Dame Muriel Spark
Author of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' and other acerbic 20th-century parables
Monday 17 April 2006
Muriel Sarah Camberg, writer: born Edinburgh 1 February 1918; General Secretary, Poetry Society 1947-49; FRSL 1963; OBE 1967, DBE 1993; CLit 1991; married 1937 Sydney Oswald Spark (one son; marriage dissolved 1943); died Florence 13 April 2006.
'Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life." In creating the character of Jean Brodie alone, Muriel Spark assured herself a permanent literary reputation.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in the issue of The New Yorker for 14 October 1961. Two weeks later, it appeared in book form in London. It was dramatised by Jay Presson Allen for the West End stage in 1966, opened two years later on Broadway and won an Oscar for Maggie Smith in the title role of Ronald Neame's 1969 film; nine years later Geraldine McEwan - the author's favourite actress in the role - starred in a series for Scottish Television. Jean Brodie, fierce, quotable, splendidly deranged, half tyrant, half siren, a subversive Scottish schoolmistress exactly representative of her time, somehow transcended the world of fiction and entered the English language.
Her creator began her writing career as a prize-winning poet, published her first novel at the age of 39 and continued writing to the end. Her bibliography encompasses more than 20 novels, the last, The Finishing School, short, sharp and as energetic as ever, published last year. She is repeatedly lauded for the economy, the wit and the sometimes brutal alacrity of her prose. Yet her fictions - even The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - are all, under a surface sizzle, more complex than they look and, in detail, often downright puzzling. Why, asks the critic Karl Miller, did Sandy betray Miss Brodie?
Spark is acclaimed as a Roman Catholic novelist - in that awkward sub-genre of 20th-century converts that includes Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, both admirers of her work - and leaves trails of theology in all she writes. Yet, when asked what part her Catholicism played in her writing (she converted in 1954), she would say, mysteriously, that it had given her confidence, a context, it had freed up her style. "That's the whole secret of style, in a way," she said. "It's simply not caring too much, it's caring only a little."
One of her first books was a study of the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, published in 1953. "I was not yet ready to write novels," she wrote in an introduction to a new edition in 1991:
I thought in many ways that novels were a lazy way of writing poetry, and above all I didn't want to become a "lady-novelist" with all the slop and sentimentalism that went with that classification. (In that aim, at least, I have the satisfaction of being successful.)
"Being successful" was not only important to her, it became her raison d'être. She was fiercely competitive: she went in for prizes, and usually won them. There was no slop or sentimentalism about her - on the contrary, a certain ruthlessness. She was an Edinburgh girl made unusually good. She went to London to get on, and then to New York when she became too famous to stay in London, and then to Rome to escape from New York. Success had its price. This particularly urban writer had spent most of her last quarter of a century safe in the deep countryside of Tuscany.
In old age, she presented herself as a model of girlishness, proud of her curly red hair and her fast Alfa Romeo (the latter bought with the David Cohen Prize, she would confide), deliberately flirtatious with interviewers who ventured to her fastness outside Arezzo - a complex of old church buildings where she lived with her "secretary companion" Penelope Jardine. ("People think we are lesbians!" she would laugh. Jardine was the keeper of her archive, eventually sold to the National Library of Scotland.) The more she was interviewed, the more she seemed like one of her own characters - strongly coloured, highly articulate, but combative, with a hint of danger.
"Safety does not come first," Miss Brodie told her new class at Marcia Blaine School for Girls. "Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me."
Spark was not uninterested in "lady-novelists" - it was the Ivy Compton-Burnett novel in her hands that won her a job in the Foreign Office (MI6 - "Political Intelligence") during the Second World War - but she had a different, more ambitious agenda. Without the protection of " Safety", Ivy Compton-Burnett, like many other readers, was left confused by Spark's books. She enjoyed, she said, Spark's novel The Girls of Slender Means "as a joke until it stopped being a joke".
Another literary dame, Iris Murdoch, 18 months Spark's junior but appointed DBE six years earlier, shared her ludic interest in moral consequences, in "Goodness" at least and "Truth". But Spark decried Murdoch for not "looking": Murdoch wrote out of her head, not from observation. Spark, on the other hand, was an avowed "people-watcher", whose economy as a novelist cut two ways. "I don't want to throw anything away," she said. She looked and listened; she never forgot what Masefield said to her at their first meeting in 1950: "All experience is good for the artist."
Spark was early attracted by the idea of being an "artist", winning the first of many prizes for her poetry in the Walter Scott Centenary year of 1932. To what extent was she the creature of her own Jean Brodie? In her 1992 "autobiography", Curriculum Vitae, she acknowledges an original for Brodie in one of her own teachers at James Gillespie School for Girls, Miss Christina Kay, "that character" as she crisply puts it "in search of an author". She was marked out as a future writer, but seems to have done nothing about it, instead - eccentrically, one might think - at the age of 19 taking the boat to Africa to marry a man 13 years her elder whom she hardly knew.
"The art of fiction," says Charmian Piper, the novelist in Spark's black novel Memento Mori, "is very like the practice of deception." Curriculum Vitae, an account of the author's first 39 years, is not an exercise in deception, unless artful self-deception, but, as hinted by its title, a deliberate tidying-up of her story, a retrospective spring-cleaning of the record. The mistress of fiction is in complete charge. Experience may be good for the artist, but in this book it is as though that is all it is good for. "It was in Africa," she writes blandly, "that I learned to cope with life."
The book begins with a memoir of her Edinburgh childhood that is oblique and touching and notably complementary to the story of Jean Brodie. Muriel Sarah Camberg, it tells, was born in Edinburgh in 1918, the daughter of Bertie Camberg, a Scottish Jewish engineer, and his English, non-Jewish wife, Sarah (née Uezzell), a "teacher of pianoforte". From James Gillespie School for Girls, where she spent "the most formative years of my life", she went briefly to Heriot-Watt College, and then taught unpaid for a year at a day school, the Hill School, in exchange for typing and shorthand lessons, before working for Mr Small of William Small & Sons, a department store. Where did she meet "Sydney Oswald Spark" (as she only refers to him), known as "S.O.S." by his friends? Why did she agree to marry him?
He was, according to her, mad. After their son, Robin, was born in July 1938, 10 months after their marriage in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, she enjoyed no "marital life". She left as soon as she could, returning - divorced, and without her son - to England in May 1944. Robin followed, in September 1945, to live with his grandparents in Edinburgh. His mother remained in London, where she had been working on propaganda and psychological warfare.
Her first formal writing work was, from 1946 to 1947, as editor of and occasional contributor to Argentor, the quarterly journal of the National Jewellers' Association. She enjoyed this, by her own account, much more than her two years, 1947-49, as Director of the Poetry Society and editor of its journal, Poetry Review, from which posts, as far as one tell (her chapter on this episode is hilarious but not altogether convincing) she was sacked. The society's members were "utterly abnormal people", she records.
Two of the "utterly abnormal" were Howard Sergeant, the future editor of Outposts, with whom she became personally involved, and Derek Stanford, who collaborated with her in her first book - Tribute to Wordsworth (1950) - and then in My Best Mary: the letters of Mary Shelley (1953) and Letters of John Henry Newman (1957). Single-handedly, she was the author or editor of Child of Light: a reassessment of Mary Shelley (1951), The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952), Selected Poems of Emily Brontë (1952), John Masefield (1953) and The Brontë Letters (1954). She might have carried on her rackety life, living in a London rooming-house (with occasional visits to Edinburgh) and going from job to job (she worked for the magazine European Affairs, and then in public relations) if it hadn't been for her winning another, prestigious, prize, and then suffering a complete nervous breakdown.
The prize was £250 offered by The Observer in a short-story competition in 1951. Spark won, out of 6,700 entries, with her story "The Seraph and the Zambesi", and she was taken up by a young publisher at Macmillans, Alan Maclean. The breakdown was caused by taking the drug Dexedrine, the effects of which were that she thought and dreamt in anagrams. She had to give up work altogether, but the book that resulted, her first novel The Comforters (1957), was praised by Evelyn Waugh, who had written a not dissimilar novel about his own madness, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, published the same year. Graham Greene was moved to give Spark an open-ended allowance so that she could concentrate on writing.
This she single-mindedly did, exhilarated by her growing success, but depressed, it appeared, by the fame that went with it. Novel succeeded novel. Robinson (1958) is thought to be the least successful, but Memento Mori (1959) was followed by her wickedly observant London novels The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), The Bachelors (1960) and (after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) The Girls of Slender Means (1963); The Mandelbaum Gate (1963) was her unusually long story of a half-Jewish, Catholic convert's pilgrimage to Jordan; then came The Public Image (1968), The Driver's Seat (1970, filmed as Identikit, 1974, starring Elizabeth Taylor), Not to Disturb (1971), The Hothouse by the East River (1973), The Abbess of Crewe (her 1974 Watergate parody, filmed as Nasty Habits, 1977, with Glenda Jackson) and The Takeover (1976). These were the novels of her prime - for the most part short, lucid, brilliantly plotted and sometimes disturbing - which became small classics, instantly graduating to the orange pantheon of Penguin Books, to the readers' pockets of the Sixties and Seventies.
If the product of the Eighties and Nineties was not so dashingly inventive, it was still sui generis, continually experimental, virtuoso, funny, adroit, lined with dark fantasy and edgy comedy. Whether following the fortunes of Elsa whose shadow falls in the wrong direction or exploring the latter days of Lord Lucan, her novels became acerbic parables of the age.
Muriel Spark was brought up on the Border Ballads. Their timeless stories, so plainly and lyrically delivered, of love, betrayal and occasional violence had an enduring influence on her. She adhered too to their antique codes of loyalty. One of the worst of all sins, she considered, was the sale by old friends of her personal correspondence. When her former collaborator Derek Stanford seemed to be exploiting his friendship with the now famous author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her outrage was palpable and lasting (an outrage that surely inspired Curriculum Vitae). Stanford published Muriel Spark, a "biographical and critical study" of her, as early as 1963.
His book is at once intimate with its recollections (of Spark's parents' Edinburgh flat he writes, "The whole effect suggested something between an Imperial Durbar and a distinguished fortune-teller's apartment"; her mother "had, indeed, all the poise and bearing of a great clairvoyant"; and "Muriel once told me that she had been suckled till her second year"); and candid in its criticism ("A novel which leans too heavily on dialogue may come to lack variety and depth. Dialogue - especially the stylised order which we found in Muriel Spark - may limit the development of characterisation").
In 1969, furthermore, when Spark was 51, Stanford was the author of an obituary of her written anonymously for The Times. I have the manuscript of it (acquired inexpensively on the open market) before me as I write. It is more biographical than evaluative, though to describe her "happiest gift " as "for dialogue" may not be the compliment it looks, but it has a nice quotation from C.P. Snow, describing Muriel Spark as " an author with one foot off the ground".
The whole runs to 823 words by Stanford's count and (Spark might be surprised) mentions his own name just once.
The first and, as it turned out, the only volume of Muriel Spark's autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, provides us with a sanitised and highly unsatisfactory version of her life up to the time she became famous with Miss Brodie, writes John Horder. Martin Stannard who has been working on Spark's authorised biography since 1993 must have discovered that for himself.
She was much more brutal in all her relations with the geriatric poets at the Poetry Society than she lets on when she was Editor of Poetry Review; with Derek Stanford, with whom she was in a relationship for eight years and went on to brutalise for a further 50; and with Alan Maclean, her editor when Macmillans published her first novel, The Comforters, whom she much later consigned to everlasting darkness.
The person she was most brutal with was herself, as is always the case with writers who bully themselves inexorably in order to produce their best work.
I first knew Spark when I was a precocious schoolboy of 14 in 1950. My father, Pearson Horder, employed her to write industrial speeches for Charles Colston, managing director of Hoovers at Perivale. His publicity skills had been hired to enable Colston to get his knighthood (they succeeded). It was a trick he had first performed when George Dowty was MD of Dowty Equipment in Cheltenham at the end of the Second World War.
Spark was spitefully up to other tricks for not being able to spend all her time devoted to the literary work she loved most. With the complete works of the Brontës in one hand and of Cardinal Newman in the other, in her unfashionable phase she projected an image of herself as a literary bag lady. She would roll up at my father's offices in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster (later taken over by the first woman to become Director of Public Prosecutions), wearing a tea-cosy instead of a hat, and thick woollen stockings.
Self-betrayal accompanied self-brutalisation as the major theme of all her novels, not least in the last two pages of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Monica finally confronts Sandy by now Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, and the author of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace with betraying Miss Brodie:
"Before she died," [Monica] said, "Miss Brodie thought it was you who betrayed her." "It's only possible to betray where loyalty is due," said Sandy. "Well, wasn't it due to Miss Brodie?" "Only up to a point," said Sandy.
Spark clearly leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind on the matter.
Spark's lengthy vendetta with Derek Stanford culminated in 1988 in A Far Cry from Kensington, when she brutally dismissed the character on whom he was based, Hector Bartlett, as the "pisseur de copie". Stanford had made so many nasty, niggling mistakes in their time together he must driven her mad, never mind the Dexedrine.
Self-betrayal was the theme of her last, delightful, soufflé-like novella, The Finishing School. Who but Spark would have written about a young red-headed novelist taking the plunge with his insanely envious teacher in a gay marriage at the end?
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