Catholicism plays a big role in the majority of Muriel Spark’s fiction, and this is no more so the case than in her 1960 novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It tells the story of the “devilish” Dougal Douglas, his arrival in the small London neighbourhood of Peckham Rye and his nefarious influence on its benighted but good-hearted residents.
In his introduction to the Penguin edition, novelist William Boyd warns us not to read the book as a strict apology for the Catholic religion: “To see Dougal as a devil or devilish sprite leading the good but dull people of Peckham astray is a red herring.” I’m not sure there is any other way to read this novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Spark has created an engaging story about a small community corrupted and divided by one smooth-talking and deceptive huckster. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is both a Catholic and a catholic tale: told through a rare third-person omniscient narration, it explores the temptations of each of the key characters as they came in contact with Douglas, a shadowy figure hired on as an ‘arts man’ by a textile company to try to understand the rampant absenteeism among the employees and try to rectify it.
Douglas’ story is not simply about seduction. This novel explores a great deal about the post-war years in Britain, about industrial relations and the rise of the trade union class, and about the petty gossip that can often undo a small community. This is not a straight ‘the Devil comes to town’ story as you would expect to find in, say, The Master and Margarita or Needful Things. At no point does Douglas take on any supernatural or magic realist qualities. In his most literal form, he is just a brash young man exploiting a cushy employment opportunity to write a book about Peckham Rye on commission for a little old lady. But he is also the embodiment of corruption, destroying relationships in his wake and testing the moral fibre of virtually everyone around him.
Spark is able to channel her Catholic predispositions into an engrossing prose style and narrative arch that gets us invested in what’s happening in her tale. She challenges the reader to explore his or her own morality, and explores the very human conundrum of facing the seductive power of corruption dressed up as charm. Very much worth a read.