MURIEL Spark, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate in this special issue of the Scottish Review of Books, left her native heath in 1937 not knowing when, if ever, she was likely to return. She was still a teenager and eager to see what lay beyond Edinburgh’s vertiginous tenements, greasy, gleaming cobbles and glowering castle.
Having impetuously agreed to marry a man much older than herself, she set off for what was then known as Rhodesia. She could hardly have made worse choices. The man, Sydney Oswald Spark, turned out to be mentally unstable and potentially violent, while Rhodesia was notable for its male chauvinism, bullish racism and philistinism.
All of this, however, as Spark later conceded, was grist to a neophyte writer’s mill. In Africa, she came to realize she was alone and that if she was to make something of herself she must rely on her own resourcefulness, talent and fortitude. In short, she had to be prepared to stand up for herself. She had been taught as much at her school, James Gillespie’s, where, under the inspired instruction of Miss Christina Kay, she learned never to tolerate bullies and to be prepared to argue for her rights. For instance, in her dealings with publishers, she would always drive a hard bargain. There was no question of Muriel Spark ever being paid less for the same work as a man. Unsurprisingly, this led often to her being labelled ‘difficult’ by those who expected her gratefully to accept whatever offer was tabled. Some things never change.
Having divorced her husband, she returned to war-torn London in 1943. It is a period brilliantly evoked in The Girls of Slender Means, whose opening page describes the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe. But rather than wallow in it, the novel’s narrator tells us, ‘There was absolutely no point in feeling depressed about the scene, it would have been like feeling depressed about the Grand Canyon or some event of the earth outside everybody’s scope.’ This, surely, reflected Spark’s own perspective, which was not to retreat into self pity but to seize the day and see what could best be made of it. It was advice she never ceased to heed. Even when beset by debilitating illness, her first thought was to keep writing which she did almost until the day she died in 2006, at the age of 88.
Hers was a long and incredibly productive life. She began writing at school where she was known as its ‘Poet and Dreamer’ and where her poems appeared in clusters in the school magazine. Poetry was her passion and, with the confidence of youth, she would take poems by established poets and strive to improve them. It is worth reminding ourselves that she was around ten at the time. She did not go to university, in part because her parents could not afford to send her but also because she couldn’t see the point of it. Fellow pupils at Gillespie’s who had gone to Edinburgh University were writing essays on John Donne, she reflected, but she could already do that. To become a writer, she needed to live, to experience places and peoples and cultures beyond Edinburgh and Scotland. Like her beloved Stevenson, she had to escape to achieve her goal.
None of this was easy for a woman in the middle decades of the last century. Even in the 1950s, female writers were rarely given their proper due. Literary historians tell us that this was the decade of the Angry Young Men, of the Johns Braine and Wain and Osborne, of Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse and others. Yet it was the female novelists, such as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Taylor, Nadine Gordimer and Muriel Spark who were truly innovative and exciting, and expanded the bounds of the form. Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957, when she was 39. If this was a relatively late start, she quickly made up for it. Five more novels were produced in as many years, some, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, written in a matter of weeks.
We have no hesitation in declaring The Prime as the greatest Scottish novel of the twentieth century. It was its author’s ‘milch cow’, whose phenomenal success allowed her the freedom to live and work as and where she pleased. In the 1960s she moved from London to New York and from there to Rome and, finally, to Tuscany, where in a rambling and dilapidated former rectory she lived until she died in 2006. Her valedictory novel, aptly-titled The Finishing School, appeared two years earlier. It is situated in Switzerland in a school where the offspring of wealthy parents are taking a course in creative writing. Its tutor has a ‘Book of Observations’ which includes the following: ‘Once you have written The End to a book it is yours, not only until death do you part but for all eternity. Translators and adaptors come and go, but they can’t lay claim to the authorship of a work that is yours. Remember this if you ever take up the literary profession, as you all seem very keen to do.’