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The Prime of Muriel Spark

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Carl Mydans/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Muriel Spark, 1965

Muriel Spark published twenty-two novels in her lifetime, in spite of beginning relatively late at the age of thirty-nine, and at least half of them are classics by the only criterion that really matters—they invite and reward repeated reading. She was the most original and innovative British novelist writing in the second half of the twentieth century, extending the possibilities of fiction for other writers as well as herself. She had no obvious precursors, except perhaps Ivy Compton-Burnett, and it is interesting to learn from Martin Stannard that Spark was in her formative years an enthusiastic reader of Compton-Burnett—whose work however has a much narrower range of themes and effects than her own.

A truly original writer is a very rare bird, whose appearance is apt to disconcert other birds and bird-watchers at first. I was beginning my own career as a novelist and critic when Muriel Spark began publishing her fiction: in the former capacity I was under the influence of the neorealism of the British “Angry Young Men” era, and as a critic I revered the great moderns like Henry James, Conrad, and Joyce. I was also interested in something called the Catholic Novel, and had written a thesis on the subject. Muriel Spark didn’t fit any of these categories: she was a postmodernist before the term was known to literary criticism, and although she was a convert to the Catholic faith, her take on it was very different from Graham Greene’s or Evelyn Waugh’s. Reviewing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1961 I declared myself “beguiled…but not really stirred or involved or enlightened.” It was some time before I realized that the disappointment was entirely my own fault and that the novel was a masterpiece.1

There were of course quite enough readers contentedly beguiled by the wit, sharp observation, and refreshing novelty of Spark’s narrative style to make her into a literary star quite soon, especially in America. The New Yorker dedicated almost a whole issue of the magazine to a slightly shortened version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, only the second time it had conferred such an honor. Nevertheless (a key word in Spark’s own vocabulary), there was nearly always a significant mutter of dissent and dissatisfaction audible in the general buzz of approbation that greeted each new work, and it grew in volume as she became more and more uncompromisingly experimental in form and content. Reviewing The Only Problem in 1984, Frank Kermode described her as “our best novelist” but added:

Although she is much admired and giggled at, I doubt if this estimate is widely shared. This may be because virtuosos, especially cold ones, aren’t thought serious enough. Another reason is that…Mrs Spark’s kind of religion seems bafflingly idiosyncratic. In fact she is a theological rather than a religious writer.

Martin Stannard quotes this characteristically shrewd observation and his excellent biography helps handsomely to fill out and understand its implications.

The history of this work is itself of some interest. In 1992 Muriel Spark wrote an approving review of the second volume of Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh, and when he thanked her for it she expressed a hope that she would be fortunate enough to find as sympathetic a biographer one day. Stannard tentatively offered his own services, and she invited him to visit her in Tuscany to discuss this “interesting idea.” Soon he was invited to write an authorized biography. No professional (or professorial) biographer could have resisted the opportunity, and he seized it, while wondering why a writer notorious for fiercely guarding her privacy should allow a total stranger to investigate her life without conditions. He was guaranteed independence, allowed to examine freely a huge archive of her papers, and exhorted to “treat me as though I were dead.” Spark had just finished writing Curriculum Vitae, a memoir of her early life up to the publication of her first novel, and Stannard surmised that she had resented the expenditure of time and energy required by this task, and decided to let someone else continue it while she got on with her creative work.

Writing a biography of a living person is always a tricky undertaking, and Muriel Spark was no exception. She had been prompted to write Curriculum Vitae to correct what she regarded as misrepresentations of herself in a book by Derek Stanford, her lover and literary collaborator in the years before she became famous; and, as Stannard would soon discover, she was notorious for making imperious demands of her publishers and frequently threatening to sue others for publishing false reports about her. The pile of documents made available to him proved to contain nothing that was personally revealing, and indeed seemed more like a wall designed to conceal her private life. It was unlikely that such a strong-willed and controlling personality would maintain the promised hands-off stance toward her biography, and so it proved.

Although Stannard has maintained a discreet silence on the subject, it is well known that when Spark read his finished manuscript she declared that it was “unfair” to her and obstructed publication, an obstruction that was not removed until after her death in 2006 by her literary executor. How the dispute was resolved we do not know, but this long-delayed book displays no trace of the frustration its author endured. Its account of Muriel Spark impresses one as both sympathetic and accurate, and it is hard to imagine that it could be improved upon.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in February 1918. Her father, Bernard “Barney” Camberg, was a Jew; her mother Sarah (“Cissy”) was according to her daughter half-Jewish, with a Christian mother, though the ambiguity of this lineage was to prove a source of much trouble in Muriel’s later years. There is however no reason to doubt her assertion that family life was not noticeably Jewish in matters of diet and ritual observance, that they rarely attended their local synagogue, and that its general ethos was liberal and secular. Socially they were at the top end of the working class, Barney being a skilled factory worker and Cissy the offspring of small shopkeepers in Watford in the south of England. She seems to have been an amiable but rather lazy woman who, Stannard startlingly reveals, consumed a bottle of Madeira every day.

That fact shows they were not poor, but their accommodation was limited: when Cissy’s widowed mother came to live with them Muriel had to give up her bedroom and slept for six years on a sofa in the kitchen. It is hard to imagine a modern teenager putting up with this for six days, but Spark claimed that she suffered no sense of deprivation. She found her grandmother an object of intense interest and helped uncomplainingly to care for her after she suffered a stroke and became bedridden and demented—experience that later bore fruit in Memento Mori.

Neither of Muriel’s parents, Stannard observes, “had the faintest interest in literature,” nor did her elder brother, Philip, who became an engineer. Her own interest was stimulated and fed primarily through education at the James Gillespie School, which she attended from the age of five to seventeen. It was there that she fell into the hands of a teacher called Miss Kay, or as she later wrote, “it might be said that she fell into my hands,” for Miss Kay was the model for Miss Brodie, whose “dazzling non-sequiturs” she would later adapt as a compositional device. She also developed a fruitful friendship with a fellow pupil, Frances Niven, with whom she shared a passionate interest in reading and writing poetry, and made her debut in print at the age of twelve with five poems in an anthology called The Door of Youth. A year later she won first prize in a competition open to all Edinburgh schools with a poem on Sir Walter Scott.

It wasn’t just her family’s limited means that prevented this obviously gifted girl from proceeding to university, for there were scholarships that might have been found for this purpose. Muriel herself had no great urge to do so. She sensed, probably correctly, that the academic study of literature would prevent her from exploring literature in her own individual way, and was anxious to make herself employable in the economically depressed Thirties. So she enrolled in business-oriented college courses in shorthand, typing, and précis-writing, skills that qualified her for a variety of jobs over the next two decades that were not always rewarding in themselves but provided invaluable material for fiction, and probably helped to form her lucid, economical prose style. A few more years of formal education might have saved her from a disastrous marriage, but even that brought her experience she was able to turn to positive account in fiction. As the narrator of Loitering with Intent (1981), Fleur Talbot, declares, “everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.”

The sexual liaisons and intrigues among the teachers and pupils in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were, as Spark implies in Curriculum Vitae, a fictional addition to the reality of her schooldays. Edinburgh in the Thirties was an intensely puritanical society, and premarital sex was simply not an option for a respectable young woman. “I never slept with anyone before I got married because no one anyway ever asked me,” she told Stannard. “You didn’t. There wouldn’t have been anywhere to go. I wasn’t in that way of life.”

But she had boyfriends, and to the surprise of her friends and the dismay of her father she accepted at the age of nineteen a proposal of marriage from one of them, Sydney Oswald Spark, who was thirteen years older than herself and whom none of them liked or trusted. He had an MA in mathematics from Edinburgh University, which may have impressed her, and she evidently enjoyed being the object of his infatuation, but if sex was a motive it was probably driven more by curiosity than desire on her part. (She told an interviewer in 1974 that she had rushed into marriage because it was then “the only way to get sex.”)

That “Ossie” as she called him (or later, disparagingly, “S.O.S.”) was a nonpracticing Jew perhaps made him seem a compatible spouse, given her own tenuous sense of Jewish identity; and he offered her an opportunity to see something of the great world, for he intended to go to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on a three-year teaching contract. He did not tell her, however, that he had been unable to hold down a teaching job in Scotland and had been seeing a psychiatrist.

Ossie preceded Muriel to Africa, and they were married there in September 1937. The wedding night was inauspicious—“An awful mess. Awful. Such a botch-up,” she commented years later—but she was soon pregnant, and soon aware too of her husband’s unstable character. She responded to the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the native inhabitants, but the arrogance and philistinism of white colonial society appalled her, and the increasingly threatening behavior of her husband precipitated a depression after her son Robin was born.

  1. 1

    I tried to make amends in “The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” in The Novelist at the Crossroads: And Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (Cornell University Press, 1971).

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