The importance of being ‘slender’ in 1940s Britain isn’t truly revealed until disaster strikes near the end of this novella, set between VE Day and VJ Day.
Apparently quite whimsical and frivolous, the story charts a few months in the lives of a small group of women living in a London hostel overseen by older unmarried women. In the days when women had limited economic independence or sexual freedom, the fat girl does ‘brain work’ – even her excessive eating is forgiven as ‘for my brain’ – while the slim girls share an exotic Schiaparelli designer taffeta dress for evenings out, their primary concern being how to find a man to help them escape the building by marriage.
However, a surprising plot twist reveals that the ‘slender means’ becomes important in more ways then one to escape the building when disaster strikes in the form of a previously unexploded bomb. It would be a plot spoiler to reveal any more.
This story seems at first quite quaint and dated in the 21st century and as a metaphor could probably only have been written in the 60s when women’s role and rights in society were changing, but in a celebrity-driven world of objectification and sex-based culture wars, it serves as a reminder of how short a time it has been since women won the independence we have now.
The Girls of Slender Means is a novella by Muriel Spark published in 1963 when she was 45 and I was 3.