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Issue 69 - Dame Muriel Spark

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013

 

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Dame Muriel Spark

One of the greatest British writers since 1945

Dame Muriel Spark was an award-winning novelist whom in 2008 The Times newspaper included in its list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. She built up a collection of literary tributes and honours during her lifetime and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1993, aged 75.

She was fiercely independent, witty and perceptive, finding novel writing so easy she was “in some doubt of its value.”

Born Muriel Sarah Camberg on 1st February 1918 in Edinburgh, to a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father, she was educated at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, which was the inspiration for the Marcia Blaine School in her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). She studied précis writing at Heriot-Watt College (1934-35) and worked briefly as an English teacher and secretary.

In 1937, aged 19, she married Sidney Oswald Spark and moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Their son Robin was born in 1938.

It was a disastrous marriage and Spark later returned to the UK, leaving her son to be raised by her parents.

In London after the war, Spark embarked on her literary career in a rather haphazard fashion.

She began with poetry and literary criticism, including studies of Mary Shelley, John Masefield and the Bronte sisters. In 1947 she became the editor of the Poetry Review. She had no particular aspirations towards fiction, but after winning an Observer prize for short fiction she began writing fiction full-time.

Spark’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954 is commonly credited as a critical development in her writing career. It provided a different perspective and confidence in portraying the viewpoints and actions of her characters, so her style developed and her books gradually achieved critical acclaim despite their unfamiliar modernist structure. She subverted many of the rules of fiction. She did away with suspense, famously replacing the ‘whodunnit’ with the ‘whydunnit’. She specialised in the psychological and philosophical motivations behind people’s actions.

Her formative years as a novelist were also her ‘diet pill years’, now always a part of her personal story because others did not keep her secret. Before she was successful she took the pills both to stay slim and to save money on food, but suffered from hallucinations and paranoia as a result of amphetamine poisoning.

In 1957 she published her first novel, The Comforters, which was inspired by recent biblical studies, features hallucinations and is said to have saved her from madness.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie brought Spark to the attention of American audiences when The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to the novel. The novel is characteristically humorous with dark undertones. Jean Brodie is the charismatic and inspirational schoolmistress who grooms a selection of her pupils to recognise their ‘prime’ and exploit it.

The girls love Brodie until she is exposed as a dangerous manipulator. The story is an ironic commentary on the nature of dictatorship, political machinations and delusions of grandeur, set in the months preceding the Second World War.

Spark lived in New York for several years and then moved to Italy, where she met artist and sculptor, Penelope Jardine, in 1968.

The two women lived together from then on, later moving to Tuscany, though rumours of their being lesbian lovers were always denied. Jardine was to inherit Spark’s estate, rather than Spark’s son Robin.

Spark’s relationship with her son was always troubled and as a result of actions she regarded as treacherous and self-serving, he joined a list of people Spark classed as ‘unforgiveables’. The main traitor was her former lover, Derek Stanford, who sold her private letters and papers and wrote vitriolic reviews of her books for years after their relationship had ended.

Spark continued to write until the final years of her life, publishing an autobiography, collections of poems, short stories and novels right up to The Finishing School in 2004.

Muriel Spark died at her home in Tuscany in April, 2006, aged 88. s.