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Call and Answer:
Muriel Spark and Media Culture

“Call and Answer: Muriel Spark and Media Culture” reads the telephone in Muriel Spark’s postwar novels Memento Mori (1959) and The Girls of Slender Means (1963) as an antagonistic medium that exposes a pervasive anxiety about communication and surveillance. The essay argues that reading Spark’s postwar novels through the lens of contemporary media culture gives us new purchase on her as a writer informed by machine age modernism, whose preoccupation with media demands that we also consider how her particular historical moment breeds a culture of surveillance that we are inextricably tethered to today.

In her essay “The First Year of My Life,” Muriel Spark reimagines scenes from her infancy in Edinburgh against the backdrop of the First World War. “My autobiography,” she remarks, “started in the very worst year that the world had ever seen” (37). In her signature comic style, Spark recalls the frustration of being “bedridden and toothless, unable to . . . utter anything but farmyard squawks or police-siren wails” in response to the “curious behavior” of the “two-legged mammals” who cared for her, whose relentless attempts to make her smile failed to amuse, prompting her to divert her attention elsewhere (37). The “elsewhere” to which Spark retreats is the unbounded space of her wireless, whose transmissions of violence and unrest marked her birth year, 1918, as the most destabilizing period in the history of the world. The myriad voices that Spark engages through the wireless mingle with the more familiar sights and sounds of her domestic space, creating a panoptic lens through which her identity begins to take shape, structured by the play between local and global events. Allied Forces Commander in Chief Marshal Foch’s offensive command—“Tout le monde à la bataille!”—echoes over the cough of her gassed uncle who sits in her living room, a gloomy reminder of the consequences of war (38). The wireless also keeps Spark tuned to the cultural conversations of the day, including those of the modernist movement: “I woke and tuned in to Bernard Shaw, who was telling someone to shut up. I switched over to Joseph Conrad, who . . . was saying precisely the same thing” (38). As an inhabitant of the ever-shifting landscapes of these wireless transmissions, Spark emerges [End Page 70] as a subject with international perspective, a global medium through which information is collected and channeled.1 More significantly, Spark positions herself as a product of the historical and technological transformations of machine age modernism, a movement whose preoccupation with and anxieties about media and mediated spaces anticipates the unstable landscape of our postmodern digital age.

Despite her impressive body of work, Muriel Spark has occupied a marginal place in literary history and scholarship. But in the wake of her death in 2006, a substantial increase in critical attention has been paid to the writer, including the publications of Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: A Biography, two edited volumes of criticism—Muriel Spark: Twenty-First Century Perspectives and The Edinburgh Companion to Muriel Spark—and the shortlisting of her 1970 novel The Driver’s Seat for the Lost Man Booker Prize.2 Belated critical reception of Spark’s work may be attributed to her self-proclaimed position as a “constitutional exile,” a writer born in Edinburgh but leaving at the age of nineteen to float between the continents of Africa, Europe, and North America (“Edinburgh-Born” 21). In her autobiographical essay “Edinburgh-Born,” Spark explains: “it was Edinburgh that bred within me the conditions of exiledom; and what have I been doing since then but moving from exile into exile?” (21). Spark’s resolved estrangement from her homeland is echoed in the “culturally peculiar and disembodied” voices within her novels, fostering her “strange” signature style that makes her novels “slippery or impenetrable” (Reizbaum 40). Untethered to a particular geographical, generic, or aesthetic location, Spark offers a unique versatility that demands the attention of contemporary scholars looking to recast and, in some cases, explode canonical boundaries.

As many of her recent critics suggest, Spark is not easily situated within the traditional literary camps of the mid-twentieth century. For example, Marina MacKay argues that “Spark’s focus on essentially ontological rather than cultural questions . . . makes her writing resistant to being read in relation to those questions of cultural reference more usually identified in Spark’s own time with the turn, after modernism, toward realist forms of fiction” (95). Examining treason as the central preoccupation of Spark’s work, MacKay locates Spark in a historically specific postwar context, arguing that her novels exhibit postmodern rather than realist concerns in their construction of “realities that are plural, contingent, provisional, and amenable to creative transformation” (110). While I share MacKay’s interest in the way Spark’s work reflects the instability of her particular postwar moment, I argue that her oeuvre cannot be read simply as a reflection of the postmodern turn. Rather, I look to extend MacKay’s reading of Spark to examine how her work engages contemporary discourses [End Page 71] on modernism, media, and modernity more broadly in order to position it as a product of an expanding media culture that poses both problems and possibilities for the modern subject.

While Spark’s work postdates literary modernism as it is historically understood, her novels expose a pervasive anxiety about the status of the individual in relation to the machine, as well as a palpable paranoia about surveillance, that positions her fiction within a modernist framework. In particular, Spark’s negotiation between generic and temporal spaces and her engagement with technological innovations of the twentieth century that allow for new and more global modes of communication to take shape make her ripe for examination within evolving scholarship in new modernist studies and global modernisms.3 It is productive to consider how we can benefit from the multidirectional expansion of modernist studies to include perspectives such as Spark’s that are not static but rather, in Mark Wollaeger’s words, “mobile and continuously provisional” (Introduction 5). For example, Spark’s first novel The Comforters features a writer-protagonist who is haunted by the “tap-tappity-tap” of an absent typewriter and a chorus of disembodied voices that narrate her thoughts and actions, causing her and those she confides in to question her sanity (43). More overtly focused on the surveillance culture of its time is Spark’s satirical treatment of President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal in The Abbess of Crewe, which is set in the confines of a nunnery.4 This novel examines the effects of surveillance systems on a collective psyche as the power-hungry Alexandra employs “eavesdropping devices” to maintain control over the other nuns in the Abbey and to ascertain allegiances in her campaign to become the new Abbess (16). “I see a difficulty,” one of the nuns observes on learning of Alexandra’s surveillance tactics, “They could object that telephone-tapping and bugging are not simply an extension of listening to hearsay and inviting confidences, the steaming open of letters and the regulation search of the novices’ closets. They might well say that we have entered a state where a difference of degree implies a difference in kind” (27). Spark’s articulation of how the introduction of technologies capable of recording and monitoring collective behavior and private conversations complicates the relationship between the state and its citizens—and in turn between public and private spaces—in The Abbess of Crewe is present throughout her body of work. In her examination of how both individuals and communities contend with the increasing ubiquity of communication technologies, Spark engages a rising media ecology that extends into our contemporary moment, making visible the ways modernist concerns maintain their relevance in the twenty-first century. [End Page 72]

Situating her characters within media-infused climates, Spark considers both the limits and possibilities of what Mark Goble refers to as the “mediated life,” which he identifies as “a historical phenomenon, as central to the early twentieth century as to a later culture of new media” (11). While critics to date have largely ignored Spark’s interrogation of media and mediated spaces,5 I argue that what is crucial in reading Spark now is to recognize how her work responds to global anxieties about the power and pervasiveness of our media culture, a culture that, like Spark herself, is born out of the modernist moment and anticipates the way we live today: as mediated subjects in a mediated world. Spark’s consistent use of the “languages of the new information age,” which emerge in her novels through the presence of interrelated media channels such as the press, the wireless, and the telephone, mobilizes and reframes discourses of modernism, modernity, and surveillance culture for her postwar audience (Wollaeger, Modernism xiii). Spark’s novels motivate debates about privacy, institutionalized surveillance, and national security as they consider how local and global communities are constituted and threatened by the technologies they keep. Finally, Spark’s diagnosis of the mediated life as a consequence of modernity, vis-à-vis characters whose dependence on media threatens to uproot them from their social and historical communities, articulates the paranoia instantiated by surveillance tactics that provoke questions about safety and security on a global scale.

Crossing Lines: Muriel Spark on the Telephone

While Spark embraces media as a means of accessing a more global perspective of the world, she simultaneously demonstrates the ways in which media troubles the truth of that perspective. This recurring tension in her work is informed by her own participation in the manipulation of truth through media during the Second World War. In 1944, Spark moved to London to “experience the war” and found herself working for Sefton Delmer, a master of Allied “black propaganda” (Curriculum 137).6 Officially positioned as a Duty Secretary in the Political Intelligence department of the Foreign Office, Spark’s work included sitting at a “green-painted telephone” (147) called the “scrambler” to record secure information about bombing locations from crews of Allied bombers. Spark explains that “a continual jangling noise made interception difficult. One learned to listen ‘ through’ the jangle.” The details Spark picked up amid the noise of the scrambled lines were used to craft anti-Nazi propaganda to disseminate over the wireless to German audiences. Spark describes [End Page 73] these reports as offering “detailed truth with believable lies” (143), a characterization yoked to Spark’s notion of her work as “fiction, out of which a kind of truth emerges . . . an imaginative extension of the truth” (Spark, “Muriel” 30). In “The First Year of My Life,” Spark’s wireless offers up reports from the Western Front where “one got the true state of affairs” (38). These wireless transmissions frame—but also fragment—Spark’s understanding of the modern condition by feeding it to her in mediated doses. This characterization can also be used to describe the tension produced by media in her work. On the one hand, the wireless allows Spark to engage a community beyond her home, to become part of a virtual network bound by the shared experience of listening in, opening up new spaces for her to explore. On the other hand, the static and interference on this wireless network, articulated through the interplay of voices over the airwaves, marks her experience as unstable, threatening the security of her subject position.

The concepts of safety and security in the mediated world are central to Spark’s work and specifically to the novels she produces immediately following the Second World War. Martin McQuillan argues that “the history of Spark’s writing is the history of post-war literature in English; it is indissociable from the history of post-war thought and the ‘ postmodern’ opening” (7). Lisa Harrison argues that Spark should be read as a cosmopolitan writer with tremendous insight into the postwar period, evidenced through her regular contributions to the New Yorker (40). A survey of the Times of London Digital Archives from 1945–65 yields over four hundred articles dealing with crossed lines and international wiretapping scandals.7 Writing during this period of increased surveillance, Spark reveals a preoccupation with privacy violations that reflects the reports emerging out of the Times. Haunted by disembodied voices, terrorized by anonymous callers, and subjected to twenty-four-hour surveillance, Spark’s characters are suspicious, untrustworthy, and cunning; they are representatives of a public in crisis attempting to adapt to its unstable conditions.

MacKay argues persuasively that the “treasonous” acts that enter the local communities of Spark’s postwar fiction allow us to read her work through a historical lens, rather than through the more common “theological and ethical preoccupations” favored by her contemporaries (95).8 As a reflection of the war-torn climate out of which it emerges, Spark’s novels invite us to consider how seemingly “self-contained” spaces “intersect with and model the wider community of the nation-state” (101). While MacKay is interested in human acts of betrayal, I focus on the communication technologies that serve as recorders of and accomplices to those acts of violence that expose a world “ripe for betrayal from within” (101). Specifically, [End Page 74] Spark’s invocation of the telephone as an antagonistic medium in Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means articulates the instability of the networks that give shape to the modern world, favoring dissonance over coherence and tapping into an inherent threat that emerges alongside technological breakthroughs and innovations. The incessant ring of the telephone in these two novels is representative of larger systems of power making themselves heard within her time and place. Spark’s telephone introduces incoherence into these systems by instituting breaks, ruptures, and static—or technical difficulties—that simultaneously mobilize the narratives and mark their networks as always already insecure.

Death by Telephone

It should come as no surprise that Muriel Spark was an admirer of the work of French artist and dramatist Jean Cocteau.9 Like Spark’s, Cocteau’s engagement with media, from newspapers and glossies to the telephone and the cinema, articulates an awareness of the ubiquity of media in the twentieth century, positioning technology as inextricable not only from the experience of modernity but also from our human experience. Cocteau’s 1930 play The Human Voice (La voix humaine) establishes a framework for reading Spark’s employment of the telephone in Memento Mori as an antagonistic medium of surveillance and betrayal, aligning her work with a distinctly modernist perspective on technology. The call in The Human Voice exposes the fantasy of intimacy that the telephone purports to facilitate while inviting its audience to witness how quickly that intimacy can disappear—with damaging effects. Goble’s invitation to think more about our “love” of media and the “relationships made possible by technology” is useful here as it asks us to see “the complex ways technologies seem to vanish as they become more incorporated into our lives and as we come to assume their inevitable presence” (13). While the telephonic exchange in The Human Voice purports to stage a “love affair” with the telephone, the failure of the device to maintain its connection destroys that illusion by exposing an irreconcilable gap between caller and receiver.

Positioning disconnection as a kind of death, Cocteau’s protagonist desperately clings to her telephone in anticipation of a call from her ex-lover who has recently cut her loose. “If you hadn’t phoned I would have died,” she breathes into the receiver, “this thin wire is the last thing that links us” (Human Voice).10 The details of the woman’s affair and subsequent break up with her lover are muddled as the audience is only given access to the woman’s side of the conversation. [End Page 75] The call is constantly interrupted by a series of bad connections, crossed wires, and operator interference. The woman despairs as she is repeatedly cut off from her lover, the silence broken only by a ticking clock that reminds the audience that her time is running out. Toward the end of the play, the woman recounts a dream in which the telephone finally betrays her: “I knew you would give me a ring. . . . But it became a different kind of ring. The wring of the neck that strangles you.” As the woman speaks, she winds the telephone cord around her neck. Suddenly, the telephone is no longer an ally but an accomplice to her death: a strange bedfellow that becomes “a terrifying weapon—noiseless and leaving no trace.” The frequent calls placed between the ex-lovers over the course of The Human Voice open up temporary lifelines for the woman who engages them, allowing her to hold onto a fantasy of connection that proves impossible. The play ends with a dropped call as the receiver falls to the floor and the woman’s words—“je t’aime . . . je t’aime . . . je t’aime”—fall on deaf ears. Steven Connor argues that the telephone is historically figured as a “deaf” instrument, a medium “insensible of the messages it [carries]” and without any agency of its own (358). But Cocteau’s protagonist continuously grants agency to the telephone as it allows her to perpetuate her love affair and drive the narrative forward. Spark’s Memento Mori echoes Cocteau’s reading of the telephone as an agent of death as its incessant ringing produces an epistemological crisis from which the characters cannot recover.

Set in London in the late 1950s, Memento Mori follows the lives of a group of elderly people stalked by an anonymous caller. The novel opens in the home of Dame Lettie Colston, who is seated at her writing desk when she receives a mysterious call. Before she has the chance to speak, her caller imparts the following message: “Remember you must die” (9). This line has a familiar ring to it: Dame Lettie has received this call before. In fact, she has received the call on “eight previous occasions,” prompting her to involve the police. While at first Dame Lettie regards the call as “merely a disturbance,” this disturbance quickly turns “sinister” (11). She begins to receive these calls in the homes of her family and friends. The persistence of the caller eventually forces Dame Lettie to view the call as a threat: anticipating that the caller will not stop pursuing her unless he is caught, she declares her case open.

In their attempts to close the case and identify the source of the call, the characters in Memento Mori expose a desire for knowledge that the voice—in its dislocated presence over the telephone lines—articulates as impossible. Dame Lettie’s fixation on answering the unanswerable question, “Who is that speaking, who is it?” obscures her consideration of the message it delivers (9). Dame [End Page 76] Lettie’s refusal to take seriously the caller’s message, stating “I do not wish to be advised how to think” (39), is a refusal to come to terms with the conditions of the world she inhabits. Her insistence on finding the caller is an attempt to regain control within a system that is (and always has been) beyond her control. Allan Pero argues that “although Dame Lettie is hysterically resisting the voice’s claim to power . . . she cannot simply ignore or even, as Mortimer suggests, find solace in the calls” (195). Lettie’s resistance to answering the call by acknowledging its message eventually leads to her death.

In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell reads the call as both a philosophical and historical phenomenon tethered to the death sentence: the telephone, she argues, is the medium through which “calls for execution were made” (6). Ronell states that “one need only consult the literatures trying to contain the telephone in order to recognize the persistent trigger of the apocalyptic call. It turns on you: it’s the gun pointed at your head.”11 Spark’s Dame Lettie eventually comes to view the telephone as an enemy whose ring promises access to knowledge that it continuously withholds. The call, then, bears within it a trace of something lost, abandoned, or repressed: the ghost of a past (or, in Lettie’s case, a future) that haunts her. That the telephone is haunted is a popular conclusion drawn by early readers of the text: many of Spark’s critics agree with Chief Inspector Mortimer’s theoretical assessment that “the offender is Death himself” (144).12 Spark’s critics are caught in the same web as her characters as they struggle to achieve closure. Such closure, Spark assures us, is not possible. The failure of the victims to produce a coherent description of the voice over the telephone (Dame Lettie identifies the voice as “quite cultured” while her brother Godfrey insists that the caller is “a common chap” or “barrow boy” [101]) thwarts the police investigation, offering them no significant leads. The circulation of the message to other characters in the novel produces a chain reaction that further articulates the uncontainability of the voice on the end of the line, a voice that by the end of the novel has gone viral. The local newspaper reports, “the net is spreading wider” (143).

Positioning the telephone as a viral medium has historical grounding. During the immediate postwar period in London the Times reported, on an almost weekly basis, dangerous conditions for telephone users, including acoustic shocks, hoax calls, and murders occurring within telephone kiosks.13 In a 1949 article published in the hygiene section of the Times, the telephone is described as a potential threat to national health. A sudden rise in reports of airborne illnesses prompted Londoners to look with paranoid eyes to the familiar spaces they inhabited in search of a culprit. The report reads, “At a time when the public is informed of further attempts to ‘isolate’ the common [End Page 77] cold, and when insistence on hygiene is apparent, the telephone is suspected by many people of being a carrier of infection. There has been publicity to improve behaviour in vehicles and shops, to reduce the risk, but no comparable advice, how to protect the public call-box” (“Telephone Hygiene” G3). A recognizable fixture in London’s cosmopolitan landscape, the iconic bright red call box brings the act of calling into public view while maintaining an illusion of privacy about it: inside the phone booth, one is safe to speak freely to his or her interlocutor. But public access to the telephone also opens up channels of communication to a wider community of callers that is nearly impossible to trace. Messages transmitted through the call box, like the callers who enter and exit, can never be fully protected. Recognizing the potential failure to determine who or what is entering the system at any given time introduces a threat of contamination that Spark’s novel exhibits through the persistence of the anonymous caller, a threat that persists into the digital age as our communication devices become even more ubiquitous and difficult to trace.

The problem of security is the primary source of anxiety for the characters in Memento Mori. Infiltrating the private spaces of Dame Lettie’s home and those of her acquaintances, the caller is the contaminant in the novelistic system that cannot be stopped, which invites us to witness the limitations of security within the telephonic system that governs it. Under the pretense of escaping the caller, Charmian Colston checks herself into a nursing home, declaring, “I must be protected from the sight of the telephone” (168). But once settled into her new home, Charmian reveals that she has not been able to free herself of the caller: “The civil young man had vaguely assumed in her mind the shape of a telephone receiver. At home he had been black; here he was white” (188). Charmian articulates the inescapability of the call by locating the caller in another time and place, reinforcing the insecurity of the network to which the characters are bound. McQuillan argues that “the use of the insular community as a setting for [Memento Mori] allows Spark to comment on the inadequacies of closure as a totalizing trope in literary and social narrative” (18). While the novel attempts to protect itself from the outside by keeping its characters in, such enclosure proves impossible by the open question of the call. The message—“Remember you must die”—thrusts the listener out of her safety net, forcing her to reflect on what is happening beyond the security of her home while simultaneously exposing any notion of security as an illusion. The call, then, announces the systematic breakdown of the text itself, which in turn reflects the possibility of larger breakdowns in our global communications systems. [End Page 78]

Spark’s diagnosis of media and its effects on the public at large is finally delivered through Dame Lettie’s paranoid condition. After confiding in Jean Taylor that the anonymous phone calls have caused her much distress, Dame Lettie acknowledges that she is nevertheless reluctant to stop answering the telephone, articulating a feeling of entrapment reminiscent of Cocteau’s protagonist who says that she is “holding on to [the line] for dear life” (Human Voice). Dame Lettie explains, “one cannot be cut off perpetually. . . . I am not entirely a back number, Taylor. One must be on the phone” (38). Being “on the phone” allows Dame Lettie to maintain her status within the community and, ironically, to declare her relevance in the modern world. Lettie’s insistence on being on the phone reveals a desire for belonging that she suggests one cannot live without. In an article from the Times, published in 1951, a correspondent reveals a similar understanding of the consequences of not being connected. She writes, “No-one seems to make an appointment nowadays except by telephone, and the query when I want to be kept in touch is not ‘what’s your address?’ but ‘what’s your number?’ It’s humiliating, to say the least, to confess I haven’t one” (“We Must Have” B9). For both the columnist and Dame Lettie, not being on the telephone is an act of social suicide. And so Memento Mori taps into the idea that as Britain becomes increasingly “telephone-minded” the telephone becomes the very system through which communities are fostered and sustained and by which an individual determines his or her place in the ever-modernizing world (“Telephone Link” 9).

In her own life, Spark expressed a dislike for the telephone and often preferred to keep hers disconnected.14 But Memento Mori suggests that such disconnection from the mediated world is impossible. By the end of the novel, Dame Lettie has lost control of her faculties. Her housekeeper abandons her on those grounds, gossiping about “how the mad dame would go round the house, poking into all the cupboards and corners, and the garden. . . . And she wouldn’t let me tell the police. . . . She doesn’t trust the police” (179). Eventually, Lettie is forced to cut herself off: she disconnects her phone services in an attempt to escape the call. Despite being cut off, Lettie is not off the hook. Word gets around that the wealthy woman has lost faith in the police and her house falls under criminal surveillance, leading to a home invasion in which she meets her violent end, beaten to death by an intruder with the blunt end of her walking stick. While the police find no connection between the murder and the anonymous phone calls she once received, the crime reinforces the inescapability of the caller’s message: “Remember you must die.”

Through the proliferation of calls that yield few answers, the telephonic network of Memento Mori prescribes an unstable future [End Page 79] for the modern subject in the postwar world. This instability is reinforced in The Girls of Slender Means as Spark’s telephone continues to create disturbances. Rather than instantiating epistemological gaps in the narrative, as they do in Memento Mori, the telephone calls in Girls produce a temporal divide that forces the reader to negotiate between two different diegetic spaces: the first, grounded firmly in a particular historical moment (London, between V-E Day and V-J Day, 1945) and the other unfixed and entering from somewhere in the not-so-distant future. The Girls of Slender Means, then, prompts our continued surveillance of the call as a destabilizing trope in Spark’s oeuvre that articulates anxieties about our increasing dependence on media and the effects of the mediated life.

“Long Ago in 1945”

To examine how The Girls of Slender Means extends our reading of the telephone in Memento Mori, we must first understand how the novel is structured and, in turn, deconstructed by the calls within it. Girls opens in London in the immediate wake of Victory in Europe Day. Spark’s narrator positions the novel in a fairy-tale past: “Long ago in 1945,” she tells us, “all the nice people in England were poor” (7). The narrative follows a group of young women living inside the May of Teck Club, a building commissioned for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” (9). The community of the Club appears sheltered from the realities of war. Spark’s narrator wittily observes that the girls inside “were as far removed from the small fact of time as weightless occupants of a space-rocket” (118). As the girls “[glance] out of the windows in the early mornings” (9), they imagine themselves impervious to the “brutal and disillusioning” space that surrounds them (Parrinder 80). Their windows—like those of the London phone booth—seal in the fantasy of stability and coherence as they are continuously replaced with “new glass,” articulating the Club’s resilience in times of crisis (8). This resilience, however, is finally tested and fails when the explosion of a rogue bomb—a remnant of an attack on the city dating back to 1942—reveals the looseness of the Club’s foundations. As the building crumbles to the ground with elocutionist Joanna Childe within it, the May of Teck Club becomes nothing more than “a high heap of rubble” (130), fading into the “familiar ruins of the neighbourhood” (136). The physical collapse of the Club also signifies something remarkable about its insides: its destruction exposes a “savagery” about both the girls and the postwar period they live in (9), a savagery that comes to be felt in the perpetual intrusion of the telephone whose calls reveal the cracks in the club’s facade. [End Page 80]

The May of Teck Club provides a lens through which to read the convergence between the public and private spaces of Spark’s novel, a convergence marked by the call that articulates the tension between inside and outside, between the domestic and insular world of the club and the war-torn landscape of London. The telephone calls that puncture the 1945 narrative of The Girls of Slender Means interfere with the “normally functioning text” and turn it into a mediated one, reconfiguring the way the reader experiences the novel (Ronell xv). Just as we are becoming acclimated to the narrator’s nostalgic setting, the telephone rings and the voice of Jane Wright, a May of Teck Club resident, cuts in: “I’ve got something to tell you,” she says (9). The “something” Jane has to report is that Nicholas Farringdon, an anarchist-turned-missionary who occupies the position of the foreign Other in the text, has died. Unlike the call in Memento Mori that asks for the universal recognition of the fact of death, the call in The Girls of Slender Means is preoccupied with one death in particular—but the particular circumstances of that death are perpetually refused. The seven calls that break into the 1945 narrative to report the news of Nicholas’s death are met with technical difficulties: rotten lines and disconnections thwart Jane Wright’s attempts to gather and disseminate the facts of the case. The pattern of call and answer that structures The Girls of Slender Means forces the reader to move back and forth between the narrative present and an undisclosed future, marked by the fragments of conversations taking place over the telephone. The double narrative produced out of this series of calls is bound only by the cast of characters that constitute its shared network, a network tethered to the May of Teck Club’s tragic history.

Through his death and subsequent resurrection in the reports that circulate over the wires of the novel’s telegraphic and telephonic networks, Nicholas Farringdon emerges as one of three figures in the novel whose relation to the call articulates a transformative potential. Along with Jane Wright and Joanna Childe—who respectively make up the brains and the beauty of the May of Teck Club—Nicholas occupies a privileged space in the text: he is someone who, by the end of the novel, will find himself pursuing an unexpected calling. Introduced as a man who is “not yet known or as yet at all likely to be,” Nicholas’s place in the 1945 narrative is that of the outsider (20). “He’s a foreigner,” Jane tells the others at the Club (37), defending him to those who find his elusiveness suspicious. This characterization positions Nicholas as “the instrumental Other; as a hitch or scrambling device lodged within the . . . calling apparatus” (Ronell 50). It follows that Nicholas’s loyalties are also suspect: the narrator notes that “he was known only as a poet of small talent and an anarchist of dubious loyalty to that cause” (40). Nicholas’s intrusion into the 1945 narrative [End Page 81] as the Other who infiltrates the May of Teck Club through his love affair with one of the girls is echoed by his death in the future narrative of the call. His conversion and subsequent missionary work prove his death sentence, linking his spiritual calling to the novel’s counternarrative.

The call registers on two levels in Girls as we learn that Nicholas’s death occurred while he was fulfilling a spiritual calling, a calling inextricably linked to the events of 1945. Joining the horde of people on the streets coming out to celebrate the Allied Victory over Japan at the end of the narrative, Nicholas becomes the sole witness to a random act of violence: he sees a seaman “[slide] a knife silently between the ribs of a woman who was with him” (141). Nicholas’s attempts to stop the attacker and call attention to the victim are thwarted by the “general pandemonium” of the celebration: his cries for help are ignored, absorbed into the noise of London citizens singing and cheering for their “glorious victory” (142). This chaotic scene contributes to the sense of disillusionment in the novel exposed by the May of Teck Club’s collapse. Nicholas’s sudden recognition of the violence of his time leads him to abandon his writing aspirations—as well as his atheism—and join the mission to Haiti where he eventually dies. In the final call of the novel, Jane connects Nicholas’s death to the events of 1945, stating, “he’s got a note in his manuscript that a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good” (140).15 The call, then, comes to be read as a metaphor for transfiguration, which speaks as much to the characters within the novel and it does to the climate in which they reside.

Nicholas’s textual reconfiguration as the ghost in Spark’s novelistic machine is a symptom of the mediated life: the call announcing his death produces a shock that jolts readers out of the fantasy space of the May of Teck Club and forces a confrontation with the world outside its windows. As the novel’s primary caller, Jane Wright brings the future to bear on the past by circulating the call to members of her shattered community. Jane’s question—“Do you remember Nicholas Farringdon?” (10)—prompts a look back to the 1945 narrative, a return that gives way to a sequence of calls and answers reminiscent of the haunting call in Memento Mori, which also asks for remembrance. In this way, Jane produces a breakdown in Spark’s machine, operating as a medium through which information is—or in this case, is not—transmitted.

Jane is not completely to blame for the difficulties that intervene in her reporting of Nicholas’s death: other media sources play a part in this breakdown of communication as they prove themselves to be unreliable, offering mere fragments of the story that are met with resistance and fraught with speculation. Unlike the calls in Memento Mori, [End Page 82] which always include the same command, Jane’s calls are burdened by mixed messages and scrambled signals. In one exchange between Jane and Rudi, static on the line makes for a bad connection. Rudi’s request to know precisely how Nicholas has died is repeatedly denied:

“How has he died, by the way?” said Rudi.

“He was martyred, they say,” said Jane.

“In Haiti? How is this?”

“I don’t know much, except what I get from the news sources. Reuters says a local rising. Associated News has a bit that’s just come in . . . I was thinking of that manuscript The Sabbath Notebooks.”

“I have it still. If he is famous by his death, I find it. How has he died. . . ?”

“I can’t hear you, it’s a rotten line. . . .

“I say I can’t hear, Rudi. . . .”

“How has he died . . . By what means?”

“It will be worth a lot of money, Rudi.”

“I find it. This line is bad by the way, can you hear me? How has he died. . . ?”

“. . . a hut . . .”

“I can’t hear. . . .”

“ . . . in a valley . . .”

“Speak loud.”


Jane’s initial answer to Rudi’s question—that Nicholas was “martyred in Haiti” where he had gone to carry out missionary work—is not enough to satisfy him. Rudi continues to press her on the issue by repeating the question: “How has he died . . . ?” This repetition signals the breakdown in communication reinforced by the breaking up of the text, ruptures that are made visible through the proliferation of ellipses that stand in for the lost information. These holes in the narrative reflect the failure of the medium to deliver the message.

The broken conversation between Jane and Rudi confirms Nicholas’s first impression of Jane as “a speaking machine . . . gone wrong” (41). The self-proclaimed “smarty-pants” of the novel, Jane is constantly asking the other girls to tone down their voices or turn down the wireless so that she can commence her “brain-work” (35). Spark’s narrator, however, paints quite a different picture of Jane, as she projects a future for the young girl that suggests that her prowess as an intellectual is misconstrued. The narrator states, “It was not till Jane had reached the apex of her career as a reporter and interviewer for the largest of women’s journals that she found her right role in life, while still incorrectly subscribing to a belief that [End Page 83] she was capable of thought” (72). Jane’s role as a gossip columnist binds her to the world of information, but Jane’s actual work is aligned with fiction rather than facts. In her role as a gossip, Jane becomes little more than a switchboard operator through which information passes from the inside to the outside, a channel that connects the past to the future-present. Jane’s relation to the telephone is strictly an operational one: she is the medium that provides the support to keep the system running.

Nicholas’s image of Jane on the eve of V-J Day further establishes her position as the structuring force of the novel: “Nicholas marvelled at [Jane’s] stamina,” the narrator observes, “recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death—how she stood, sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass, occupied with her hair—as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty, long ago in 1945” (142). Amid the “general pandemonium” of the novel’s final scene, Jane emerges as a fixed presence, unaffected by the violence that surrounds her (140). Nicholas is struck by her immovability in the face of all of this chaos as he finds himself radically altered by this experience, anticipating his impending death in a foreign space: Haiti, a nation still plagued by violence and revolution.16 Jane, as the unremitting caller of Girls, becomes the last woman standing, her “stamina” reflected by the insistence of her calls that haunt the narrative beyond its end.

The image of Jane Wright in the novel’s final moment of reckoning recalls that of another May of Teck Club member: the elocutionist Joanna Childe. Joanna’s “immovable attitude” in the 1945 narrative positions her, like Jane, as a mediating presence in the novel (87). But unlike Jane, whose gossip produces interference rather than coherence, Joanna insists on a formulaic clarity in her elocution. Grounding herself firmly within a Western literary tradition through recitations of biblical verses and Romantic poetry, Joanna becomes a spiritual and cultural medium. Like Spark’s wireless, she channels voices across time and space—from the Book of Common Prayer to St. Paul, William Shakespeare to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Samuel Coleridge to Edgar Allan Poe—in an effort to both preserve and resurrect the language of the past in the present. Joanna’s powerful voice “[adds] tone and style to the establishment”; as a mode of media, her verse repertory fashions her into an idol for the Club (11). For Nicholas, Joanna’s presence maintains the “frozen image” (86) of the May of Teck Club as she becomes “a proclaiming statue in his mind” (87). The narrator remarks that “the club was proud of Joanna Childe, not only because she . . . recited poetry, but because she was so well built, fair and healthy looking, the poetic essence of tall, fair rectors’ daughters who never used a scrap of make-up . . . and who never [End Page 84] wept that anyone knew or could imagine, being stoical by nature” (22). Joanna’s physical and mental strength position her as a stable figure whose purity of voice is a source of communal pride and collective agency. But as the ringing of Spark’s telephone reminds us, Joanna’s place within the novel is insecure: she is bound to a time and a tradition that is unsustainable in the altered landscape of 1945.

Over the course of the novel, Joanna comes to represent the failure of the May of Teck Club to maintain its relevance in the postwar world, a world that is becoming increasingly mediated. This failure is made visible toward the end of the novel as Joanna’s living voice competes with that of its mechanical other: a voice over the wireless that exhibits a commanding presence that counters Joanna’s anchoring force, pitting the material body against the unmooring nature of the machine and its immaterial networks. The voice that intrudes on this scene and interrupts Joanna’s practiced elocution is that of Winston Churchill. As the girls listen in to the broadcast from different rooms of the house, Joanna’s voice is temporarily silenced; the outside exerts its force from within:

Everyone was gathered somewhere else, in the drawing-room or in the bedrooms, sitting round wireless sets, tuning in to some special programme. Then one wireless, and another, roared forth louder by far than usual from the upper floors; others tuned in to the chorus, justified in the din by the voice of Winston Churchill. Joanna ceased. The wirelesses spoke forth their simultaneous Sinaitic predictions of what fate would befall the freedom-loving electorate should it vote for Labour in the forthcoming elections. The wirelesses suddenly started to reason humbly:

We shall have Civil Servants. . . . The wirelesses changed their tones, they roared:

No longer civil. . . . Then they were sad and slow:

No longer . . .

. . . servants.

Nicholas imagined Joanna standing by her bed, put out of business as it were, but listening, drawing it into her bloodstream. As in a dream of his own that depicted a dream of hers, he thought of Joanna in this immovable attitude, given up to the cadences of the wireless as if it did not matter what was producing them, the politician or herself.


The juxtaposition of Joanna’s “live” recitation lesson with Churchill’s famous anti-Labour Party speech before the 1945 electoral vote reinstates [End Page 85] the tension between the local and the global that the novel has thus far sustained through the telephone. Churchill’s sudden appearance in the narrative as a symbol of the changing state of the nation forces us to consider what is at stake in this transitional period. The wirelesses—in their united front—begin to take on human qualities: their shifting tones and humble reasoning seduce the community of listeners, and Joanna in particular, into a trancelike state. As Joanna gives herself up to the “cadences of the wireless,” her voice becomes indistinguishable from that of the machine (87). The convergence of Joanna’s living voice with Churchill’s mechanical one marks a transition in the text as the mechanical outside begins to take control of its internal narrative. The consequences of war weigh heavily on the claustrophobic interior of the May of Teck Club. Joanna’s death in the fire that destroys the club and scatters its inhabitants across the world exposes the illusion of impenetrability that the May of Teck Club perpetually attempts to uphold.

At the end of the 1945 narrative, as the remains of the Club’s foundation collapses on top of her, Joanna’s voice finally loses its fullness and becomes machinelike, channeling the play of call and answer executed by Jane in the future narrative by repeating the “responses and answers” of the evening psalter of Day 27 (126). As Joanna “[circles] round, vaguely wobbling, like a top near the end of its spin” she stops to cough, “her voice . . . weakened” by the smoke building up inside the club (129). The transfiguration of Joanna’s voice from human to machine, complete with its static and interference, is reinforced by the industrial sounds of catastrophe—“of smouldering wood and plaster in the lower part of the house, and, above, the clamour and falling bricks of the rescue work” (130)—that puncture her recitation until they eventually consume her, marking her violent end. Joanna’s voice cannot be recovered by the text and her presence is eventually erased from the narrative altogether as Nicholas learns that the recording of her last performance, a recitation of Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” has been unapologetically “wiped out” (132).

Muriel Spark in the Twenty-First Century

While it is important to read Muriel Spark’s novels as responses to the unstable climate of the postwar period in which she lived, reading Spark in the twenty-first century demands that we also consider how that particular historical moment breeds the media culture that we are inextricably tethered to today. I have argued that Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means expose both the problems and the possibilities of technological advances of the twentieth century [End Page 86] through their engagement with the telephone and telephonic networks; the technical difficulties that emerge between the lines of these novels are symptomatic of the destabilization of the political and cultural landscapes of postwar Britain. But I conclude with the claim that the technical difficulties experienced by Spark’s characters and, in turn, her readers, must also be read as representative of a global shift in how systems of power and surveillance are perceived and expand over time, as these systems continue to reveal themselves through the technologies that we employ in our daily lives. Read through the lens of this growing media culture, Spark’s disembodied voices, crossed lines, connections, and disconnections become representative of the difficulties encountered by everyday citizens in a world increasingly governed by the machines of modernism in updated forms.

In a 2007 Reuters article, Luke Baker positions twenty-first-century Britain as a surveillance culture infused with a healthy dose of paranoia: “one way or another Britons know they are being watched. All the time. Everywhere.” A 2011 study estimated that there are 1.85 million surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom, which “translates to one camera for every 32 . . . citizens” (Lewis). In 2012, the London Olympic Games intensified London’s reputation for surveillance by bringing international attention to the availability and pervasiveness of advanced technologies intended to monitor public behavior to ensure the safety of its visitors. Stephen Graham of the Guardian reported that London was “wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints . . . that intensif[ied a] sense of lockdown” within the city. Surveillance in Britain has become an institutional fact: the presence of cameras is embraced by the public in the interest of national security. But on a more global scale, increased surveillance, regardless of its purpose, is not always received with open arms. Rather, it is viewed with suspicion and distrust, motivated by a claim reminiscent of the one Nicholas Farringdon makes as he witnesses the collapse of the May of Teck Club: “Nowhere’s safe” (125).

While many people see the rise of surveillance societies in the twenty-first century as symptomatic of anxieties instantiated by large-scale global events such as war, genocide, and terrorism—most notably events that occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001—David Murakami Wood of the Surveillance Studies Network argues that surveillance culture cannot be attributed to a single event. Rather, it must be viewed in its broader context: “surveillance society has come about almost without us realizing. With technologies that are large scale, taken for [End Page 87] granted and often invisible, surveillance is increasingly everywhere” (qtd. in Ford 6). I argue that Wood’s assessment that the ubiquity of technology in our globalizing world allows for surveillance societies to exist “everywhere” is also Spark’s. Her body of work engages contemporary debates about the extent to which communication and surveillance technologies—from the wireless to the telephone to the tape recorder and the camera—can protect its citizens from harm. Through its presentation of media that are inherently unstable, that breed discomfort through disembodiment and difficulty, and that expose institutionalized methods of control, Spark’s work charges us to see ourselves as media subjects in a mediated world as it posits the theory that any sense of security in this world is a false one, exposing our reportedly closed systems as always already open to rupture.

Amy Woodbury Tease

AMY WOODBURY TEASE <awtease@norwich.edu> is Assistant Professor of English at Norwich University, where she teaches courses on modernism, contemporary British fiction, world literature, film, and media culture and serves as the Undergraduate Research Program Director. Among her work in progress is a monograph entitled Postwar Modernisms and the Rise of Surveillance Culture and an article examining capital punishment and surveillance technologies in the BBC television series Black Mirror.


1. In an interview with Frank Kermode, Spark invokes the metaphor of the medium to describe her role as a writer: “I don’t mean, of course, that one is that recording instrument that Blake thought of himself, just a kind of medium between the angels and the creatures, but I do know events occur in my mind, and I record them” (“Muriel” 31).

2. All of the listed publications were released in 2010, as was the announcement of The Driver’s Seat as a contender for the Lost Man Booker Prize. The change in entry criteria for the Booker Prize in 1971 resulted in the ineligibility of The Driver’s Seat and other notable works of fiction for the award.

3. Now widely cited, both the new modernist studies and global modernisms offer ways of reading and contextualizing modernism in the twenty-first century. According to Mao and Walkowitz, the new modernist studies works toward the construction of an interrelation between local and global models of reading as well as trends toward parallelism (reading texts side-by-side), dissolving boundaries (temporal and geographical), and an increasing focus on innovation and reinvention. See 737–48. Global modernisms, as discussed by Mark Wollaeger in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms requires that scholars consider “what counts as modernism when one starts looking for examples from across the globe” (3).

4. For readings of The Abbess of Crewe in the context of the Watergate scandal, see Keyser, MacLeod, and Sheryl Stevenson.

5. Recent critical interventions by MacKay, McQuillan, Pero, and Reizbaum are notable exceptions.

6. For more on Spark’s work with Delmer, see Stannard 60–71. See also MacKay 98–101 for a reading of Spark’s work in the Foreign Office in relation to the “treasonous” acts in her novels. [End Page 88]

7. Between 1945–65 the Times printed features and editorials about British government surveillance of Germans during and immediately following the Second World War as well as about international surveillance tactics and technologies, Cold War surveillance, and surveillance of regions with political and military tension, such as Tunisia. On a more localized scale, the Times also published letters from the public voicing concerns about eavesdropping over shared lines and complaints about difficulties with telephone services. Given that Spark often used newspaper clippings as inspiration for her work (see Stannard 378), there is little doubt that she would have been reading the Times as she worked on her novels in London.

8. Most of Spark’s contemporary critics read her work as tethered to the religious ideologies that governed her conversion to Catholicism. For a broader discussion of religion in Spark’s writing see Carruthers.

9. Stannard secures a connection between Spark and Cocteau in his biography of Spark: “Much of [Spark’s] material, she admitted, now came from ‘the glossies and the newspapers and print mags.’ . . . These, after all, had been Cocteau’s working materials, and, more recently, those of postmodern art. She was touching here on that new aspect of her work” (378).

10. All of the citations from this play are taken from the English television version of The Human Voice that premiered on BBC television in 1966.

11. While Ronell’s deconstructive argument can be read as passé, contemporary scholars continue to engage the political effects of media on our personal and public lives. See, for example, Wollaeger’s Modernism, Media, and Propaganda.

12. Pero discusses this popular critical view as he complicates the conflation of the caller with Death. See 196–98.

13. Headlines of articles found in the Times of London Digital Archive published between 1945 and 1965 and dealing with telephone-related incidents include, “Acoustic Shocks on Telephones,” “Telephone Threat to Sir A. Eden ‘A Hoax,’” “Two Found Stabbed in Telephone Kiosk,” and “Man Shot as Police go to Telephone Kiosk.”

14. While Spark expressed a particular anxiety about being on the telephone, her articulation of the world as predicated on mediated experience is evidence of the pervasiveness of media in her life and of her own inability to escape it. Stannard provides an anecdote that demonstrates how Spark’s desire to stay off the telephone is made possible by the purchase of a fax machine: “It seemed miraculous: instant, accurate communication and the promise of huge savings on postage and time. It was also the perfect instrument of discrimination. . . . For those with whom she wished to be in touch, replies would come back within minutes” (493). Spark’s purchase of a fax machine maintains rather than severs her connection to the outside by replacing one communications medium for another. [End Page 89]

15. Christopher MacLachlan reads Nicholas’s conversion in the context of Selina’s act of betrayal, as she abandons Joanna in favor of saving the Schiaparelli dress from the fire: “this blinding sight of otherness makes him revise his whole understanding of himself and his life and leads to his martyrdom in Haiti” (139). MacLachlan’s reading, while useful in thinking about the “evil” in Spark’s novel, passes over the events of V-J Day that position Nicholas’s conversion as a response to the historical moment to which Nicholas belongs.

16. The significance of Haiti as the site of Nicholas’s untimely death has been largely ignored in the criticism of this novel. I do not have space to pursue this line of inquiry here, but I am interested in how this gap reflects the gaps produced by the telephone calls in the novel. Casting Nicholas into Haiti extends the novel’s geographical boundaries to look beyond London and reflect on how the violence of this particular moment might be read within a more global context.

Works Cited

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The Human Voice. Dir. Ted Kotcheff. 1966. Broadway Theater Archive, 2002. DVD.
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———. The Comforters. New York: New Directions, 1994.
———. Curriculum Vitae. New York: New Directions, 1992.
———. “Edinburgh-Born.” Hynes 21–23.
———. “The First Year of My Life.” New Yorker 2 June 1975: 37–39.
———. The Girls of Slender Means. New York: New Directions, 1963.
———. Memento Mori. New York: New Directions, 1959.
———. “Muriel Spark’s House of Fiction.” Interview by Frank Kermode. Hynes 29–32.
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———. Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. [End Page 91]