Muriel Spark`s novella, The Abbess of Crewe, is about the continuation of power by all available means. The convent is in flux, it`s future direction unsure: the nuns gather in little conclaves, mouths and ears flapping like bed sheets caught on the washing line in a gale. There are factions vying for ultimate power. Do we go with sub-Prioress Alexandra; a stern traditionalist control freak, who fears that she has almost approached her sell-by date, and this is her last chance for the top seat at the table; or is it the modernising, forward thinking and compassionate Sister Felicity, who given little chance at first, is now coming up fast on the rails with the support of the younger nuns? Clearly Alexandra feels that something needs to be done to derail the opposition and put it to bed……….But what?The troops are mobilised, a strategy is decided upon, Sister Felicity must be stopped at all costs. Alexandra artfully guides and encourages her supporters towards a needful course of action without once openly suggesting anything untoward should be done; the decision is to frame Sister Felicity for theft – sexual misbehaviour with a male is also thrown into the mix, and cast her into the purgatory of the outside world. Spark`s irony in all of this is that Alexandra and her cohorts needn`t have done anything shady and unethical to win; they had simply created adversity where none existed. The threat from a perceived enemy was simply smoke and mirrors produced by their own fevered imaginations, stoked up by the furnace heat of Alexandra`s persecution complex.
” You mean, Lady Abbess, that you`ve even bugged the poplars?”
The deed is done, the pathetic Felicity is vanquished and evicted from paradise, and Alexandra is triumphantly installed as the new Abbess. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and Alexandra feels the need to keep her finger on the pulse 24/7, by installing surveillance equipment in every nook and cranny of the Abbey to keep a tab on her spiritual charges, and monitor for dissent against her rule. Very little is private in an Abbey overseen with a bizarre mixture of outdated medieval religious practices, deftly seasoned with a delicate aroma of modern electronic ingredients. Alexandra`s arm is long, and her vengeance total; who, or what could possibly gird up their/it`s metaphorical loins and challenge her? ” A perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk.”
Alexandra is not without a sharp, dark, and attractive sense of mischievous humour; while she and her inner circle elegantly dine on fine food and wine, the rest of the Abbey inmates have to make do with less salubrious offerings. But tide and time wait for no Abbess, and Alexandra`s sins catch up on her as her repressive regime eventually finds that the screw refuses to budge another inch, and the outside world begins to ask questions about what is going on inside the convent. The media, the police, and finally, the Vatican breach the walls and pour their pent up bile and revulsion upon Alexandra`a religious “business methods.”
It`s been said before that The Abbess of Crewe is a satire on Watergate, and Nixon`s paranoia. The story moves about in time, and is garlanded with poetry quotations weird, hallucinogenic characters and plot twists. The wayward, geographically evasive “have quote will travel” nun, forever on the move, hopping from one exotic and far flung location to the other, always ready with a cryptic word of advice dispensed through a “green phone” hot line, is an obvious nod towards Henry Kissinger.
On the surface, this book is dated by it`s subject………Or is it? After all, it`s a razor sharp satire on the old Lord Acton adage that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power is a conniving, wheedling, hungry and merciless mistress; it rusts the iron of integrity, honour and truth. No one who holds power – however small, can be unaffected by it`s siren call: and when you already possess a fractured, and twisted psyche, well……………….It`s music to it`s ears. As a novella, The Abbess of Crewe may be short on words, but it`s mighty long on the Truth of the matter.