The terms 'Catholic writers' and 'women writers' were invented by critics to make their own lives easier, at the cost, no doubt, of making the lives of certain authors more exasperating. They are dangerous terms because they tempt us to lump writers like Muriel Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis together, especially when there are other alluring points of comparison, such as a characteristic tone which at first can seem no more than coolly ironic, and even - in these latest books - some clear similarities of plot (both novels touch on the predicaments of women who know they are about to be murdered). As it turns out, though, just about the only thing which Symposium and The Inn at the Edge of the World have in common is a readiness to be ceaselessly entertaining even when absorbed in the treatment of issues which are, for both authors, of the most deadly seriousness. If the contrasts in temperament and narrative method are what strike us first, it seems likely that these will finally boil down to a fundamental difference in the sense of what it means to be a Catholic: so this has to be addressed, however much we may feel - in Muriel Spark's case, anyway - that the field has already been ploughed pretty thoroughly.
LRB 13 September 1990 | PDF Download