal character named Nancy Riddle. Like all the young women in the book, Nancy, a clergyman’s daughter, is trying to get on in life, to which end she ‘was trying to overcome her Midlands accent’. Moments after her introduction, we find her growing suddenly hysterical because she has become caught in a narrow window in the May of Teck Club’s upper storey (a recurrent comic – and then tragic – thread in the novel). After she escapes her entrapment, she becomes calm again, ‘as was betokened by the gradual replacement of Midlands vowels with Standard English ones’.
What are we to make of this? What is Ms Spark trying to say about the Midlands in this brief and potentially symbol-laden episode? That the Midlands is a narrow trap akin to a slit window, and that one should grease one’s body with any and all available materials (rations of soaps, creams and butter – that’s what the protagonists have to hand in the novel) in order to escape? A more pragmatic reading would suggest the following message: lose your Midland accent and stay away from narrow openings and life will be a whole lot better for you.
Ah, but is it possible to lose one’s Midland accent? In a later sequence we again meet Nancy – ‘the low-church clergyman’s daughter whose accents of speech had been in process of improvement’ – as she flees the flame-engulfed May of Teck. ‘Her elocution days were over now,’ notes Spark. ‘She would always speak with a Midlands accent.’ And that’s the last we hear of Midland Nancy, who figures in the novel only as an ineradicable, socially restrictive accent.
As a Midlander Reading-as-a-Midlander – and reading aloud in a heavy North Midland accent, moreover – I might feel slighted by The Girls of Slender Means. But on the plus side there’s not a single mention of the North in the book, which is a point very much in Ms Spark’s favour. She was a Real Northerner, of course – she was Scottish.