Sound Advice from Mrs. Hawkins
Posted on April 30, 2011
For years, in times of peril, I have been asking myself “What would Mrs. Hawkins do?” Dame Muriel Spark is one of my favourite authors of all time, and her 1988 novel “A Far Cry from Kensington,” one of my favourite books. Here, I pass on a small portion of the wit and wisdom of the story’s protagonist, Mrs. Hawkins. If you like what you read here, then I recommend you get your own stack of Muriel Spark novels, as they are easily and inexpensively available on-line from used booksellers. Then pour yourself a steaming mug of tea or chocolate, curl up with your favourite cat, and enjoy.
Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs. Hawkins. This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I never, at the time, thought of insisting otherwise. I was a war-widow, Mrs. Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.
It is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.
Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? – Yes you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time.
Who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?
On reducing one’s weight
I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again … On the question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained; it is the only way to deal with will-power.
From that night on, I decided to eat and drink half … And I decided to tell nobody at all about my plan. Just to say, if pressed, that I’d had enough.
I think that if a clock is not punctual you can’t expect the people who live with it to be.
On telling the truth
No life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest.
I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.
On friends in need
I felt uncomfortable in every way, now, talking to him. It is not because we are rats that we tend to abandon people who are down. It is because we are embarrassed.
On seeking work
When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people …
It is surprising how many people subterraneously believe in destiny. The word goes round, and in a relaxed moment a businessman will listen with interest to the barman or the doorman. Hearing of the very person he is looking for, he might well think that luck has come his way, and arrange to see the applicant next day. There is involved that fine feeling and boast: ‘I just happened to be looking for an accountant, and do you know I got a first-class fellow through the barman at the Goat.’
People love coincidence, destiny, a lucky chance. It is worth telling everyone if you want a job. In any case, while you are looking for a job you are always walking in the dark.
On capable women
My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is to not demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.
Now, it fell to me to give advice to many authors with in at least two cases bore fruit. So I will repeat it here, free of charge.
You are writing a letter to a friend … and this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.
So I passed him some very good advice … If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp … gives a cat a great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
Three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs … The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.
On managing correspondence
It is my advice to everyone with too much casual correspondence, to treat it in the same way that some companies pay their dividends. The mail that comes in before Christmas should be answered by Lady Day, the next pile by Midsummer Day, that accumulation by the Michaelmas term, and the last quarter by Christmas. It is the only proper system.
On managing social relationships
Now, my advice to anyone who knows a person with charm, wit, and talent like Emma, and with some wisdom and intelligence, too, and should fall out with them, is to accept any opportunity of making it up. Because life offers only a few of such people.
And it is my advice, when you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections.
My advice to anyone who wishes to categorise people by their faces is that physiognomy is a very uncertain guide to their character, intelligence or place in time and society.
‘Don’t you even believe in God?’
‘Some days I do and some days I don’t,” said Emma Loy. ‘But one thing I do know – in fact I think it is obvious – is that God believes in me.’
I gave her my advice that if I were in her place, with my beliefs coming and going some days yes, some days no, I would have a jolly good time the days I believed and repent the days I didn’t.
Now, it is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk. Especially a man. Drink can mellow, it can sweeten. Too much can make a person silly. Or it can make them savage.
It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can slowly relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.
On times of trouble
It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.