Read Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent. Spark’s books are odd, though usually delightfully so. Loitering with Intent is high on the quirky index but has a well-thought-out structure that gives you the sense of more layers than meet the eye.
Fleur Talbot, one of Spark’s no-nonsense heroines, finds a secretarial job in post-war London working for the Autobiographical Association under the apparently benevolent dictatorship of Sir Quentin Oliver. The Association is a collection of eccentric characters whose nascent memoirs are in the possession of Sir Quentin (who “insists on complete frankness“). Fleur is quite comfortable polishing the memoirs as well as transcribing them:
Not only had I read Sir Quentin’s fabulous lists of Who was Who among them, but I had also read the first chapters of their pathetic memoirs, and through typing them up and emphatically touching them up I think I had begun to consider them inventions of my own, based on the original inventions of Sir Quentin. Now these people whose qualities he had built up to be distinguished, even to the last rarity, came into the study that calm and sunny October afternoon with evident trepidation.
Sir Quentin dashed and flitted around the room, arranging them in chairs and clucking, and occasionally introducing me to them. “Sir Eric—my new and I may say very reliable secretary Miss Talbot, no relation it appears to the branch of that family to which your dear wife belongs.”
Sir Eric was a small, timid man. He shook hands all round in a furtive way. I supposed rightly that he was the Sir Eric Findlay, K.B.E., a sugar-refining merchant whose memoirs, like the others, had not yet got further than Chapter I: Nursery Days. The main character was Nanny. I had livened it up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents’ absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver.
Fleur knows right away that she will have some disagreements with Sir Quentin’s housekeeper. Beryl, Mrs. Tims (according to Sir Quentin’s observation of the niceties), or Mrs. Beryl Tims, as she prefers, is protective of Sir Quentin, annoyed by his mother, Edwina, and rather hostile to Fleur. Fleur categorizes her as the English Rose type, which is apparently not a compliment.
In her spare time, Fleur is working on her novel, Warrender Chase. As the novel progresses, Fleur finds that its events are being reflected in the lives of the members of the Autobiographical Association. This sinister development goes along with a feeling that Sir Quentin, Beryl Tims and Dottie (the wife of Fleur’s sometime lover) are working together to prevent Warrender Chase from being published.
As a “woman and a writer in the twentieth century,” and a rather independent-thinking character, Fleur manages eventually to outwit them all and to become a published author.
The Bletchley Circle is a three-part series, made for ITV and airing in 2012. Again, it’s about women with minds of their own living in an era when there were fewer opportunities for them to flourish (none of the comedy of Loitering with Intent, though).
The four women of the Bletchley Circle were code breakers during the Second World War. After the war, they—in the main—returned to occupations more traditional for women. Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), the central character, becomes a full-time wife and mother. However, when a serial killer preys on women the group reunites to resurrect their dormant skills in an attempt to find the murderer. Each woman brings a particular quality. Susan is the main discerner of patterns; Lucy (Sophie Rundle) has photographic recall; Millie (Rachael Stirling) is the mathematical one, and Jean (Julie Graham) has connections and can obtain confidential information.
The emphasis on finding patterns makes sense and foreshadows the geographic profiling and psychological profiling used in police work today. Of course, Susan’s initial approach to the police with her findings is discouraging. Attitudes of the era could be very patronizing. The women have to take matters into their own hands and take risks before the killer is finally found.
Earnest Ice Cream (earnesticecream.com) is simply the best. I am currently enjoying Maple Walnut, Whisky Hazelnut, and Pumpkin Pie in rotation. The store is on Fraser Street in Vancouver at East 24th Avenue.