Muriel Spark: The Biography, By Martin Stannard

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The writer made most famous by her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was not, this superlative and sympathetic biography makes clear, necessarily destined for fame. Her prickly character and final exile in Tuscany suggest, too, that fame did not quite suit her. But it was a role she was better suited to than those of mother, lover, wife or daughter.

An intellectual woman who never attended university, Spark was a writer to the marrow. Born in Edinburgh in 1918 to a Jewish father and Christian mother – a mixed marriage that her elder brother, Philip, claimed made him feel like a social outsider – Spark had a happy, if poverty stricken childhood. Nevertheless, she married a much older man, Sydney "Solly" Spark, when she was only 19, and headed off to a new life in Zimbabwe.

This disastrous marriage produced one son, Robin, before Spark fled her increasingly erratic husband for London. Robin was shipped to her parents in Edinburgh, while Spark found a job at Poetry Review and began constructing a literary career for herself. Her relationship with fellow poet Derek Stanford is a fascinating one and only really glimpsed here: there is a great deal more to be said about the fruits of this liaison – especially when Stanford later sold the letters that Spark had written to him.

Once Spark made her breakthrough, there was no stopping her. Widely reviewed here and in the States, her reputation was cemented at the same time that she became increasingly cut off from her parents and her son. (She financially supported her mother and thought that was enough; her son once "applied" to illustrate one of her books – she made her publisher write the rejection letter.)

If anyone ever lived the myth of a writer's life – attending literary soirees in New York and then enjoying exile in Italy when it all became too much – it was Spark. It is a myth that many chase, but few ever reach.