A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
“I was Mrs Hawkins” is the theme of one of Spark’s later novels of a rooming house and its residents, of publishing houses and their weaknesses, and of a remarkable woman’s view of postwar London life in precisely 1954. Published in 1988, this story of a looking back on a life from decades later as a different person in so many ways is full of the dry humour and sharp observations of the author best known for her portrait of the formidable Miss Jean Brodie. It deals with the small details of life and especially other people; the words, gestures and more that convey a real sense of a person, and the settings of rooms, houses, even travelling on London buses that are described with near forensic precision. The people of the world of Mrs Hawkins are tremendously varied, from self -conscious authors to a emotional Polish dressmaker, unsuccessful publishers to an attractive doctor. The greatest change to a person is probably to Mrs Hawkins, as she loses weight throughout the book, much to the confusion of at least one character. Some people see her as a source of reliable advice, the editor who they look to for judgement and guidance, while she has her own very strong views and believes in her own instincts which do not always please others. Her strong aversion to a particular would -be author becomes a recurring theme of the novel, and William Boyd’s informative and sympathetic introduction gives some autobiographical context to this and other elements of this novel.
The novel begins with an explanation of the silence which typified Mrs. Hawkins’ insomniac experience of night time in the shared house, a device which allows Spark to introduce the other inhabitants. Particularly memorable is Wanda, who was “generous of heart even though she could never admit to an instant of happiness”. Another resident is a determined district nurses, frequently cleaning and perhaps condemning with a gesture those who were not so fastidious. Isobel is a somewhat spoilt young woman with a large social acquaintance and a telephone in her room which she uses heavily. This group of people are the chorus and sometimes the main characters in Mrs Hawkins’ story, providing a real insight into the sort of characters who inhabited a postwar London of drab conditions and food shortages.
The other element of the novel is Mrs. Hawkins’ work as an editor for the failing Ullswater and York. Cathy, a survivor of concentration camps, does her best with the books, but even she cannot hide the fact that financially the firm is in a mess, with creditors sometimes appearing at the door. Moving onto the more prosperous Mackintosh & Tooley, she discovers that the authors are far more difficult to handle, and she struggles with an author that lacks talent but has his champions. Life is more complicated than losing weight, and people are more complex than the books she edits.
This is an accomplished book of insights into lives, not least of Mrs Hawkins herself. The background of a London still marked by recent War almost becomes another character, but there are definitely enough actual characters for Spark to observe, comment on and move on from, their speech and appearance always distinctive. Small digs, dark humour and revelations to the reader flow in a distinctive and apparently easy way, memorable and consistent. I recommend this book for its careful detail but also its honesty, it self awareness and its dedication to its truth.