Repetition and narrative time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

This essay is not far short of 11,000 words, so I’ve posted the opening section here as a taster, followed by a pdf for download.

‘Story time’ is not the same thing as ‘narrative time’.  The Russian Formalists, active during the early years of the twentieth century, used the terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ to refer respectively to the ‘chronological sequence of events’ and the ‘order and manner in which [these events] are actually presented in the narrative’ (Jefferson and Robey, 1986: 39). Scenes which occur once in story time, the fabula, can be repeated many times in the narrative, or the sjuzhet, and any such scene will be brought into prominence, or foregrounded, thereby inviting the reader to assign significance to it. Genette’s work on ‘frequency’ in the second half of the twentieth century is built on the foundations established by the Formalists. In his Narrative Discourse, first published in French as Figures III in 1972, Genette distinguishes three possible methods available to the writer for recounting events: the singulative, repetitive and iterative.

More recent work among narratologists has pinpointed the difficulties inherent in the fabula/sjuzhet distinction, briefly summarised as follows. The fabula is essentially a construct, put together by the reader at the time of reading and revised to create a final version once the text has been read. It has no external existence unless the fabula and sjuzhet can be seen to be absolutely identical. A ‘primary’ narrative must be identified to enable the construction of a fabula: this is not always straightforward and disagreements cannot easily be resolved. In his 2012 article ‘Experiencing meanings in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Andrew Caink demonstrates how Teresa Bridgeman’s analysis of the structure of this novel can be questioned, but there is no standard against which to measure the two readings and no reason why one should be considered correct as opposed to the other. Mieke Bal suggests that this is not necessarily a huge obstacle to analysis because it suffices merely to be able ‘to place the various time units in relation to each other’ (1997: 88), but what does present a problem is when the ‘anachronous are embedded in each other, intertwined to such an extent that it becomes just too difficult to analyse them’. Textual events themselves can also be difficult to categorise. Bal notes that false anachronies arise where the event has taken place in the consciousness of one of the characters (1997: 87), and similar anachronies can be found in direct discourse because the ‘moment of speech is simply part of the (chronological) story’. In postmodern texts which lean towards the anti-narrative, it can often be impossible to judge whether an event took place at all. It should not be supposed that it is a simple matter to extract the fabula from the sjuzhet: some texts will lend themselves easily to this task, but others – particularly more modern texts – will prove far more resistant; for example, in Robbe-Grillet’s postmodernist novel Le Voyeur, it is very difficult for the reader to work out what actually happened, or indeed, if any of the events depicted took place at all. Given that the title of Robbe-Grillet’s novel refers to an essentially passive activity, it is possible that the ‘events’ of the novel all take place in Mathias’ consciousness and have no place anywhere else.

Repetition and Narrative Time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

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‘Outside,’ said the barmaid: repetition as a temporal location marker


If a word, phrase, or passage is repeated in a literary text, the reader’s natural response will be to assume that that which is repeated must be significant in some way. The very fact that a particular cluster of words has been included in the text more than once invites the reader to assign a degree of importance to it, and from that point on, the reader constructs an interpretation of the text based on his or her understanding of the potential meaning of the repeated words in the context of the novel, short story, or whatever. So we can see that repetition guides the reader towards a ‘reading’ of the text. But repetition can serve a very practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one: as demonstrated below, repetition may alert the reader that a temporal shift in the narrative (a flashback or a flashforward) has occurred and it can also help the reader to locate the end of a time shift. Literary texts very rarely have an absolutely linear timeline, and right from the off, the reader is attempting to reconstruct the beginning-middle-end of the story from what s/he learns while reading the narrative (the way in which the story is told) with all its temporal anomalies. When repetition provides temporal location markers as described above, it aids the reader in his/her construction of a global time frame.

What follows is a brief description of how the repetition of a brief snatch of dialogue guides the reader through the temporal shifts in the first chapter of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Spark, as usual, manages to wring an enormous amount of meaning out of a very simple device: the repetition here serves both a practical and an aesthetic end, as we shall see.

For those who haven’t read the novel, here’s a quick summary of the first chapter:

Humphrey Place has returned after jilting Dixie Morse at the altar. He tries to visit Dixie, but Mavis, Dixie’s mother, slams the door in his face. Humphrey then goes on a pub crawl where he runs into Trevor Lomas, a local thug, who hits him, and they are both ordered out of the pub. In flashback, we see Humphrey jilting Dixie at the altar. Back in the ‘present’ (such as it is in Spark’s novels!), Humphrey and Trevor fight in the car park until they are eventually parted by onlookers. We ‘cut’ to Dixie’s house, where she is discussing Humphrey with her mother. The doorbell rings, but this time it is Trevor. Dixie enquires after Humphrey while reiterating that she doesn’t want to see him again. The reader is filled in on more of the background by overhearing the gossip of Peckham inhabitants and we learn the names and current situations of many of the characters. The chapter closes with a ballad-like speculation of what became of the bride and groom.


In the first chapter of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the barmaid of The Harbinger is twice heard to order the two men outside when Trevor punches Humphrey. It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice*; instead, the reader understands that the narrative has jumped forward in time from the jilting scene and Humphrey’s subsequent departure to the moment when the analepsis (flashback) begins, after Trevor and Humphrey have been ordered out of the pub.

What is notable here is that we are given two pieces of information when we only need one – it would have been enough merely to hear the barmaid say ‘Outside’, and yet we are shown the female bystander’s comment twice as well: ‘ “It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here” ’ (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, pp. 7 and 9).

In fact, the bystander’s comment is foregrounded in two ways: firstly, in that it is repeated, and secondly, in that the speech adverbial ‘remarked’ breaks the pattern established prior to this moment. Until this point, every spoken comment is marked simply as ‘said’ (he said, she said). The change calls attention to the woman’s remark, which is an important one because it refers to Dougal Douglas for the first time. The responsibility for the events of the narrative to follow is placed squarely on Dougal’s misshapen shoulders at this early stage. The ‘remark’ is also understood as an observation rather than a conversational turn. We do not know the identity of the woman’s interlocutor, and she receives no reply. The narrative switches to the aborted wedding scene immediately after we hear the remark for the first time, so the woman’s words are left hanging in the air in the moment before the reader sees the scene of the jilting for which Dougal is being blamed. The indefinite article – ‘a woman’ – spotlights the remark itself, not the speaker, as does the positioning of the remark in the sentence, which comes before we know who is speaking and to whom. The woman is not important. Her comment is, because it introduces our hero Dougal as a mischief-maker, and it sets up what is arguably the primary narrative (Dougal’s arrival in Peckham Rye and how much trouble he managed to cause before his departure). In addition, the repetition we see here has an aesthetic purpose in that the repeated dialogue serves as the equivalent of a ballad’s refrain – and The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a novel that is both thematically and structurally influenced by the border ballads of which Muriel Spark was so fond.


* ‘It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice’ – in the context of the novel, that is. What I mean here is that the utterance is made only once in story time, but twice in narrative time. In real life, of course, the utterance was never made at all…

The Murder of Merle Coverdale



Many of Muriel Spark’s readers have accused her of being ‘cold’ in the treatment of her characters and in the case of Merle Coverdale in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, first published in 1960, Spark’s position of callous indifference would appear to have been taken to an extreme: Merle is not only heartlessly disposed of, but, through being constantly and relentlessly exposed to forewarnings of this event, the reader has arguably been induced to not care about it very much.

Merle is first presented to us as an absence: ‘ “she works at Meadows Meade in poor Miss Coverdale’s pool that was” ’ (12), and ‘Miss Merle Coverdale, lately head of the typing pool, did not hear of it’ (14). The reason Merle doesn’t hear of Humphrey’s return is because she is dead, murdered by her lover Mr Druce. This murder is heavily sign-posted from the very beginning of the novel and a great deal of repetition in the narrative centres around this event. The sign-posting, the repetition, and the flat delivery of the murder scene serve to deaden the reader’s response to Merle’s demise. We have looked for Merle’s death for so long that when it happens we are largely unaffected by it, which is not the case with Dougal’s imagined death scene, discussed below. But sympathy is always conspicuous by its absence in Spark’s work.

It is not only in Ballad that Spark presents a character’s end to us in so bald a fashion. Other examples of flatly-reported deaths in the Spark oeuvre include the casual and apparently motiveless murder of a woman in the final scenes of The Girls of Slender Means; the death by lightning of two bit-part characters in Not to Disturb; and the death of Needle (also heavily sign-posted) in the short story The Portobello Road: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did” (412). Of the latter example, Stephen Schiff wrote in The New Yorker:

‘It’s a nasty piece of work, that sentence…for a moment the blow is difficult to absorb. The first clause is about a glance, the second about a catastrophe, yet both have the same nonchalant tone, and it is this evenness of tone that freezes the spine.’ (1993: 36)

One might well wonder as to the nature of Spark’s intention in disposing of her characters so coolly. A convincing explanation for Spark’s chosen method lies in David Herman’s suggestion that Spark has adopted for her own purposes techniques associated with Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (2008: 477), itself rooted in work done on ‘defamiliarisation’ by the Russian Formalists, Viktor Shlokovksy in particular, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The theory behind the Verfremdungseffekt is that the reader is ‘alienated’ from the characters and ceases to feel any regard for their fate, being encouraged instead to take a more conscious, objective view of proceedings. Any emotional involvement with the characters on the reader’s part is stripped away by a laying-bare of the artificiality of the constructed text, and the reader is forced instead to make judgements on an entirely intellectual level. Alan Massie also suggests that Spark belongs amongst the rank of novelists

‘who have attempted to understand the world by cultivating detachment; so that what they construct has a self-conscious artistry, which depends for its effect on the writer’s oblique stance to his material. There is a clear preference for imposing form rather than interpreting what is immediately presented to the eye; it is the form which will give significance.’ (1979: 94)

In practice, the attempt to create such an emotional distance is not always successful and the results can be unpredictable: notice, for example, Schiff’s reaction to Needle’s death above. What Schiff is responding to, however, is not the death of the character – we already know at this stage in the narrative that Needle is a ghost – but to the ‘evenness of tone’ the I-narrator adopts in relating her own murder. Schiff notes Spark’s own comment on the sentence in question:

“There’s something aggressive about it,” Spark admits. “I’ve put a lot of tension into it, and I’ve left the emotion out. I don’t really like very much writing about emotion. I like for it to be read between the lines.” (1993: 36)

As a self-proclaimed satirist, Spark may have found the technique of the Verfremdungseffekt intriguing. In addressing the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, Spark gave a speech entitled ‘The Desegregation of Art’ (often quoted, and reproduced in Hynes, 1992: 33-37), in which she argues in favour of satire and ridicule in place of sentiment:

‘the power and influence of the creative arts is not to be belittled. I only say that the art and literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however striking in its depiction of actuality, has to go. It cheats us into a sense of involvement with life and society, but in reality it is a segregated activity. In its place I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule.’ (1992: 35)

Spark’s argument runs along lines similar to those of Brecht: ‘the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment’ will free us from ‘the illusion that we are all essentially aspiring, affectionate, and loving creatures’. Ridicule, as opposed to sentiment, ’can penetrate to the marrow. It can leave a salutary scar. It is unnerving. It can paralyze its object’ (1992: 36). So, in the case of Merle Coverdale’s murder, Spark aims to underscore the horror of the act by deadening our emotional response to the victim. The latter is achieved by numerous forewarnings of the event to follow and by the deadpan way in which the murder itself is related, placed as it is in almost direct juxtaposition with the more sentimental imagined murder of Dougal Douglas.

From the very beginning of the novel, Merle Coverdale is a dead woman walking. Her untimely demise is marked out clearly for the reader in many ways. For example, Merle’s death is sign-posted through the settings in which we see her: in chapter three, Dougal takes Merle for a walk through a cemetery, and on page 126, ‘Miss Frierne [leaves] Miss Coverdale in that hall which was lined with wood like a coffin’. Secondly, Merle’s epithet is an example of one of Spark’s epithets that contain a hint of the plot. References to the attenuated length of Merle’s neck appear every time she is mentioned. Dougal refers to Merle as an Okapi, a giraffe-like animal, and to Merle’s neck itself as ‘a maniac’s delight’ (101). Merle dies when she is stabbed in the neck nine times with a corkscrew. Thirdly, death in some shape or form is always mentioned, without fail, in close proximity to Merle’s name: on page 34, ‘ “That Miss Coverdale in the pool,’ said Mavis, ‘is working Dixie to death…” ’; on page 97, ‘ “Killing herself,” Merle said, “that’s what she is, for money.” ’; on page 100, ‘ “I’ve got a rotten life. Sometimes I think I’ll swallow a bottle of aspirins.” ’; and lastly, on page 102, ‘ “There’s bodies of nuns down there, miss,” the policeman said’. The cumulative effect of these repeated references to death is to point to Merle’s own impending demise in an unequivocal fashion.

To sum up so far: we infer that Merle is marked for an untimely end through the references to death which surround her every appearance, and we have seen her placed in the settings of a cemetery and a coffin. We can guess at the manner of her death from the repeated references to her neck, which are so frequent as to constitute her epithet. The following examples demonstrate that we can also deduce early on who is responsible for Merle’s death. In every scene featuring Merle and Druce, Druce looks at Merle with a sharp, pointed object in his hand, as follows:

p. 51: ‘He turned, with the bottle-opener in his hand, and looked at her.’

p. 53: ‘Mr Druce took a bread-knife from the drawer and looked at her.’

p. 82: ‘Mr Druce lifted his paper-knife, toyed with it in his hand, pointed it at Merle, and put it down.’

p. 134: ‘He turned to look at her with the corkscrew pointing from his fist.’

The four sentences above are constructed largely along the same lines, and it is interesting to note that the ‘looking’ of the first two examples turns into ‘pointing’ in the latter two – an indication that the threat posed by Druce is becoming increasingly serious. Druce touches, tickles or squeezes Merle’s neck every time they are alone together: ‘She put her hand up to her throat and moved it up her long neck. “Mr Druce squeezed it tight the other day,” she said, “for fun, but I got a fright.” ’ (100-101). We see, therefore, that long before the murder scene, the reader has been alerted through various kinds of narrative repetition that Druce will murder Merle by attacking her neck with a pointed object. By the time Druce looks at Merle ‘with the corkscrew pointing from his fist’, we know that that corkscrew will be the murder weapon.

Let us turn now to the murder scene itself, which is placed in juxtaposition with the scene of an imaginary murder. In chapter eight, both Merle and Elaine visit Dougal’s room in scenes that open with an almost identical verbal exchange with Miss Frierne. Merle, Dougal’s first visitor, is upset and tells Dougal ‘ “God, if Mr Druce thought I was working in with you, he’d kill me.” ’(128). Elaine in her turn informs Dougal that there is a gang looking for him and Dougal imagines his murder at the hands of Trevor Lomas. This imagined murder is replaced in the following chapter with a real murder: Merle dies at Druce’s hands, as she predicted.

The contrast between the two murder scenes, placed in such close proximity in the narrative, creates a bathos which contributes in no small measure to the overall alienation effect the reader experiences in relation to Merle’s death. As one would expect from a character who spices up a dull autobiography with saucy tales, Dougal’s description of his own imagined murder (130-131) is far more exciting than the deadpan narration of the killing of Merle. Dougal’s own tale contains visually dramatic verbs (compare, for example, ‘out jumps Trevor’ with ‘He came towards her’), sinister adjectives (‘black concealing’), and melodramatic touches (‘in the gutter’). Told in the present tense to give immediacy to the scene recounted, the reader is made aware of the position of each of the characters involved as an aid to visualisation, and is left to imagine the horror of the mutilated body. The policeman who finds Dougal ‘pukes on the pavement’ and his fingers are ‘trembling’ as he whistles for help. We see nothing like this in the murder of Merle Coverdale. Her death is indeed a gruesome one, but there are no sound effects (‘rip rip rip’), or characters vomiting at the sight of the body: the final bathetic note sounds later in the narrative when Merle’s corpse is discovered only because the neighbours are alerted when Druce’s supper burns.

The actual murder scene is played out, but with a different ending, at an earlier stage in the narrative, when we see Druce and Merle meet for their usual Saturday night assignation in chapter four. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that there is no life left in this affair: the conversation is desultory and they watch a ‘fragment’ of a television play together, just as Mavis and Arthur do in a mirror-image dysfunctional relationship. Gerard Carruthers notes that:

‘We see the pair sharing dull suppers together and Druce very neatly folding his trousers prior to their passionless lovemaking with the implication that they have lost not only a keen sense of goodness, but of badness too.’ (2008: 495)

The scene ends with a paragraph structured in parallel: ‘She went into the scullery and put on the kettle while he put on his trousers and went home to his wife’ (54, my emphasis). The parallelisms inject a blackly humorous note into the proceedings of this tawdry affair, but the reader will once again see Druce don an item of clothing and go ‘home to his wife’, this time leaving Merle’s corpse behind him: ‘He came towards her with the corkscrew and stabbed it into her long neck nine times, and killed her. Then he took his hat and went home to his wife’ (136, my emphasis).

These parallel repetitions are part of a much wider structure of repetition at sentence-level here in these two scenes, and elsewhere in Ballad. A subject-verb-complement sentence structure constitutes the dominant feature of the opening chapter, as is the case in the assignation scene, and the murder scene. In the latter, there are at least 21 subject-verb-complement sentences connected with Druce, sometimes in rapid succession, as here:

‘He handed over her glass of wine. He looked at the label on the bottle. He sat down and took his shoes off. He put on his slippers. He looked at his watch.’ (135)

What is significant is that the sentence describing the murder itself is constructed in exactly the same way, with the addition of one final, horrible, clause: ‘He came towards her with the corkscrew and stabbed it into her long neck nine times, and killed her’ (136). The repetition of an identical sentence structure at this point places the murder on the same level as all the mundane actions described in the succession of subject-verb-complement sentences, and, even though the reader has been expecting Merle’s death for a long time, it is still possible to be shocked at the casual way in which Merle is disposed of, much as the ‘evenness of tone’ used to tell us of Needle’s death produces a chilling effect.

In conclusion, it is clear that there is an element of tension in operation between the narrator’s delivery of the murder scene and the relative weight the murder is given in the text. After such a lengthy build-up, the flat delivery and anti-climax of the murder is startling and confusing, because it is not what the reader was expecting. Dougal’s imagined murder fills that particular gap, and the reader is cheated of the high drama of the fantasised killing when finally called upon to witness Merle’s long-awaited murder. An unresolved tension is generated also in the reader’s response to the murder itself: as previously mentioned, the repetitive foreshadowing of Merle’s death means that the reader is waiting for it and will not be surprised or affected by it when it comes. Humphrey and Dixie may well be the subject of the ballad that circulates in Peckham Rye, but the build-up to Merle’s murder also fills its fair share of text-space. However, in spite of the reader being prepared for, and hardened to, the event to come, the calculated manner in which the murder is casually narrated, in an identical fashion to the description of Druce putting on his slippers, will cause the reader to suffer the same sort of ‘blow’ as that described by Schiff. In retrospect, the overly-dramatic, overly-literary nature of Dougal’s imagined death is shown for what it is in comparison to the very pedestrian, but somehow much more real murder of Merle. We know how to respond to Dougal’s ‘murder’, but our response to Merle’s death is far more complicated, and the Verfremdungseffekt is thus brought into play.


CARRUTHERS, G. 2008. ‘Fully to Savour Her Position’: Muriel Spark and Scottish Identity. Modern Fiction Studies, 54, 487-504.

HERMAN, D. 2008. ‘A Salutary Scar’: Muriel Spark’s Desegregated Art in the Twenty-First Century. Modern Fiction Studies, 54, 473-486.

HYNES, J. (ed.) 1992. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, New York: Macmillan.

MASSIE, A. 1979. Muriel Spark, Edinburgh, Ramsay Head Press.

SCHIFF, Stephen. 1993. Cultural Pursuits, “Muriel Spark Between the Lines,” The New Yorker, May 24, 36.

SPARK, M. 1999. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, London, Penguin.


Three Spark Novels Covered

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and we all do it nevertheless. Of course we do. So much so, in fact, that the cover design is now recognised as part of the narratology of a book: the ‘layout and illustration of a book’s cover and the design of its title page strongly influence consumer behaviour when the reader is able to choose from a number of editions from a range of newly published books’ (Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology, p. 19). The picture on the cover begins to draw us into the text before we’ve glanced at the first page, and in some cases can even contain spoilers, or can provide a reading, or interpretation, of the text that will influence the reader right from the start.

Personally speaking, I avoided Terry Pratchett novels for years because of those awful Josh Kirby covers. Be-thonged maidens with unfeasibly large boobs? No thanks. Kirby’s illustrations gave me the impression that the novels would be representative of the fantasy genre at its most ridiculous, when in fact this is not true at all. A friend urged me to ignore the covers and give Pratchett a try, and when I did, I enjoyed his Discworld books hugely and read them all one after the other. If it hadn’t been for those ghastly covers, I would have read them years ago. My apologies to those who like Kirby’s work – I know there are many who do – but I’m firmly in the Paul Kidby camp.

Anyway, this term I’ve been writing about Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Public Image, and I thought I’d put together a little blog about the covers for these books. The Bachelors was first published in 1960, and its central figure is a spiritualist medium by the name of Patrick Seton. Seton is a criminal – of that there is no doubt – but there is textual evidence to suggest that his powers as a medium may be genuine, especially in the episode concerning Dr Lyte. Most of the evidence points to Seton being a fake, but he seems to be genuinely unaware of what it was that he said to Dr Lyte when in his trance. Of course, you never really know where you are with Spark, and her narrators often keep the reader guessing just for the hell of it – you’re never told for sure whether Seton is able to contact the spirit world or not. Let’s have a look at the covers.


(left) This is Patrick during a séance, mouth open, delivering messages from the other side, with his audience gathered around him. This next one, however (below), goes beyond simple illustration and provides the reader with an interpretation:








Here (right) we have Patrick, tied to his chair as he is during his trances, but this time, coins, not words, are cascading from his open mouth. The impression given is that Patrick makes money from his spiritualist performances, so the further implication is that Patrick is not genuine. This reading will colour the reader’s perception of the text right from the start.




The final cover for this book, however, is more likely to simply confuse the reader:


(left) I mean – what’s this about? It’s just a man of a certain age in a suit and a hat. It’s as if someone just searched for ‘bachelor’ in the Clip Art library and came up with this one. Not wrong, because the book is entitled The Bachelors, but not really right either. And the blurb on the back cover is weird too (see below):

Bachelors_back cover




Just who is supposed to be talking here? ‘He’s that dear little, sinister little medium’? Is it supposed to be the voice of one of the members of the Wider Infinity, Patrick’s spiritualist group? I suppose it could be, but clearly the last sentence is a narratorial voice rather than the voice of a character, which doesn’t help matters and makes the whole thing look a bit cock-eyed and cobbled together at the last minute. And what’s a ‘VHF of a flutter’ when it’s at home? Really, this is rubbish.

On to the next novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, also published in 1960. This story features a character called Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal), who arrives in Peckham Rye and causes mayhem before departing. He has two lumps on his head which he claims to be the remains of horns removed by a plastic surgeon, but we don’t have to believe this. The designer of this cover, however, wants the novel’s readers to believe that Dougal really is an instrument of the Devil (below left):


Here Dougal’s ‘horns’ are two miniature versions of himself, each with their own set of horns – which in turn will have horns, and so on and so on. Dougal is looking at us and grinning, as he is here (below right):


The grin is not so obvious, but can be inferred perhaps from the raised eyebrow and cheek muscle. This cover goes some way towards depicting the canteen scene in the novel, in which Dougal attracts a great deal of female attention by bursting into tears. A third cover does not depict Dougal at all, but focuses on Peckham itself:


Here, Peckham Rye has been made to look a bit like Las Vegas – which it doesn’t – but the artist has picked up on the dancing. There’s an awful lot of dancing in this novel, and of course the Devil loves to dance! But dancing is part of social behaviour and it comes with a whole set of rules and regulations of its own, to which the Peckham inhabitants add their own little rituals. In Peckham Rye, dancing is never very far from fighting (and vice versa, in fact), both of which activities are undertaken by savage and civilised societies. And dancing, of course, is so often a prelude to sex. William Boyd argues that this is a novel about sex in his perceptive introduction, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Sex, fighting and dancing. The inhabitants of Peckham Rye don’t really need a devilish figure running around to cause trouble, because it’s all happening already. Dougal, for all his funny ways, is merely a catalyst.

So now we come to my last novel for today, The Public Image, published later than the other two, in 1968. This story is about a second-rate actress, who has somehow become very successful, fighting to save her public image when her husband commits suicide.


The first cover (left) shows a diminutive woman struggling under the weight of a huge star bearing a wide toothy grin. The woman herself is frowning fiercely: she looks off-balance and is obviously unhappy with her position. This picture always reminds me of Atlas trying to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, but Atlas, of course, had no choice. The idea that the public image is something from which the actress would like to escape is another example of a reading that is given to the reader in the cover image. A second cover looks like this (below right):


It’s very similar in some ways: a large smiling face, eyes hidden by sunglasses as is so often the case, and the shell appears in Frederick’s suicide note to Annabel: ‘You are a beautiful shell, like something washed up on the sea-shore, a collector’s item, perfectly formed, a pearly shell – but empty, devoid of the life it once held.’ (p. 92). The shell image reappears at the end, but I can’t say more without spoiling it. Finally, this third cover is very different:


This image (left) focuses not on the public image, but on the ruptured marriage – an image in negative of two people kissing is torn across the centre. This cover design incorporates Frederick’s role in Annabel’s public image, which the other two do not.

I’ll end with an image of Muriel Spark herself (below). Isn’t it fabulous?


Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas

I’ve been reading Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics, and one of the suggested exercises was to write your life story as a cookery recipe, which sounded like fun, so I’ve given it a go. One thing I noticed straight away as soon as I started to write was just how many very violent verbs there are in cookery books: batter, smash, grind, pound, and so on. It occurs to me that it would be possible to write an excellent murder scene in the form of a recipe. I might try that next, using the scene in Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye when Mr Druce murders poor Miss Coverdale of the long neck.

Here’s the life-story recipe. I’ve not included everything, because that would be tedious.

Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas


  • Teenage angst
  • Various qualifications of different sizes
  • Cider
  • Work experience in varying degrees of awfulness
  • Several useless boyfriends
  • Two husbands
  • Sedatives
  • Counselling in measured amounts
  • A fistful of lovely friends
  • Chips
  • Mushy peas
  • Wine



Take a pear-shaped casserole dish and line with plenty of teenage angst. Turn the heat right up until the dish is red-hot, then add some of the smaller qualifications and mix well. Transfer to a university and soak in cider for three years. Spoon in another, larger qualification, turn the heat down and simmer in a solution of tepid retail experience until tender but not quite on the point of collapse. Toss into a large library then dunk in a publishing house. Sprinkle in a useless boyfriend along with another of the smaller qualifications and let the mixture bubble and froth until boiling point is reached. Pour into a marmite and remove to France. Let the mixture stand for a year, by the end of which time it will be coated in fat. At this point, return the mixture to the UK.

Batter with another useless boyfriend and then leave to stew in teaching for eight years, or until thoroughly browned off. During this stage of preparation, add the first husband. Stir until dissolved then remove the empty shell.

The mixture will now be very pale and flat, so keep adding sedatives and measured amounts of counselling until it begins to rise. Sweeten with lovely friends and allow to settle. After a month or two, warm the mixture in university administration. Drain and drop in the second husband. After three years, scrape away the remains of the husband’s parrot.

Season to taste. Serve with chips, mushy peas and as much wine as you can get down your neck without being hospitalised.