World Literature

Muriel Spark

 

BORN: 1918, Edinburgh, Scotland

DIED: 2006, Florence, Italy

NATIONALITY: Scottish

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

The Bachelors (1960)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)

 

 

Muriel Spark. Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

Dame Muriel Spark found her writing voice late in life, yet within a short time established herself as a competent biographer, literary critic, and poet, and made her name as a fiction author with great universal appeal. in almost fifty years, Spark produced almost fifty volumes of writing, including several award-winning masterworks.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Edinburgh Youth. Muriel Sarah Camberg was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on February 1, 1918, to a Jewish English father and an Anglican mother. She was educated at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, and from 1934 to 1935 studied commercial correspondence and writing at Heriot-Watt College. After teaching English for a short time, she took a job as a secretary in a department store.

Seven-Year Marriage. She married Sidney Oswald Spark in September of 1937 and soon followed her husband to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she stayed for seven years. The Sparks’ son, Robin, was born in July 1938, but the family would not last. Muriel determined her husband was a manic depressive, especially based on his tendency toward violent outbursts, and in 1940 left him and her son. Returning to the United Kingdom, Spark worked in the Political intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office during World War II. Though she left Robin behind with his father, and though Robin returned to the United Kingdom with his father and was then raised by his maternal grandparents in Scotland, Spark consistently sent money to support him and would do so for the next forty years, helping him as he struggled as an artist in his own right.

After a period as general secretary of the Poetry Society from 1947 to 1949, serving as the editor of Poetry Review in 1949, and founding the short-lived literary magazine Forum, Spark worked as a part-time editor for Peter Owen Ltd. By this time, she had already achieved some recognition as a critic, biographer, and poet when she made her first attempt at fiction, the short story ‘‘The Seraph and the Zambesi.’’ She entered the story in a 1951 Christmas writing contest sponsored by the London Observer and not only won top honors but attracted a great deal of attention for the piece’s unconventional treatment of the Christmas theme. Several other stories set in Africa and England followed, and Spark’s successes in fiction soon began to overshadow those in criticism and poetry.

Religious Conversion. While working in the areas of nonfiction, Spark had begun to undergo a crisis of faith. During this time of great individual evaluation, she received financial and psychological assistance from Graham Greene, also a Roman Catholic convert, and was eventually converted herself, a move that had significant influence on her novels. Spark published The Comforters in 1957 and followed that with Robinson in 1958, the same year she authored her first short-story collection, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories. In this same period she began writing radio plays, with The Party Through the Wall in 1957, The Interview in 1958, and The Dry River Bed in 1959.

Literary Success. It was in 1959 that Spark had her first major success, Memento Mori. She followed this with The Ballad of Peckham Rye in 1960, The Bachelors (1960), and Voices at Play (1961). Spark also published the novel generally regarded as her masterwork, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which subsequently was made into a play, a film, and a six-part television adaptation.

In 1962, Spark’s sole venture into theater, Doctors of Philosophy, was presented in London and was not a resounding success. She returned to fiction and over the next decade wrote eight more works, novels and short stories, among them such successful titles as The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), which was awarded both the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year award in 1965, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1966.

Continued Success. With five awards to her name already, in 1973 Sharp published The Abbess of Crewe, a work alive with paradox. A well-received book, it too went on to be filmed in 1976 under the title Nasty Habits. Then came seven more novels and two short- story collections, along with three more book awards as well as the honor Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which France bestowed upon Spark in 1988. Also in 1988, however, was an event that got as much publicity as her work. Spark had for many years had a difficult relationship with her estranged son. That year, however, Robin declared that because he was Jewish he wished to petition for his late maternal grandmother to be recognized as Jewish, as well. A devout Catholic for over three decades, Spark responded by calling her son a publicity seeker, only making this latest attempt to further his typically weak career as an artist.

Partly to correct critical misunderstandings and inaccuracies about her life, as well as to put together the facts about her life and her fiction, in 1993 Spark published Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography. She then returned to the novel form in 1997 with Reality and Dreams. Her twentieth novel, it explored the boundaries and connections between realities and dreams. She continued with the novel form in 2000 with Aiding and Abetting. In 2001, a limited edition of twenty-six copies of A Hundred and Eleven Years Without a Chauffeur was published by Colophon Press, each copy signed and inscribed with a passage and a letter of the alphabet by Spark. Spark’s final novel was The Finishing School (2004).

Final Word. In April 2006, the eighty-eight-year-old author, who had been made Dame Muriel Spark by the Order of the British Empire in 1993, died in Florence, Italy. When she had moved to Rome from New York City in the late sixties, Spark met artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine. In the early seventies, the two moved into a farmhouse in Tuscany, where they lived together—amid the rumors—until Spark’s death. In her will, filed in an Italian court, Spark left her entire estate worth several million to Jardine.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Spark's famous contemporaries include:

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999): Irish novelist famous for such works as Under the Net (1954) and The Green Knight (1993).

Tadahiko Hayashi (1918-1990): Japanese photographer best known for his portraiture and documentary work on a wide range of subjects, from postwar Japan to Miss Universe contender trips through America.

Chaim Herzog (1918-1997): Soldier of the British Army and the Israel Defense Forces who served as the sixth president of Israel from 1983 to 1993.

John Updike (1932-): Award-winning novelist, essayist, and literary critic often appreciated for his in-depth chronicling of American psychological, social, and political cultures.

 

Works in Literary Context

Emphasis on Character Relationships. In much of Spark’s work, her storylines are mischief-filled ‘‘fun-house plots, full of trapdoors, abrupt apparitions, and smartly clicking secret panels,’’ as fellow author John Updike described them in a New Yorker article. These plots involve the often bizarre behavior of people belonging to a small, select group: elderly men and women linked by long-standing personal relationships in Memento Mori; unmarried male and female residents of the same London district in The Bachelors; and students and teachers at a Scottish girls’ school in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

In terms of setting, the author usually chooses to locate her modern morality tales in upper-class urban areas of England or Italy, and in the tradition of the intellectual novelist, avoids florid descriptions of the physical world, preferring instead to concentrate on dialogue, on ‘‘the play of ideas and experiences upon the mind, and the interplay of minds upon each other,’’ writes scholar Joseph Hynes. The ‘‘action’’ in these stories springs from the elaborate ties—of blood, marriage, friendship—Spark concocts these between the members of each group, and her characterizations are quick, sharp, and concise.

Moral Wisdom. Spark’s themes do not seem to reflect her strong religious and moral preoccupations. They are instead, as the Catholic Book Club defined them when granting her the 2001 Campion Award, ‘‘universal to the human condition—good and evil, honor and duplicity, self-aggrandizement and self-pity and courage amid poverty.’’ Such themes are carried by characters who embody what critic George Stade called ‘‘traditional moral wisdom’’ (in the case of Miss Jean Brodie) as they experience what critic Washington Post Book Worlds Nina King and others pointed out as ‘‘the mysteries of evil and suffering, destiny and predestination, guilt and intention'' (in the case of Margaret in Symposium, 1990). All this Spark masterfully delivered in what Nina King also called an ‘‘exquisitely balanced tone [that] proves that the richest comedy is that which explores the darkest themes.’’

Influences. Spark’s crisis of faith in the early fifties was strongly influenced by the writings of Newman, the nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman who became a convert to Roman Catholicism and eventually a cardinal in that faith. Her conversion was also moved along by the financial and moral support from author Graham Greene, also a Roman Catholic convert. As she struggled the first three years to sort out the aesthetic, psychological, and religious questions raised by her conversion to Catholicism and her attempt at writing longer fiction, her efforts led to much speculation. Many scholars and critics have approached her work by focusing on the extent to which her Catholicism influenced her writing. Just as many more have considered her writing, especially her earlier work, in terms of how it has impacted readers and writers to follow, with her combined new faith and theory of the novel and the novelist as godlike creation authored by a godlike, omniscient and omnipotent being.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also succeeded in exploring, in an often humorous way, important human themes of identity, class, religion, and personal philosophy:

Brideshead Revisited (1945), a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh portrays the twilight of the British aristocracy in this melancholy novel.

Manservant and Maidservant (1947), a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. In this novel, English author Compton-Burnett pokes fun at the ''master'' of a British household and his underlings.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), a film directed by Karel Reisz. This film, based on the 1958 novel by Alan Sillitoe, details the lives of some young members of the working class in Nottingham, England.

The World of Malgudi (2000), a collection of short novels by R. K. Narayan. In this collection of four short novels, the author examines modern Indian life from a variety of perspectives.

 

Works in Critical Context

Critical opinion has been generally kind, if not generous, to Spark’s work for four decades. Literary scholar Duncan Fallowell spoke for many when he observed, ‘‘She is the master, and sometimes mistress, of an attractive, cynical worldliness which is not shallow.'' Critic Rebecca Abrams of the New Statesman concluded that the ‘‘trademark’’ of all Spark’s fiction, both novels and short stories, ‘‘is its lightness, the way it seems almost to shrug its shoulders at the people and lives it so piercingly brings to life.’’ Yet, as critic Barbara Grizzuti Harrison of the New York Times Book Review reminded readers, Spark is at heart ‘‘a profoundly serious comic writer whose wit advances, never undermines or diminishes her ideas.''

Symposium. The 1990 best-seller Symposium centers on Margaret Demien, a character whose wealthy mother-in-law dies while Margaret is away at a dinner party. Appearing to all as virtuous at first, Margaret openly expresses a more sinister intent. She is also connected to other mysterious deaths, so that when the guests receive news of the older woman's death, Margaret is a suspect. Peter Parker commented in the Listener, ‘‘This is a marvelous premise for a novel, and, as one would expect, Spark makes the most of opportunities for dark comedy.'' As Parker continues to explain, ‘‘The book's epigraphs ... supply hints both of the book's resolution and of Spark’s fictional method.’’ The epigraphs also provide clues about the five couples at the dinner party, that in some way represent the varieties of love Plato defined.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Focus on a favorite Spark character. Consider how he or she copes, survives, and lives through a particular experience. Imagine how that character would advise you if you had to deal with a similar issue. Describe the scenario and present the advice in first person, as the direct voice of the character you have selected.

2. Spark was one of several British writers who became devout Christians well into adulthood. Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot also turned to Christianity later in life. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about these writers. Do you think they have anything in common with Spark? Why do you think religion came to play an important part in their lives?

3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in an all-girls school. While single-sex education was common before the mid-twentieth century, it came under fire as inherently sexist in the 1960s and subsequent decades. Recently, however, some educators and parent groups have renewed their support for singlesex schools. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the controversy surrounding singlesex education. Write a brief paper outlining your position on the issue.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Fallowell, Duncan. 20th Century Characters. New York: Vintage Press, 1994.

Hynes, Joseph, ed. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Spark, Muriel. Curriculum Vitae: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Sproxton, Judy. The Women ofMuriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Stade, George, ed. European Writers: The Twentieth Century Volume 12 George Seferis to Yannis Ristos. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

Web sites

Young, Dr. Alan R. Class Web Page by English 1106D0: Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://plato.acadiau.ca/courses/engl/young/e1106ce/Spark/spark.htm.

National Library of Scotland. Muriel Spark Archive. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.nls.uk/murielspark/index.html.