A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

read by Juliet Stephenson

Muriel Spark’s 1988 novel A Far Cry From Kensington is a wonderful introduction to a writer of dependable style and eccentric wit. She draws in the reader (or listener) effortlessly to a quaint and quintessentially English world. (Of course, Muriel Spark was Scottish, but A Far Cry From Kensington is very very English.) And Juliet Stephenson carries off this whimsy to perfection.

A Far Cry From Kensington is set in literary London in the 1950s and is narrated by a war-widow, Agnes (known as Nancy) Hawkins. There were many young women in her situation after the Second World War: widows making their own ways in a land once again fit for heroes. She is only in her late twenties but, because of her weight and probably because she was once married, thought by those who meet her to be much older – and hence wiser: a mother figure to her fellow lodgers living in the large ‘rooming house’ in South Kensington.

‘Rooming houses’ have gone, but in the 1950s they were aplenty: enormous family homes with the house-owner in residence and with individual rooms let out, often for years at a time, to people of all ages working in the metropolis – even in what would now be considered the most desirable parts of London. Lavatories, bathrooms and kitchens were few in number in these unmodernised houses and therefore shared by all the lodgers, whose private space was often just a single bed/sitting-room.

Nancy has ‘a job in publishing’ and works as an editorial drudge. It is the era when  publishing was still considered a profession suitable for ‘gentlemen’, who more often than not had more literary than commercial instincts. Most of the work, however, was carried out in the back office by women – happy to have landed such a wonderful thing as ‘a job in publishing’. Pay was pitiful (it still is), although the Company Directors generally did rather well (they still do). Here, authors are considered tiresome distractions, good only for the occasional long and well-lubricated lunch, which it is hoped will make up for the derisory royalties their contracts offer.

Agnes is an enthusiastic and competent copy-editor but her contempt for one would-be author leads to her losing her job – and more than once. She speaks her mind, and says of creepy and vindictive scribbler Hector Bartlett, who appears to be stalking her, ‘[he] vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it’. She calls him ‘Pisseur de copie!’ And such comments,which Agnes does not keep to herself, lead to her dismissals. One of her rooming house confidantes is a Polish seamstress, whose blameless life is destroyed through wickedness and spite. And possibly by Hector Bartlett. And this, more or less, is the point of the book: we encounter evil and it either passes us by or makes its slow progress to undo us.

A Far Cry From Kensington, Agnes’s tragicomedy, written in later, and thinner, life, and from the delights of Italy, is indeed a far cry from Kensington, and Agnes reflects on all these intrigues and goings on. And it is a minor masterpiece of the understated and the adroitly stated. Well worth a few hours of your time, if only to reflect just how so much has changed in Britain within sixty years.

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