Sometimes you meet an author who takes you by the hand, and engages some hitherto untapped corner of the mind. Mary Shelley was such for Muriel Spark, and Spark must have been for countless others. I would count myself one. My first conception of Scottish Literature (apart from Burns, omnipresent in Ayrshire) came in a dingy classroom in a now-demolished school. An English teacher called Mrs Adrain gave us a reading list comprising three texts by James Hogg, Robin Jenkins and Spark. That sixth-year English class was all girls, a small group, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that after a few pages in Jean Brodie’s company we were arguing over who would be Sandy, Jenny, Monica, Rose. Nobody wanted to be poor Mary McGregor, who would later run ‘back and forth along the corridors’ in a hotel fire, ‘through the thickening smoke’. Mrs Adrain was no Miss Brodie thankfully, but in her choice of these three texts she inspired a great deal in us, and we did gaze intently at her flowing skirts, and the way she coiled her long hair and secured it with an enamel clasp.
It astonishes me that twenty-two years ago a female Scottish writer should have seemed such a delicious anomaly. Reading Spark was just the beginning and I found many more sisters-in-arms later on, as well as recognising the need to raise those arms. Even so, it is chastening to remember that Mary Shelley had been virtually ignored by critics before Muriel Spark published a book about her in 1951, dismissed as an author of sensation rather than skill, a depressive appendage to her more famous husband.
Child of Light first appeared at the centenary of Mary’s death, and Spark revised it over the years until it was republished as Mary Shelley in 1987. In his introduction to the new Carcanet edition Michael Schmidt suggests that Mary Shelley was for Spark ‘a point of departure and a touchstone.’ Writing about Shelley had ‘a superstitious rightness’; the two women shared initials because of their husbands’ surnames, and ‘1 February was the date of Shelley’s death and Spark’s birth.’ Spark’s other motivations were powerful if more prosaic; she needed the money and she needed to strike out on her own creatively.
Spark’s original proposal for the book, here published for the first time along with her abridgement of Shelley’s novel The Last Man, is typically confident: previous studies were inadequate and she would examine Mary’s works by ‘assessing the personality that motivated them… would bring to light those qualities in her work that other women writers do not possess.’ Thus she would capture Mary’s ‘intellectual breath’, her ‘essential femininity’ and the way in which she realised her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideals ‘by natural acceptance of her status as a creature the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times’.
Mary Shelley shows Spark at her warmest, although we must be glad that she did not write so that we might think her a nice person. We must hope too that the days are gone in which any female author of talent is so neglected that she needs such reclamation as Spark performed on Shelley
Spark achieves precisely what she sets out to; no surprise to us now but pretty impressive given that this was her first book. In the biographical section she, to quote her biographer Martin Stannard, clears off the ‘sludge of sexist varnish and restores a portrait of a woman of intellect’ who coped with the hands life dealt her in as practical a way as possible. Spark admires Shelley without becoming seduced, and defends her with vigour and wit. Who else could get the measure of Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont so adroitly?
‘There is a type of person who, having glimpsed the glories attendant upon the life dedicated to creative achievement, and who is yet unqualified to create, pursues in a vague sort of way not the achievement itself but its accoutrements. Such a person was Claire Clairmont, the type of young woman who today would be known as “arty”’.
Spark establishes Shelley in her proper position as an artist in her own right and the advance guard of Wells, Huxley and Orwell, her works ‘almost entirely without their counterpart in feminine literature.’ When Spark was writing the atom bomb had been dropped and might be again, and what had seemed speculative was the new reality. While she does not shy from the ‘weak characterisation, want of humour, and heaviness of style’ in Mary’s The Last Man, she is more interested in its atmosphere and apocalyptic themes: ‘It was a universal hospital and a universal morgue that Mary envisaged, before the French Symbolists had cried in their several ways, ‘Cette vie est un hôpital,’ to be echoed by Rilke and T.S. Eliot… the menacing force has become as impersonal and impartial as nature, by which the individual man is held in isolated subjection.’
Let me quote that original proposal again: ‘the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times.’ Spark was the first critic to recognise that Mary was playing with the big boys, but also that her writing was, if anything, even more relevant after Modernism.
Fascinating and trenchant as Spark’s analysis of Mary Shelley and her work is, there is a tremendous temptation to read the book for what we can glean about Spark herself. The publication marks the most significant turning point in her professional and personal life. As she wrote about Shelley, Spark’s energies were also taken up with her relationship with Derek Stanford, an aspiring writer who was later to prove himself a prime cad; the ‘grade-A bête noire in her life,’ as Martin Stannard puts it. When Spark became famous, Stanford cashed in with alacrity, selling her letters as well as childhood notebooks he had stolen, and writing inaccurately about her life in Inside the Forties: Literary Memoirs 1937 – 1957. He seems hardly to have been the most sensitive of souls back in 1950; later Spark wrote to Stannard of how she shared her rations with Stanford while he ‘left his ration card with his mother, so that he got sumptuous extra meals while I starved. [. . .] As far as money was concerned he was a frightful scrounger. As soon as I had any he was very much in evidence.’
Spark was never one to mince her words, and yet she had entertained high romantic and artistic hopes of Stanford. Her love life to date had been unfortunate in the extreme: her first husband, Sydney Oswald Spark (‘S.O.S.’, as she termed him, clearly wishing she had heeded the warning in his initials) had mental health problems and was violent and unpredictable. She was lucky to escape him – and their life together in what was then Southern Rhodesia – alive and could never quite say why she had married him in the first place; perhaps, she suggests in Curriculum Vitae, ‘I longed to leave Edinburgh and see the world.’ By the time she met Stanford she was almost completely detached from her family, including her son Robin. Stanford seemed different from the other men with whom she’d had affairs, a potential Percy to her Mary. She wrote to him she loved him, and had never been happier. When they wrote Tribute to Wordsworth together they ‘saw themselves first as artists rather than critics, and also as equal partners’. Spark told her biographer that Stanford had been integral to her creative process, releasing her from any possessiveness ‘by helping to build protective walls within which she could work’. Not to mention the sex: ‘Muriel and Stanford both drew energy from this stimulating combination of erotic and aesthetic desire,’ Stannard writes.
Child of Light attracted positive attention immediately, helped by a double page spread Spark had been commissioned to write for the TLS. Stanford was in like Flynn, beating a path to the door of the editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, to ask for work himself. This made Spark ‘rather embarrassed’, and after the publication of Child of Light the couple’s way of working together changed. When they translated or wrote poems they did a verse apiece, and their introduction to their edited collection of Mary Shelley’s letters was conceived as a dialogue. Spark had found word by word composition with him ‘agonizing’, she writes in Curriculum Vitae: his prose was ‘flamboyant and convoluted; mine, simple’. A parenthesis notes that he ‘suffered a nervous breakdown’ at the time of her first success, and Spark told Martin Stannard: ‘No marriage with him would have lasted. I found him convenient as a literary partner up to the time I did a selection of Mary Shelley’s letters with him. After that he was just a drag.’
Writing again about Claire Clairmont, Spark insists ‘there can be no more insidious or inconvenient company for the truly creative mind than this parasitic type of manqué individual’. Perhaps Derek Stanford was in her mind, perhaps not. Certainly she must have recalled the assorted poets manqué and hangers on she had encountered through her work as Secretary of the Poetry Society. The period 1949-50 resonated for Spark and she uses it as the setting for one of her funniest books, Loitering With Intent (1981), in which Fleur Talbot writes her first novel whilst working for the Autobiographical Association, ‘on the grubby edge of the literary world.’ The couple who write scathing reader’s reports on Fleur’s manuscript share the surname of Mary Shelley’s stepsister, ‘Clairmont’, and Fleur’s erstwhile lover Leslie ‘was ambivalent about my writing, in that he often liked what I wrote but disliked my thoughts of being a published writer’. Loathsome Leslie, it seems safe enough to say, is a literary exorcism of Derek Stanford; Fleur rids herself of him and other perfidious influences in order to develop her own talent.
Spark always took a robust attitude to the relation between life and art; ‘All experience is good for an artist,’ John Masefield told her, and in Curriculum Vitae she is up front: ‘I transferred a number of my experiences in the Poetry Society, as I usually do, into a fictional background, in my novel Loitering With Intent’. Fleur’s cluttered bedsit, too, is the mirror of the one Spark rented in Kensington. At the time she was poor, and she views Mary Shelley’s lamentation that supporting herself and her son Percy on £2000 a year was tantamount to being ‘quite ruined’ as ‘that luxurious hyperbole in which only those assured of a livelihood to the end of their days dare indulge’.
Loitering With Intent is a delight from start to finish, but out of all Spark’s novels The Girls of Slender Means is my favourite. This is 2013’s other notable reprint, appearing fifty years after it was first published in a gorgeous Folio Society edition that illustrates in colour the May of Teck Club ‘for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’ One of the girls, Jane, pursues an occupation in the ‘world of books’, in which once again we meet these manqué individuals, ‘young male poets in corduroy trousers and young female poets with waist-length hair, or at least females who typed the poetry and slept with the poets, it was nearly the same thing,’ many of whom are destined to become habitués of a ‘no-man’s-land of Soho public houses… the familiar messes of literary life.’
On the surface of the novel is a ‘a waterfall of debutante chatter’, a microcosm in which use of a glorious Schiaparelli gown is traded for ration coupons and ends of soap, and ‘Bread-and-butter pudding is suicidal’. Social Protection, like almost everything else in post-war London, is in short supply. The girls take lovers, fall pregnant (‘Filthy luck… Come to the wedding’), and discover that some men are emphatically NSIT (Not Safe in Taxis); ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed’. In this of all Spark’s books, our proximity to savagery and betrayal is most subtly and terrifyingly portrayed. When, after a bomb blast, the eponymous girls are trapped in the upper floor of the burning May of Teck club it is the behaviour of Selina Redwood that proves to us that in 1945, ‘few people alive… were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means’. As AL Kennedy writes in her excellent introduction to the Folio edition: ‘There is a type of scientific disinterest in [Spark’s] ways of showing how easily humans can lose their humanity, not because of evil, not because of something as clear-cut or condemnatory as Original Sin, but certainly because of their nature – fascinating, wonderful, but also individually and epidemically flawed.’
There are parallels here with Mary Shelley’s project in Frankenstein, although she is also concerned with what makes us human in the first place. In terms of style the two authors are polar opposites. We can imagine Spark speaking the words of Fleur Talbot, the novelist in Loitering With Intent, ‘I’ve come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little’. Mary Shelley preferred to use a lot of words, but she succeeded in conveying a lot as well. Another comment of Fleur’s might ring true as well: ‘I wasn’t writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder.’ There is something liberating in this even today. I have found myself wishing that the Guardian would introduce Page 3, if that would allow more column inches to be devoted to the discussion of work by female novelists and fewer to large, glamorous photos of them. That said, Spark and Shelley were undoubtedly lookers, and at points that helped both of them attract attention and make connections. In a letter to Derek Stanford in 1949 Spark explained that she had always been confident that when her mind could not seduce, her body could.
No matter how pretty the writer might be, ‘to live by her pen… was, as always, a precarious situation,’ as Spark notes in Mary Shelley. She is tough on the critic F.L. Jones, who in his Letters of Mary W. Shelley, referred to Shelley’s various pitches to publishers as the ‘most pitiful portion’ of her correspondence, a point at which she came close to ‘abject begging’: ‘Mr Jones is immoderate because Mary was not begging. She was an author who had enjoyed considerable success, who had faith in her own powers, and who was offering a publisher the commodity in which publishers deal. Many an author before Mary, and many a one after her, has plagued a good publisher no less’. We might think back to Spark’s proposal for her first book, and recall that it was one of very many that she put together around the time, most relating to female authors or the ‘intellectual and social emancipation of women’. Although she wasn’t living with her young son Robin, she did strive to provide for him just as Mary did for Percy.
Mary Shelley did not have a particularly easy or happy life. Not long before her death she wrote to Claire Clairmont of her habitual ‘lowness of spirits’: ‘To be as I ought to be towards others (for very often this lowness does not disturb my inward tranquillity) I need to be a little tipsy’. Near the conclusion of her biographical study, Spark writes: ‘I suppose it is the function of the biographer to diagnose, and not to indulge in vain retrospective proscribing. None the less I seriously suggest that if there had been more wine in Mary’s life there would have been fewer tears.’ Ultimately the tears are irrelevant, although I am sure they didn’t feel so at the time. Compelling as the lives of both Mary Shelley and Muriel Spark are, in the end we read them for their work.
Mary Shelley shows Spark at her warmest, although we must be glad that she did not write so that we might think her a nice person. We must hope too that the days are gone in which any female author of talent is so neglected that she needs such reclamation as Spark performed on Shelley, such advocacy of the ‘qualities in her work that other women writers do not possess’. Replace the word ‘women’ with the word ‘Scottish’ and we have a more interesting – and topical – proposition, for Spark is both world-famous and slightly neglected ‘at home’; perhaps because she left Scotland as soon as she could and did not often come back. Mary Shelley shows her on the cusp, discovering not only the style that would make her famous but the ‘integrity of [her] nature’ (as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Mary). She achieved this not through a flesh and blood relationship, but in the relationship she forged across a century, with the woman whose initials she shared. Most crucially, she did it where it counts: in her mind and on the page.
Carcanet Press, PP266, £12.95, ISBN 978 1 847772 37 4
The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark (illus by Lyndon Hayes)
The Folio Society, PP113, £24.95
Available from www.foliosociety.com or from The Folio Society, 44 Eagle Street, London, WC1R 4FS, 020 7400 4200