by Muriel Spark
One of my favorite characters in all of fiction is Mrs. Hawkins, the greatly overweight, greatly capable, and greatly opinionated narrator of Muriel Spark’s light–hearted novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (New Directions, 2000). I’ve always felt that were I to meet the now elderly Mrs. Hawkins today, she would have morphed into the sort of woman that Maggie Smith played in the film Gosford Park — tart, loyal to her friends, easy to confide in, impossibly self–assured, and yet, for all that, incredibly easy to love. Here’s how Mrs. Hawkins describes herself:
I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.
And here are just a few of her opinions that we’re treated to in the course of the book: On losing weight–“only eat and drink half of whatever you’re given”; willpower–“you should think of will–power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained”; on being capable–“don’t demonstrate it too much; you’ll incur resentment from those who think they’re your betters.” There are many more, and we would all no doubt be better people for taking her advice.
The heart of the novel, recounted in a long flashback, takes place in 1954, in the world of literary London. Mrs. Hawkins lives in a rooming house in Kensington, then a down–at–heels part of the city, and works as an editor for a small publishing company. One of her great dislikes (among many) is bad and pretentious writing, and Mrs. Hawkins believes that the very worst of the hacks whose writing she would so characterize is Hector Bartlett. One day, when she happens upon Bartlett in the park on her way to work, Mrs. Hawkins accuses him of being a “pisseur de copie,” someone who “vomits literary matter.” Not unnaturally, he takes great umbrage at being referred to thus, and becomes Mrs. Hawkins’ great enemy, not only getting her fired from two publishing jobs but also, quite possibly, doing even more serious harm to one of Mrs. Hawkins’ fellow boarders. Or did he? With Spark, it’s hard to know.
Spark is a spare and meticulous writer; she brings her creations to life in a simple sentence or two. One female character in A Far Cry from Kensington is described as being so forgettable that “she seemed to live in parentheses.” But it’s the character of Mrs. Hawkins who demonstrates Spark’s talents at their finest. I first read this novel more than 20 years ago and loved it then. Rereading it for “Pearl’s Picks,” spiffied up in a new cover from New Directions, I found it as buoyant and satisfying as I did back then.