Places: Memento Mori

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Memento MoriCapital city with many different areas determined by wealth and social position. For example, the successful novelist Charmian Colston and her husband, Godfrey, live in Vicarage Gardens, off Kensington Church Street. Godfrey’s sister Dame Lettie Colston, a pioneer penal reformer, has a house in Hampstead, where Lisa Brooke had a small brick studio house until her death. When the blackmailer Mrs. Mabel Pettigrew secures Lisa Brook’s inheritance, she moves to a hotel in South Kensington near Harrod’s department store. Alec Warner has a flat off St. James Street, and Guy Leet’s flat was in Hyde Park. Olive Mannering, parasitic granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering, lives in a basement flat in Tite Street in Chelsea.

Spark records complex interlacings among these characters–the sexual affairs, blackmail, literary debates, jealousies, quarrels, and gossip that are part of living in the city all their lives, apart from holidays abroad. The specified places indicate a close community in which everyone knows everyone else, and each person knows someone else’s dark secrets.

Removed from the group, but sometimes visited, is Jean Taylor, for many years Charmian’s companion, now confined to her bed at the Maud Long Medical Ward, part of a state hospital with limited amenities. A nice comparison is made when Charmian decides to go to an elegant private nursing home in Surrey, although both are Roman Catholics with a sense of detachment from the immediate present. Associated with the geriatrics, but distanced for several reasons, is Henry Mortimer, a retired police inspector, who has a home at Kingston-upon-Thames, outside London.

Supernatural world

Supernatural world. Unearthly realm that is represented by a voice that speaks to each member of the community of old people, most frequently by telephone. This is Spark’s brilliant modernization of the medieval convention of the coming of Death. In an age of scientific rationalism the disembodied voice from a telephone, a product of technology, evokes feelings of fear–or acceptance–that were familiar during the Middle Ages.

Closer to this older vision is Jean Taylor, whose own reminder of death (memento mori) is not a telephone caller but other elderly women waiting to die in her hospital ward. She is the first to identify the caller. While those in the flow of London are terrified, Taylor is detached, quietly analytical, pleased to be alone yet still caring of others. She is essentially a contemplative, closer to God than to other human beings. Knowing that the caller is Death does not disturb her, since she accepts Death as she accepts suffering, part of her devout Roman Catholic faith. Her belief is in sharp contrast to the scientific rationalism and agnosticism of Alex Warner, a sociologist who writes down details about his aging friends, who are of interest to him primarily as facts on his note cards.

BibliographyHynes, Joseph. The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark’s Novels. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1988. Examines the novel’s satirical portrayal of old age and the relationships between humor and religious themes.Kemp, Peter. Muriel Spark. London: Paul Elek, 1974. A thorough treatment of the novel’s characters and themes. Analyzes the responses of the major characters to the anonymous telephone caller’s message and examines the subtlety of the author’s depiction of old age.Page, Norman. Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. An excellent overview of the novel’s characters, plot, and themes. Compares the novel to others that have treated themes of aging. Considers the novel as a parody of the conventional detective story.Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Muriel Spark. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Analyzes characters and their relationships. Considers the conflicts of characters as part of tension between the earthly and the eternal, between human desires and God’s will. Provides a historical perspective on the remembrance of death since the Middle Ages.Whittaker, Ruth. The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. A concise survey. Examines the theme of religious faith and the supernatural. Considers Memento Mori as a pessimistic treatment of human failings that shows the redemptive power of faith in helping some of the characters to find meaning in their lives.
Categories: Places