The Abbess of Crewe

Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018)
First published: 1974

Something crackles on the line. ‘Gertrude, are you there?’ says Alexandra. Something crackles, then Gertrude’s voice responds, ‘Sorry, I missed all that. I was tying my shoelace.’
The telephone then roars like a wild beast. ‘What’s going on, Gertrude?’ ‘The helicopter,’ Gertrude says, and hangs up.
‘I hear a bell at your end, Alexandra. I hear a lovable bell.’ ‘It’s the bell for Terce,’ Alexandra says. ‘Are you not home-sick, Gertrude, after your own kind?’ But Gertrude has rung off.
Gertrude’s voice goes faint as she replies, ‘No, [my views about the Holy See are] only for home consumption. Give them to the nuns. I’m afraid there is a snowstorm blowing up. Too much interference on the line…’
‘The Infant of Prague is already in the bank—Gertrude, are you there?’ ‘I didn’t catch that,’ says Gertrude. ‘I dropped a hair-pin and picked it up.’

Sister Alexandra wishes to be elected Abbess and enlists Sister Gertrude, a missionary nun based in remote and uncivilised locations, as her advisor. Their conversations are conducted via ‘the green line’—a scrambler telephone which purports to prevent undesired eavesdropping. Abbess Alexandra’s appeals for Gertrude’s immediate return to the convent are most often scrambled by Gertrude’s chronic bronchitis and her sudden hang-ups. At times, objects such as a helicopter and a bell, or even meteorological conditions such as a snowstorm, contribute to the disruption of their conversation. But the most remarkable interruptions are provided by Gertrude’s trivial distractions, which evidence her utter lack of care about Abbess Alexandra’s overly suspicious political scheming. Even when the green line succeeds in connecting the speakers, Gertrude’s advice is often bewildering and contradictory, requiring Abbess Alexandra’s interpretation. By allowing Gertrude’s petty concerns and her cryptic guidance to continuously scramble the green line, Spark satirises Abbess Alexandra’s equally inconsequential plotting, which resembles the Watergate scandal in its reflection of political paranoia rather than genuine concern.    

by Beatriz Lopez