The Abbess of Crewe


I had somewhat more difficult a time with this that with the other Muriel Spark I have read and enjoyed. Ultimately, I did enjoy this one, but I was thankful for its brevity. Both Satire and Allegory become tiresome at great length--they are best sustained over a short duration, and this was both forms, which requires even greater condensation.

The Abbey of Crewe is in trouble, someone has stolen Sister Felicity's silver thimble in the course of pilfering a stash of love letters in the false bottom of her sewing box. The Newly-elected Abbess of Crewe has her Nuns read from the Bible at the refectory. And after the usual scripture passages, she supplements their meditations with a reading from The Book of Electronics. Cameras, microphones, and bugs are to be found in every nook and cranny of the Abbey, including the poplar-lined lane down which the Nuns stroll in their recreational time. The traditional money-maker for the Abbey, sewing, has been abandoned for the new money maker--the devising and building of electronic devices, principally surveillance devices. One of the nuns is sneaking out at night and spending her time in a dalliance with a Jesuit novice and she comes back to the Abbey to spread the gospel of the love of freedom and the freedom of love. And Sister Gertrude spans the globe ecumenically crushing any practice she doesn't care for--at one point admitting a Cannibal tribe, with dietary dispensations, while crushing a vegetarian heretic sect--one suspects with the aid of said Cannibal cult. All of this right before en election. Sound familiar? Possibly because it is written from the political events of the time (another aspect that can just bore me silly, although it did not do so this time.)

Witty, sharp, satirical, even biting at times--Muriel did not look lovingly upon the characters of her Abbey and she shares them in all of their "splendor"--backbiting, petty, scandalous, scandal-mongering, lustful, disobedient, self-righteous. All of these flower bloom in the garden of the Abbey of Crewe.

Once again the prose is a delight, and I've shared one or two brief excerpts with you. Sister Winifrede comes in for the most biting of the jabs Ms. Spark makes at the characters.The dawn sun shone briefly in the troubled weather of her intellect. (It's a paraphrase, but it gets at the essence of the author's approach.)

The Abbess-to-be of Crewe gives a marvelous speech before the election which encourages the Nuns to be ladies and not the petite bourgeoisie that threaten the very foundations of the monastic order by their insistence on doing things by the book and their indulgence in petty crime and gross immorality.

In short, a magnificent short biting satire, still relevant today, although the figures and meanings need to be transposed a bit--nevertheless, as with any good work, the satire can remain effective even after the inspiring event is in the distant past.

Recommended particularly to people with an interest in politics and satire.

Next up A Far Cry from Kensington.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 23, 2006 9:40 AM.

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