The Abbess of Crewe
by Muriel Spark
New Directions (1995)
Originally published in 1974
106 pp

When 2016 started, I made the resolution to read six Muriel Spark novels (along with a few other goals I’ve been having fun with and listed here). I have most of her books, and, since I have so enjoyed what I’ve already read, I guess I’d been saving them up for a rainy day. I’ve since read two of Spark’s novels, so I’m proud of my progress at this early point in the year! First up was a shorty: The Abbess of Crewe, which had the subtitle “A Modern Morality Tale.”

The Abbess of Crewe

Given the date of its release and the fact that the newly elected Abbess has tapped nearly every corner of the Abbey of Crewe, this novel has often been referred to as Spark’s Watergate novel. That said, I think anyone going into it hoping to get a right satirical look at President Nixon will be disappointed. The Abbess of Crewe is not particularly deep when it comes to all of that. It is a lark, and I think best enjoyed as such. Then it fits in quite nicely with so much that is going on in the current U.S. Presidential elections. The book’s epigraph is fitting:

For we traffic in mockery.

It may safely be said that Spark is mocking Watergate and all involved . . . including those who might use her book as some kind of exploration of Watergate.

When the novel begins, the newly elected Abbess, formerly Sister Alexandra, is in a bit of a pickle. Reporters are swarming the periphery of the Abbey, and Rome is calling to see just what is the matter. We quickly learn that the trees have ears, and the Abbess was perhaps elected due to some less than fair play. Her main rival for the position, the effusive Sister Felicity, has left the Abbey to marry one of the Jesuit Priests and for some fuss over, of all things, a thimble.

With this set up, Spark takes us back in time to the election itself. While Sister Alexandra was always the natural choice for Abbess — she already seemed to be in control of so much — Sister Felicity’s gospel of love was gaining some followers. When Sister Felicity’s poll numbers reach 42%, Sister Alexandra tells her accomplices, “Proceed but don’t tell me.” Thus, she can keep her hands clean.

It’s a fun story, how we get from that poll to the current scandal surrounding the Abbey. The fallout, as expected, is humiliating . . . just what we can expect from Spark. If she was inspired by Watergate — and surely she was — she was not at all interested in making it a solemn affair; she finds the ridiculous, the laughable — the farcical — nature of it all.

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