by Zoë Strachan

Jewel in the Crown

May 26, 2014 | by Zoë Strachan

would hazard that it is rare these days for an author to celebrate completion of a novel with a trip to Tiffany’s for a Schlumberger original. Few advances stretch that far and even fewer of us have the poise or indeed the daywear to carry it off. Muriel Spark did, to the delight of her American publisher and fellow jewellery enthusiast Barbara Epler. In Hidden Possibilities: Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark (edited by Robert E. Hosmer), Epler recalls the ‘fabulous brooch in a fish shape’ Spark wore pinned to a ‘gorgeous gown’ on her first visit to New Directions Press in New York. Spark confided that she’d also like ‘an Order of the Golden Fleece collar’.

The first twenty-five of those were made by Jehan Preut of Bruges in 1432, as we learn in one of Spark’s earliest essays, written some four decades before she met Epler. ‘The Golden Fleece’ now lends its title to a much-anticipated collection edited by Spark’s long-term companion Penelope Jardine. Far from the sparkly excess of Schlumberger, the earliest insignia of the chivalric order, ‘was in no sense a rich ornament lavishly set with precious gems . . . The collar was made of steel’. The ring from which the badge of the Golden Fleece hung bore the legend, ‘Not an unworthy reward for our labours’.

Spark must have put a lot of work into her public image, what with the jewels and the designer duds and the ‘wit and charm’ that according to Hosmer, ‘made her long the sought-after dinner guest when Sir Harold Acton or Gore Vidal or cardinals at the highest reaches of the Vatican entertained’ (although she did not, she told SRB editor Alan Taylor, ever need to ‘touch up’ her trademark red hair). Unlike Annabel Christopher, the actress in her novel The Public Image, Spark remained in control and had no need to use her looks and style to conceal a paucity of talent. She did however have to be vigilant about the dangers and distractions of the world beyond her favoured James Thin notebooks. In Hidden Possibilities, Taylor describes visiting the author at Jardine’s house in Arezzo, a situation chosen not because Spark was a recluse but because she had to ‘remove herself from temptation and supplication, away from the hangers-on, pub bores, and spongers who would cling to her like barnacles’. Spark drew an analogy with the work of Tuscan firefighters: ‘that’s what I’ve had to do with my life; make a counter-fire, to stop the encroachment of really devouring demands’. Jardine notes in her introduction to The Golden Fleece that Spark, ‘took literature in a sense as a religion. She believed in her talent for writing and had plenty to say, so that she devoted herself to it as a calling.’ No collar required in the service of art, and who would grudge her the not unworthy reward of a bit of bling after each novel?

Even the gorgeous gowns became tedious. In ‘The Celestial Garden Party’, written for a Telegraph fashion special, she explains that during her ‘phase of haute couture’ she found the ‘numerous fittings that the Diva-like dressmakers demanded piteously ate up my precious working mornings’. Off the peg it was from then on. This essay is vintage Spark: ‘In the ’twenties and early ’thirties in Edinburgh, where everything was passionless and only the weather was full of consternation, nobody left home hatless’. There is even a tantalising glimpse of early life chez Camberg, when Spark recalls coming home with her mother – who ‘could never pass a hat-shop, particularly if the milliner gave her cash-credit’ – to discover her father engaging in ‘reasonably innocent fun’ with a family friend and Mrs Camberg’s hat collection. ‘I felt something in the air,’ Spark writes, with the wonderful, maddening composure familiar to anyone who has read Curriculum Vitae.

Spark did not, as planned, write another volume of memoir. Novels got in the way, and she was always suspicious of the practice of autobiography. Jardine writes that latterly, ‘I think she really wasn’t inspired enough to write about herself and all the difficulties as well as all the joys of her life. She knew them, they were past, they no longer interested her.’

The Golden Fleece is arranged in four sections: Art and Poetry; Autobiography and Travel; Literature; Religion, Politics and Philosophy. By including short pieces and pensées as well as essays, Jardine hopes to ‘in some measure, fill the gap of Muriel’s unwritten memoirs.’ Some of the ‘curiosities’ included here do not add a great deal: we learn little of what Spark thought about tattooing, for instance, or about her most memorable New Year’s Eve. We do learn about lots of other things, including her ‘Ailourophilia’: ‘If I were not a Christian I would worship the Cat. The ancient Egyptians did so with much success.’ The ‘flower and consummation of the species’ was her own cat Bluebell, immortalised in her second novel Robinson. The description of Bluebell’s untimely death is very touching, and later (in the Herald magazine) Spark mused more seriously that, ‘The animal creation ennobles us; we cannot survive without it; it makes us whole.’ I will leave readers to discover for themselves her thoughts on the sex lives of hares and horses.

Spark wished for her essays to be collected, and The Golden Fleece has been so many years in the making that surely it counts as a labour of love. Jardine begins her preface by recalling that it was in the summer of 1991 that she ‘spread out a lifetime of Muriel’s essays and reviews.’ As an epigraph she chooses one of Spark’s own lines: ‘Good literary essays, in particular, have sustaining and stimulating qualities, like deep wells and clear rivers’. Many of the stand out pieces here deal with writers and writing: there’s the ‘drug-like charm’ of Proust (‘My Madeleine is an empty notebook,’ Spark observes); gin and pineapple with Edith Sitwell (once reviewed by Spark as a lesser poet than Yeats, much to Sitwell’s displeasure); sheltering from an air raid in the house of Louis MacNeice (‘There’s always something special and something simple about a writer’s house. I’ve never met a really good writer who lives in high style’). A truly hilarious account of the Brontës’ forays into teaching ends with the most apposite advice to aspiring writers: ‘Perhaps the lesson to be drawn, for any writer with the necessary will of iron, who lacks only the opportunity to write, is that he should prove himself no good at anything else.’

Picking over such gems and nuggets is illuminating and fun; I can almost imagine how Barbara Epler felt when the contents of Spark’s jewellery safe – ‘little velvet pouches, little suede boxes, larger gold-trimmed leather boxes’ – were strewn over her bed in Tuscany. Inevitably, some essays have been trimmed or combined, but the few frayed strings and sticky clasps set off an otherwise dazzling array.

Epler’s is one of the gushier tributes in Hidden Possibilities, but unsurprisingly in a collection conceived as a celebration, there aren’t any dissenting voices. Robert Hosmer has collected or commissioned eleven essays on ‘The Work’ and five on ‘The Life’. Many, as intended, contextualise Spark in a wider European tradition of modernism and other experimental fiction; some succeed in offering fresh perspectives on her Scottish identity and influences. Particularly noteworthy in the former category is John Lanchester’s excellent ‘In Sparkworld’ (originally published in the New York Review of Books); in the latter, there is Gerard Carruthers’s attack on ‘the essentialism of the Scottish literary critical mind’ and compelling re-evaluation of the influence of Hogg (‘“Fully to Savour Her Position”: Muriel Spark and Scottish Identity’). Admiring her language in ‘Stonewalling Toffs’ (taken from The New Yorker), John Updike suggests that, ‘Perhaps as Spark ages, her gnarly Scots roots thrust up through the ground of her long Continental residence’. He is referring to her English idiom, but we might just as easily say that in imaginative soil this rich, all manner of influences are seeded and take root. Carruthers ends by writing that, ‘Scotland is a place conjugated by Spark with many other sites and cultures in her work, and Scotland should be grateful that she utilizes it in her art so universally’.

General readers (if I can use the expression without conjuring Edwina from Loitering With Intent and her exhortation to ‘Fuck the general reader!’) may be drawn towards the more personal material. Taylor’s essay, ‘Muriel Spark: Scottish by Formation’, sits alongside Barbara Epler’s recollections, an entertaining conversation with John Mortimer (‘The Culture of an Anarchist’), an enthusiastic interview by the editor, and a more restrained memoir by Doris Lessing (which is almost as revealing about Lessing as it is about Spark). The title of the collection is taken from the scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in which Jenny recalls falling in love with a stranger in Rome. Although nothing came of it, she was left with ‘a sense of the hidden possibilities in all things’. As one might expect from a publication by University of Notre Dame Press, there is a slight bias here towards spirituality, conversion and Catholicism. All of those things concerned Spark greatly, of course, along with myriad other hidden possibilities. Her own essays, collected by Penelope Jardine in The Golden Fleece, illustrate beautifully another of her concerns: that the ‘purpose of art is to give pleasure . . . that element of pleasure which restores the proportions of the human spirit, opens windows in the mind.’

The Golden Fleece: Essays

Muriel Spark
Ed. with a preface by Penelope Jardine

Carcanet, £16.99, ISBN 978-1-847772-51-0, 226PP

Hidden Possibilities: Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark

Ed. Robert E. Hosmer Jr.

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