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You are here: Books Monthly » Articles » The Jerry Dowlen Column »

Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam


Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives


Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam: merciless madams of deathly dark comedy.

The theme of old age and death becomes compelling to read about, when Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam apply their merciless black mirth to the topic.


Muriel Spark;
'Memento Mori' (1959)

I think it was a most remarkable achievement by Muriel Spark to write 'Memento Mori', her mischievous dark comedy of a novel, when she was aged only 41.

At that comparatively early stage of her life, how on earth had she gained such an astonishingly accurate grasp of the way that old people think and behave when the jaws of death draw fearfully close?

All of the main characters in 'Memento Mori' are aged in their eighties. Their lifestyles are significantly impaired by failing health: a regime of doctors and pills; erratic memory; disgusting personal hygiene; doddery legs; shaky hands that spill the contents of a teapot on to the tablecloth during a post-funeral wake.

And as regards selfishness and bad behaviour in old age, 'Memento Mori' paints a truly "warts and all" picture of the protagonists who engage in petty literary feuds or seek to diddle their relations out of family inheritances. 

Perhaps a Health Warning notice should be printed on the front cover of 'Memento Mori'? I don't mean that reading the book will damage your health! But I do mean that Ms Spark imparts to readers an unsparingly bleak prospect of the failing health that inevitably awaits us in old age. In the hospital ward her bedridden old women suffer the indignity of having the generic name "Granny" bestowed upon them all; a dragon of a ward sister rules their roost; the old ladies wail and scheme and bluster, but are helpless captives.

Muriel Spark explained that she first had conceived the idea of writing the story when she was a teenager, helping to mind her grandmother who had suffered a stroke. "Her new problems, created by her disabilities, made me acutely aware of old age."

What a triumph of Muriel Spark's aptitude and imagination as a writer, that she duly gifted us the marvellous 'Memento Mori'. It was her third published novel, and the first to earn her fame. Deservedly so, for in 'Memento Mori' she is as comic-tragic as a Shakespeare and as deft as an Agatha Christie in providing a surprise but satisfactory denouement to a tale that is, in Ms Spark's typically oddball style, a detective story at root.

Jane Gardam
'Old Filth' (2004)
'The Man in the Wooden Hat' (2009)
'Last Friends' (2013)

Jane Gardam's greatest literary triumph, her much-acclaimed 'Old Filth' trilogy of novels, has come to her long after she has reached her pensionable age.

She is aged in her mid-eighties now. So (how can I put this nicely?) she most likely has first-hand experience of the frustrations and longings of old age that she conveys so feelingly in her trilogy of stories.

We first meet her principal characters Sir Edward Feathers and Sir Terence Veneering when they are in advanced old age. Bitter rivals in their former profession of the law, they cannot stand the sight of each other. So imagine how mortified they are to find that in retirement they live next door to each other, in the same quiet village!

That touch of black comic irony from Jane Gardam could surely have occurred in a typical Muriel Spark story, too.

It is not the only example of Ms Gardam and Ms Spark sharing the same type of ingenuity and wit. Quite a harsh wit, too. Neither author makes apology for the frequency of characters being suddenly swiped out of her narrative, with the merest of throwaway brief mentions that a violent death has come to them.

Indeed, the respective Edward Feathers and Terence Veneering both pass away during the trilogy. Much of what we learn about them is conveyed in flashbacks, or in the reminisces of other characters. Foremost amongst these is the free-spirited Betty: husband to one of them and mistress manqué to the other.

And in keeping with Muriel Spark there is no sugary gloss from Jane Gardam on the horror of being old. There are near-death situations when her hapless pensioners carelessly become stranded in freezing winter weather. And the carer for two overweight and mostly housebound old ladies with leg ulcers should probably be labelled a not-carer: an impatient young girl of eastern European origin, a chain-smoker seen always with her mobile phone glued to her ear, she drives an expensive car and is too preoccupied to bother much with the ailments and discomforts of her patients. 
Hard-edged though both authors are, I'd say that Jane Gardam refracts old age through a softer lens, ultimately, than the relentless Muriel Spark. For there is a poignancy in the elements of late-flowering love, new-found respect, and roadway to redemption that Ms Gardam allows her characters to find as they move closer to Heaven's gate.

Jerry Dowlen
May 2014


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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