My revisited choice for our Fifty Women Challenge was Muriel Spark’s The Public Image. One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.
The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’. The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’. ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’. She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome. A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image. Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.
Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’. He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’. He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.
From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually… Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’. Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout. The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.
Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets. She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here. She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world. Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be. This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.