Mrs. Hawkins is a strong woman working in publishing in the 1950s who dares to tell a celebrity writer that he is a “pisseur de copie,” with results hilarious and tragic.
I had so much fun reading A Far Cry From Kensington! Muriel Spark’s prose is lucid, witty, human, and incisive. There’s great humor and great depth, with characters that feel like old friends.
Mrs. Hawkins is so-called because she was a war widow who knew her husband for only a few days. Now, she’s voluminously overweight and seen as “capable.” Her weight and marital status allows her permission to transcend some societal norms, but she goes too far when she insults a wannabe writer with powerful friends. Despite the ramifications of her action, she never apologizes, and I never felt she needed to.
What I loved most about A Far Cry From Kensington was the peek inside England’s publishing industry in the 1950s, and how much it reminded me of how things still work today. In fact, this passage hit a little too close to home, out of my past as a professional reader:
Connie occupied the office next door to mine. She received the manuscripts of new authors, glanced at them, and, if they were fairly literate, sent them out to be reported on by readers who were mainly retired and indigent unmarried people who lived in the country, had a certain amount of education, were glad of the occupation and the extra money, and who were supposed to represent the average reader. Connie enjoyed a prolific correspondence with these readers. Their lengthy reports were generally gloomy, beginning with phrases like, ‘I’m afraid that The Cafe on the Corner is hardly a masterpiece…’ or ‘This novel is not to be recommended. The sordid element in it cannot be redeemed by the seriousness of the subject-matter.’ A synopsis of the story would follow at the undisciplined length of four or five pages. The end of the report would invariably be a paragraph of one sentence, put in for effect, such as: ‘No, and again, no, to your novel, Mr Travers,’ or ‘This author should definitely be rebuffed.’ These scornful missives were, however, enlivened for Connie by an accompanying letter informing her of the weather in Shropshire, the progress of the roses and geraniums, the nephews, the nieces and occasionally an ailing mother. Connie would reply to these pen-friends cheerily and at length, as soon as she had finished sending to the packing department the condemned manuscripts, with a rejection slip, there to be dispatched to their owners. God knows if any masterpieces were actually lost to the public through this means of selection. I wonder how many of the aspiring writers of those days still have in a drawer the leaf-eared typescripts that they sent to sea in a sieve.
I’ve written both those reports and those rejection letters, but am pretty sure that I did not overlook any masterpieces.