The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark, introduced by Alan Taylor
Format: Hardback Pages: 144 pages Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 08/02/2018 Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945) ISBN: 9781846974304
by SRB

Muriel Spark: A Glance through An Open Door

October 3, 2013 | by SRB

In July 1992, Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark, daughter of Edinburgh, returned to the city of her birth for the formal presentation of some of her papers to the National Library of Scotland at George IV Bridge.  Anyone granted access to the papers will be astonished at the bulk, range, and variety of the collection such as it is now (a substantial portion yet remains at her last residence in Italy):  letters, desk diaries, manuscripts, engagement calendars, grocery lists, awards, certificates and honorary degree papers, legal documents, book contracts, plays, betting slips, screenplays, notes for novels, holograph texts of several works, drafts of others, typescripts, cheque book stubs and receipts. . .on and on. . . .  Spark is certainly to be taken at her word: “since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper,” she wrote in the Preface to her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992).  As the National Library description notes, “no other author so deliberately and carefully preserved a record of their life.”

            Several recent, extended visits to the NLS archives with time to read a good deal of what is available, have yielded fascinating, if partial, insight into this remarkable woman, once described by David Lodge as “the most gifted and innovative British writer of her generation,” Lodge’s choice of “British” to modify “writer” is slightly problematic since Spark described herself as “English,” not “British.”   But considering herself English in no way denied her Scottish background; she was, she said many times, “Scottish by formation.”   And though she left Scotland in 1937 at the age of nineteen, never to return for more than occasional visits or holidays, she remained a Scot to the core, her character formed by a stringent code of values; her literary sensibility infused by the Border Ballads as well as the works of Scott, Hogg, and Stevenson; her habits of thrift, shrewd bargaining, and careful investment derived from her early years among the merchants of her native city; her cast of mind that of a thoroughgoing Scottish skeptic; and her speech lightened by the lyric musicality of Morningside to the end of her days.  In a short speech at the NLS ceremony she acknowledged her debt to the reference and lending libraries of Edinburgh, public institutions which had supplemented her first-rate primary and secondary education at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls.  She used the reader’s tickets designated for the other three members of the household and often returned home to #160 Bruntsfield Place with bundles of poetry books.  Endowed with this education and energized by a keen Protestant work ethic which remained with her (in a late interview – 2003 – she confessed, “I do feel guilty at the age of 85 if I haven’t done a day’s work”), she sailed from Southampton off into the unknown of Africa one summer’s day (13 August 1937).  Without a trace of bitterness, Spark echoed Joyce when she told an interviewer, “I think it’s necessary to leave Edinburgh.”

            There was no one quite like her.  A young woman who by sheer determination and hard work made her way out of a bad marriage and wartime poverty, past serious health problems and the scorn of lesser talents whose resentments and jealousies were legion, to become, by critical consensus, one of a handful of post-World War II novelists of the first rank.  Praised and encouraged by established writers like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene who took considerable pride in having discerned her talent early on (Greene went so far as to send her an allowance of L20 a month and several bottles of wine, “which took the edge off cold charity,” she noted), she established herself as one of the great writers of her generation, publishing volumes of poetry and short stories, several biographies, scores of essays, and twenty-two novels before her death, aged eighty eight, in 2006.  One of the novels so impressed William Shawn, legendary editor of The New Yorker, that he published the entire book in one issue of the magazine:  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).  This was the novel that made her internationally famous and its sales, supplemented by the monies earned from adaptations for stage, television and film made her financially secure.  Shawn also published the first four chapters, in instalments, of The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), Spark’s longest novel, and all of The Driver’s Seat (1970), considered her best by many, including Spark herself, in the pages of that magazine.

            Since her death, Spark has not moved into the realm of the literary shades; she has retained a certain prominence.  A recent republication of her biography, Mary Shelley, has drawn considerable critical praise.  Much of her work remains in print in the United States thanks to Barbara Epler at New Directions.  Ironically, fewer titles are available in the United Kingdom though some will be returned to print in the future. Translations proliferate: the on-line Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation lists more than three hundred records of translations of her work.  A new stage adaptation of Jean Brodie is in the works, and her literary executor has signed over one hundred contracts since Spark’s death.

            Often asked why she’d not written the story of her life, Spark customarily responded, “why?  it’s all there in my books.”  Yet by the late 1980’s she had become infuriated with the lies, distortions, and inaccuracies of biographical information then in circulation.  As she put it in the Introduction to Curriculum Vitae, “So many strange and erroneous accounts of parts of my life have been written since I became well-known, that I felt it time put the record straight.”  That volume, which pleased and delighted many readers, even while it only went up to 1957 and was as artful an enterprise as any of her novels, is complemented by the National Library of Scotland archives, which hold materials both personal and professional. One fact emerges from all sources:  writing was a vocation to which Muriel Spark devoted single-minded attention and diligence her whole life. 

            A sense of the writer’s personal life, both domestic and social, emerges from the archives.  The run of desk diaries holds random jottings for appointments (“hair” and “shopping”) and a regular entry for 1 February (“my birthday”).  The notebooks offer a glimpse into her domestic world and occasional insight into her life as a writer as well. Earlier notebooks document the young writer’s persistence in sending her work out.  Under the heading of “Work in Circulation,” in a notebook dated “27 April 1951 – 9th Nov. 1952,” are details of rejection after rejection.  No one wanted most of her poems or essays, it seemed.  Late in life she still remembered those days: “I must say that my rejections slips, if they fell out of the envelopes at the rate of more than two in one day, depressed me greatly.  However, I had a list of possible weeklies and little magazines to hand, and immediately, I put the poem or article into a new envelope with a new letter to the editor and a new S.A.S.E [self-addressed stamped envelope]”

But an entry dated “5/11/51” leaps off the page:  concerning her story then titled “The Seraph, the Zambesi, and the Fanfarlo,” she wrote “Got it.”  Dogged persistence had paid off. This story, chosen from among nearly 7000 entries in a contest sponsored by the Observer newspaper, won first prize (L250, a considerable sum then, especially for a young woman strapped for funds) and marked the beginning of Spark’s professional career as a writer of fiction.  It was this story, the first she wrote for publication, that really brought her to the attention of  the London Literary Establishment (David Astor, Lord David Cecil, Alan Pryce-Jones and others).

            Other notebooks in the run (1947-1970) illuminate  elements of Spark’s personal life – dress fittings, parties, the purchase of a recording of “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Joan Sutherland and some Elizabeth Arden “Vivid Rouge” lipstick, exercises in Italian.  Household expenses are recorded precisely; entries made during her Roman residence are typical:  “cigarettes, 400 lira”; “2 scandal sheets, 250 lira”; “6 eggs – 200 lira”; “church candle – 500 lira”; “baby food for cats – 1020 lira”; “tip to porter for catching Spider [one of her cats] – 1000 lira.”  The household accounts were kept by a secretary; but the books show that Spark herself checked, revised, and recalculated where necessary, before signing off.

            Spark was a social being.  Her life may not have been a party, but she loved parties. Elegant, witty, and vivacious, she gathered friends and acquaintances wherever she lived – London after World War II, New York in the mid-1960’s, then Rome (1967-1979), finally Tuscany (1979-2006).  In the early days, it was other poets and writers who formed her circle, many known to her through her work as editor of the Poetry Review and General Secretary of the Poetry Society (1947-1949).  The publication of her first half dozen novels (1957-1962) brought her success and attention, as well as a busy social life.  When things became too hectic, she moved to New York (1962), where she kept an office at The New Yorker and lived at the Hotel Beaux Arts, Apartment 1101.  The heady days of being a New Yorker writer brought a whirl of social activities with well-known figures, most from the world of literature (Lionel Trilling, John Updike, James Baldwin, Shirley Hazzard, Norman Mailer, Blanche and Alfred Knopf). Once again, however, things became so distracting that she fled, this time to Rome (1968) to find time for writing; but there, too, she soon found that her diary overflowed with occasions and events making it increasingly difficult to save time for her writing.

 At first, she retreated to the hills of Tuscany for short periods, but eventually she moved there altogether (1979), giving up her flat in Rome, in exchange for accommodations in the restored 14th century rectory belonging to her friend, Penelope Jardine, an artist who had become Spark’s secretary in 1968 and would become her close friend and invaluable assistant. Nearly hidden away, she cherished work time, writing prolifically in several genres; but she found time for travel and for dinner in Florence or the opera in Rome, accepting invitations often from friends like William Weaver, distinguished scholar and translator, John Mortimer, novelist, Sir John Pope-Hennessey, eminent art historian, and Sir Harold Acton, esthete and grand master of the Villa La Pietra.  The archives fairly dance with vivid personalities who sought her company – W. H. Auden, Harold Macmillan, Gore Vidal, cardinals or ambassadors to the Vatican, Queen Elizabeth, Pat Nixon.  The files are filled with invitations to cocktail parties for visiting dignitaries or receptions at one embassy or another, or plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration in Florence with Jayne Wrightsman, prominent American socialite and art collector.  Spark was a convivial, witty guest (and host), a much sought-after presence to grace drawing room and table.

            Some of the more private dimension of Muriel Spark is revealed here as well.  The number of letters to friends – some like Tony Strachan dating from her London days, others of even longer standing like Frances Niven, her best friend from Gillespies’ – are sweet and affectionate.   A number of friends were hers for four or five or six decades, no mean accomplishment, and testimony to lasting loyalty on both sides. She stood by them during dark moments; especially touching are her notes of condolence – bracing and sympathetic yet free from cliché and sentimentality.

            A scattering of notes, cards, and letters to members of Spark’s own family further softens an unfair image of her as cold and unfeeling. There are few letters between Spark and her brother Philip, five years her senior, who emigrated to the United States and became a research chemist; their practice was to communicate by telephone or in person.  There are, however, a number of letters to Philip’s daughter, Vivian, and many notes and cards from her to Spark as well.  Muriel demonstrated a keen interest in her niece and family, and extended considerable generosity as well, often sending gifts for birthdays and Christmas.

            Though most of their correspondence is embargoed until after his death, Robin Spark, Muriel’s only child, does figure in the accessible archive materials to a limited extent.  A few of his letters to her, and several of hers to him are among the uncatalogued materials.  Relations between mother and son were filled with tensions and difficulties from time to time, most particularly in the late 1990’s, when he accused her of denying her own mother’s Judaism, a charge later proved false with documentary evidence uncovered by her biographer.  Muriel had returned to Edinburgh by herself near the end of World War II: her marriage to S.O.Spark had  been difficult, they had separated, and she sailed to Liverpool in 1944.  Robin remained in Africa, in the legal custody of his father.  Later, when father and son came to England Muriel thought post-War London no place for a child, so she brought him to live with her parents in Edinburgh.  In due course, Robin embraced the Judaism of his grandfather and later became estranged from his mother who became a Roman Catholic in 1954.  Yet the letters between the two here give no indication of rancor or hostility; indeed they are tender and loving even during contentious times, Robin sending news and an occasional present to his mother, Muriel writing (in 1993), “I often miss you very much and wonder what you are doing,” enclosing a birthday gift of L350.  This was not a unique instance, either in expression or generosity.  In letters to others she does occasionally indicate disagreement and tension in the relationship, and sometimes in an interview she seems harsh and dismissive towards her only child, but all parent/child relationships have their ups and downs.

            Nonetheless, it was certainly difficult for a young man, struggling to become a painter, to grow up in the shadow of a mother, an established artist in her own right, albeit it in a different medium.  Though he had several exhibitions of his work, Robin has never achieved a reputation commensurate with his mother’s.  That must have been difficult for both of them. And certainly estrangement created by religious/cultural differences, since both were/are serious, committed believers in different faith traditions, made things worse and caused real pain and suffering on both sides.

            And suffering came from another relationship.  Derek Stanford and Spark had been colleagues, then lovers, in the early 1950’s.  She described him as her “friend and literary partner of the ‘fifties .”  She acknowledged his kindness during her illness and his role in getting financial support for her, particularly from Greene, that enabled her to recuperate. Collaborators on several volumes, Stanford and Spark came to the parting of the ways, largely, it seems, due to his jealousy of her success subsequent to winning that Observer Christmas story competition (even though she shared some of the prize money with him).  He left her, ultimately a blessing for her, since Spark’s vocation as a writer left little time for cultivating long-term personal relationships.  She knew it, and was quite frank on the subject, once declaring, “I’ve made three mistakes in my life and they all had to do with men.”

With the publication of her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957 she had moved beyond the world of a second-rate poet and critic.  Her success and reputation never ceased to rankle Stanford, and he took his revenge embellishing, often fabricating, accounts of their life together, falsifying and contradicting documentary evidence and even selling her love letters to him.  Asked about him in 1985, Spark bristled a bit, saying “he doesn’t know very much about me, he thinks he does, but he doesn’t.  So I had a little affair with him, what does he want? “  He never ceased attempting to capitalize, in one way or another, on his early association with a woman whose achievement far surpassed his.   

In a letter to John Heath-Stubbs, fellow poet and friend from Poetry Society days, she wrote, “Derek Stanford has indeed written some remarkably inventive things about me.  He suffers greatly from the practice of that deadly sin:  Envy of another’s spiritual good.  It’s worse than mere envy.  But I’m writing my autobiography now, and mean to put lots of records straight when I come to those years.” A substantial portion of the last chapter of Curriculm Vitae is devoted to setting the record straight; but she had already had her revenge, creating a singularly repulsive, down-at-the heels writer of dubious reputation and ethics in her very autobiographical novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (1988): one Hector Bartlett, pisseur de copie. Stanford was reduced to a type Spark thought  hardly unique (“How many Hector Bartletts are still around,” she once noted).

            The documentary evidence of the archives charts physical as well as emotional suffering.  Known, but scarcely mentioned here, is the story of Spark’s collapse of 1954 due to stress, the ill effects of poverty (her friend Tony Strachan wrote, “no one has ever been as poor as you were in those days,” and medication (Dexedrine taken as an appetite suppressant). One coat, one pair of shoes, and scant ration coupons took a heavy toll. Life is post-World War II London was bleak and trying. But Spark processed the experience, noting, “I had a feeling while I was undergoing this real emotional suffering that it was all part of the conversion.”   Not until much later on does the documentary record reveal further physical suffering.  Letters, notes, and other entries of the mid-1990’s document physical suffering of perhaps even greater intensity: within the space of approximately two years, Spark underwent five separate surgical procedures before one hip was successfully repaired and she was restored to full mobility by the Queen Mother’s orthopaedic surgeon.  Spark refused to have him do the other hip; sometime after her surgery, he’d had surgery himself, gender re-assignment surgery, and Spark quipped that she feared coming out of anesthesia to discover that she’d become a man.  The first surgery, performed in Rome, was a botched procedure, its pernicious effects undiagnosed due to multiple infections for some time. She endured excruciating pain while struggling to regain mobility.  Had it been done correctly, Spark would have been spared considerable pain and suffering, to say nothing of expense and precious work time lost.

The cumulative effect of suffering in the course of a lifetime had a profoundly spiritual impact upon her.  For sixty years she was both fascinated and perplexed by a classic discussion of the topic, the Book of Job, certainly one of the most vexing canonical texts of Hebrew Scriptures.  She did research; she pored over commentaries; she planned to study Hebrew.  She reviewed books on the subject for the Church of England Newspaper.  She made notes, even going so far as to make an excursion to the London Zoo to observe some of the animals mentioned in Job (a guide to the zoo with annotations is among the papers). Spark’s ambitious plan to write a monograph on the subject, for which Frank Sheed gave her a contract, never came to fulfillment (the protagonist in her seventeenth novel The Only Problem (1984) failed to do that as well.) Spark’s own experience of suffering deepened her sense of the ultimate mystery of human life, becoming material not only for fiction but for personal contemplation and reflection as well. Yet, characteristically, she never focuses on that, rarely mentioning it, preferring, as she told one correspondent, “never [to] dwell on the worst of the past – only the best.”  But one guesses that not to have suffered thus would have diminished the artist.  In an interview (1983), she admitted, “Life would be very dull without suffering.  Life is suffering.”  And in Loitering with Intent, when the protagonist, Fleur, amplifying a comment John Masefield had made to Spark herself, concludes that “everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease” (116), we hear Spark’s own voice, to be sure.

            Whatever the time, place, or state of her health, Spark immersed herself in her work.  Novels, poems, stories, other projects were always on her mind.  Like Newman, of whom she wrote, “he had an obsession with time wasted and always feared that his life as a Catholic was passing, with nothing to show for it.”  Spark shared that obsession, and like him, she intended that there would be something to show for her life.

  She was never one to theorize or to entertain others’ elaborate speculation about the role of imagination or the creative process. Occasionally, however, she did say something about her own work, as in a letter to Stephen Schiff of The New Yorker (“Sometimes I meet my characters or similar people in real life after I’ve written the novel.  This is eerie”).   Graham Greene seems to have prompted her to say something more than once; in a letter to him she admitted, “I am trying to shift my style to the extent I’m rewriting a book from the start.  I was nearly through a first version when I realized it’s awful.” The date of the letter, 28 December 1977, makes it likely that the novel in question was Territorial Rights, published in 1979.  On another occasion, in an undated letter to Greene, she is quite frank:  “I’ve just finished an ‘I’ book – In some ways I find it cramping.  One has to be present all the time and can’t describe what goes on in one’s absence except by hearsay or supposition or sleuthwork, all indirect.  But I had to do an ‘I’ because it’s a fictional autobiography and treats of other autobiographies” (here it is likely that the book is Loitering with Intent or A Far Cry from Kensington, both first person narratives).  And in a letter to longtime friend Guy Strutt, who, to judge from the record, was immensely helpful in tracking down information and in providing Spark with a place of respite at his country house, she observes, “There is an exhibition of portraits at the Uffizi just now.  I want to see it as I have a special interest in portrait painting as touching almost on the novelist’s activity.”  But such glimpses are rare.  Even rarer, an observation she makes to Strutt (7 February 1992), “I loathe the book I am writing but must finish the last 6000 words or more, with some sort of flourish!”)  (The novel must have been Reality and Dreams, 1996).  And perhaps unique – certainly most rare – is this, from an undated letter to Prince Henry of Hesse, “I’m working hard, but I often wonder why? what for?”

            Nevertheless examination of archival materials does provide a substantial basis for learning more about this writer’s methods than she revealed in random comments, and for questioning Spark’s own description of those methods.

More than once Spark did tell interviewers a little something about her creative process suggesting it was as streamlined and economical as her books.  She did acknowledge that she always kept a pad or notebook with her, jotting down ideas, phrases, snatches of overheard conversation, observations of character with potential for later creative use.  Henry James would wait until he had returned to his rooms after an elegant dinner party or reception to write down his precious donnees.  Not Spark.

 Never did she speak of writing through a succession of drafts.  And as far as revision was concerned – she would flip open one of her writing tablets, a Chapman’s notebook always purchased from James Thin Stationers, 53-59 South Bridge Road, Edinburgh, and draw a visitor’s attention to the handwritten copy entered on every other line, explaining that she left room in case she wanted to enter revisions.  Those spaces remained empty.  She seemed to be one  of those rare writers whose preparatory intellectual processes involved the revising and editing most writers do, long before words were committed to the page.  Or did she seek to give this impression, contrary to other evidence?

            Though certainly not so well known as a dramatist, Spark wrote a number of plays, some, as is the case with “Doctors of Philosophy” produced on stage (at the Arts Theatre, London, 1962), others,  like the four  collected in “Voices at Play” (1961), written for radio production.  Among her papers is another little-known play, “Warrender Chase,” which, though it went from holograph through several typed drafts, was neither published nor produced.  These drafts give evidence of substantial revision.  Ever the thrifty Scot, Spark incorporated elements of the play into her sixteenth novel, Loitering with Intent (1981).  Following the same practice, she used parts of an unfinished historical novel set in Roman Britain in her twentieth novel, Reality and Dreams (1996).  Further evidence of having “thrown away practically nothing on paper.”

            Several other files hold materials showing extensive revision.  In writing an early (and important) short story, “You Should Have Seen the Mess” (published in 1958 in  The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories), Spark had evidently encountered some difficulty.  The holograph of the story shows revisions rather more extensive than customary.  Every one of the thirty three pages of manuscript shows corrections, in some places just a word or phrase, in others (and more often) a full sentence.  Word count mattered: Spark’s revised story was considerably shorter.  She annotated it, indicating that it had been cut from 3187 words to 2625 words, thus achieving her characteristic economy and precision.

            The single most extensive cache of documents dealing with Spark’s writing consists of materials related to her penultimate novel, Aiding and Abetting (2000).  The case of its real-life protagonist had long fascinated Spark.  The ghastly episode at the core of both the life and the fiction is this:  on the evening of 7 November 1974, Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan , entered his Belgravia residence and bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny, evidently mistaking her for Lady Lucan with whom he was embroiled in heated combat related to separation and custody issues.  Lady Lucan, injured in the attack, managed to escape to a nearby pub and call the police but Lucan himself disappeared never to be seen again, at least officially.  Speculation as to his whereabouts was rampant – Central Africa, Fiji, South America; indeed, websites devoted to sightings listed almost as many entries as those claiming sightings of Elvis.  It was widely thought that Lucan’s friends from days at Eton and in the Coldstream Guards bankrolled his Flying Dutchman existence, becoming his aiders and abetters.  The seventh earl was not officially declared dead until 1999, but that hardly put an end to fascination and speculation; indeed, it seemed only to fuel it more.  In a bit of wry teasing, Spark herself, in a 2003 interview, hardly closed the case when she observed,” It is believed he is dead.  But nobody knows.  I have been always waiting for a postcard from him.”

            Spark collected every scrap of information about “lucky” Lucan, or so it seems.  The files overflow with press clippings and copies of articles from major British newspapers as well as copious notes and jottings of her own.  Spark’s research was exhaustive, including sources like Burke’s Peerage, Who’s Who, even histories of private London clubs for members of the aristocracy. She knew more about the “Clermont Set” than they knew about themselves.  Everything to do with Lucan had to be found.  And she cast a wide net of inquiry asking friends like the ever-dependable Guy Strutt for assistance and her Tuscan neighbor Lord Lambton for his impressions of the Earl (“terribly dull” was his assessment).

            Once she set to work she wrote at top-speed spinning a mesmerizing novel of parallel plots, one to do with Lord Lucan and his double, a man surgically altered to resemble him closely; the other centered on a highly successful psychoanalyst, formerly a fake stigmatic, based on someone Spark had known about. In a “Note to Readers,” Spark coyly alluded to her method, noting that she had “absorbed creatively and metamorphosed” her materials, a prodigious task considering the information collected.  That description may be the single most illuminating statement Spark ever made about her method.  And it was characteristic of her work on everything that she wrote, though the materials to substantiate such a claim are not all available yet.  The files on The Abbess of Crewe (1974), loosely based on the Nixon/Watergate debacle, are likewise thick with news clippings and research which filtered into a novel thin and sharp as a stiletto heel.

            The archival boxes dealing with Aiding and Abetting are several and stuffed with research, correspondence and drafts (a holograph manuscript with chapters 1-6  in a Bothwell’s Spiral notebook, chapters 7-9 in a James Thin notebook); a typescript of that draft with rather extensive corrections at the word and phrase, not structural, level; correspondence with the publisher; then page proofs with typically precise, careful corrections; and finally a copy of the published volume.  In sum, the extensive materials related to Aiding and Abetting provide the best insight into Spark’s working methods from start to finish, and indicate extraordinarily thorough preparatory research and exact, extensive attention to revising and editing.  Like nearly every novel she wrote, Aiding and Abetting was fewer than two hundred pages and every page had to be a perfect part of a perfect whole.  Publication caused a furor with Lady Lucan threatening to sue and Spark responding, “let her.”  She didn’t, and the novel became an enormous success.

            While it may very well be that Spark wrote one and only one draft for many of her works and while revisions may have been minimal (or entirely absent), the documentary evidence of the archives in these several cases establishes that such was not always the case. Other sources further support that – e.g., her correspondence with Greene. She admitted that writing The Mandelbaum Gate was a long and trying exercise of two years. She acknowledged that finishing her twelfth novel, The Hothouse by the East River, was an extended process that took years. Some substantial revision must have been involved in composing both texts. What is abundantly clear is that not every novel came as effortlessly as Jean Brodie, written in a mere eight weeks, or The Public Image, literally dreamt in New York and written in one long burst in Rome. 

            It is clear that in a number of instances the published text of a story or novel is the result of revision.  Yet Spark chose to give no hint of that process.  We do not know why, and though we may be tempted to speculate, it might be well to think of what she said in response to an interviewer’s query about her presentation of character:  “I don’t go in much for motives,” was her quick rejoinder.

 From the beginning of her career, Spark paid the strictest attention to contracts, copyright, and adaptations, not just because it was an ethical matter (her work was hers after all), but also because she alone was responsible for her financial well-being. Her papers reveal that she kept a sharp eye on arrangements for reprints, translations, fees for performance, payment for adaptation, and copyrights. She knew what her words were worth; put another way, she knew what her words were worth to her publishers. In 1988 she got Constable and Penguin to offer her L170,000 (about $500,000 in today’s money),  for two novels and one volume of autobiography.  In the same year, an offer of $100,000, made by Jacqueline Onassis  on behalf of Doubleday, to publish Curriculum Vitae was diplomatically declined; the correspondence between the two women is illuminating:  Onassis is engaging, professional, and appreciative of Spark’s talent (“What a joy it would be to be associated with this book,” she wrote) while Spark, in response, is charming and business-like but unimpressed by the offer (“I think there is difficulty about world rights as there are existing arrangements in other countries,” she noted). The Times paid L7500 in 1992 to run two installments of Curriculum Vitae.  BBC Radio paid L1285 in 2000 for a radio broadcast of A Far Cry from Kensington. She proved to be a tough negotiator:  when the Times asked her to write 1000 words for L500, she demanded a pound per word and got it.   And she did not fancy other people stealing her words:  the archives have a brief narrative about her annoyance with the Irish actor Peter O’Toole, who had the temerity to title his memoirs Loitering with Intent.  Spark was so offended that she telephoned O’Toole to discuss the matter, but he refused to take the call – and kept the title!

            Spark vigorously promoted her own work and sometimes felt her agents and publishers were not doing enough; she frequently prodded them, telling them she did her work, they should do theirs. One publisher recalled visiting her at her Roman palazzo.  Looking as if she’d just stepped out of a Vogue magazine feature, she received him.   He later said the message was clear:  do the work necessary to keep me in this style.   She took a keen interest in adaptations of her own work. Both Memento Mori and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were staged.  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver’s Seat and The Abbess of Crewe were filmed.  Spark thought the first well done, even if the Edinburgh of the movie was too bright and colorful for her; when someone suggested that Maggie Smith sounded like her, she replied, “Perhaps she’s been listening to me.”  Spark felt that the film of The Driver’s Seat was “artistic,” though she thought Elizabeth Taylor terribly miscast as Lise, the death-driven protagonist; at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004, she underscored her assessment, wryly commenting “it is my favorite book, because it is well-made. But there is no way in which Elizabeth Taylor could look as if she wanted to die. . .she looked as if she wanted a drink.” About the film of The Abbess, she had no comment.  Memento Mori, Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means were done for television, and many of the novels and stories were broadcast on BBC Radio as well. 

            Not all plans came to successful completion.  Spark herself wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of The Takeover, to be directed by Joseph Losey, but his death cancelled the project.  For a film version of Not to Disturb, Spark adamantly wanted Alec Guinness to play the  central role of Lister the butler.  To Gordon Smith, the screenwriter, she wrote, “Yes, Alec Guinness is the obvious Lister because I created the character specially for him” (31 May 1972). However, Guinness proved a slippery fish to net.  Pressing her case, Spark wrote to the distinguished actor, asking “Do you remember when we met in Rome that I told you I was writing a book with the principal character specially for you?”  In reply he asked for copies of the novel and the screenplay.  Subsequently, he declined, suggesting first Rex Harrison, then Alan Bates for the role – neither an apt choice.  That film was never made.  Nor one of Loitering with Intent, though Glenda Jackson, who had starred in the film version of The Abbess (“Nasty Habits”), was seriously interested in the project at one time.  Likewise, despite the real interest of Sir Donald Albery, the London theatre empresario who had produced the stage version of Jean Brodie (a smash hit with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role), Not to Disturb never made it to the West End. 

            And Spark’s “negotiations” with Alan Jay Lerner came to nought as well.  The American composer most famous for My Fair Lady approached Spark sometime in late 1980 or early 1981 with the idea of turning one of her novels into a musical, though he did not know which one would be best.  He wrote that he appreciated her writing because it “has about it the perfume of music and lyrics.” In reply, she suggested Loitering with Intent, noting that “it has the sort of ‘myth’ which might be suitable”; but Lerner responded, “I cannot see how to set it to music.”  Never one to lose an opportunity, Spark wrote, “How about my novel The Girls of Slender Means?” but Lerner died shortly afterwards, and so did the project.

The archival material also documents one classical composer’s interest in adapting a novel as well.  In the autumn of 1975 Gordon Cross of King’s College, Cambridge, proposed an opera based on The Abbess of Crewe. Spark was intrigued, replying that “the idea makes me very happy,” but telling Cross she thought Not to Disturb more promising material for an opera. He agreed (26 June 1976), but nothing came of that, either, nor of the interest of other composers, including Thomas Ades. It seems a shame that no composer realized his intentions, since  a number of Spark’s novels have an intensely operatic air about them, particularly those of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The work of few contemporary writers of fiction has attracted so much attention for adaptation, and perhaps even fewer who have been more active in promoting their own work.

Her name and work became far better known as a result, and she became a woman of comfortable means who lived a chic and cosmopolitan life.  But press reports indicating a substantial estate at her death were erroneous.  Her estate was modest, having been depleted by the cost of medical care from 1992 onwards; time in hospital and in recuperation deprived her of time to write.  Perhaps, had she not been so ill, and had she not given so much time to the biography in progress for so many years (1992 until her death), Spark might have written another novel or two.  We do know that she left a draft of several pages for a twenty-third novel, on the subject of Roberto Calvi, the Milanese banker, and his secretary who “fell” to her death from a window, and notes for another, on Mary Queen of Scots.

It would be a mistake to conclude this essay without giving some sense of the occasional rather more dramatic moments that marked Muriel Spark’s life.  Once, in an interview, she admitted, “I like purple passages in my life.  I like drama” (Gilham) . To some extent, feuding energized her, and some of her feuds are the stuff of literary legend.  Certainly, the longstanding hostility towards Stanford generated occasional drama as did the exchanges with her son concerning her mother’s background.  In a letter to Nicholas Reader,  dated 11 October 1993, she wrote something with extended relevance: “Newman’s life always makes dramatic reading because of his paranoia, which of course invited a lot of persecution.  (I think the same applies to Charlotte Bronte).”  Newman’s paranoia – and to a lesser extent, Bronte’s – was not altogether delusional. Both made enemies and were too principled to retreat from confrontation.  Both suffered from attacks as well as from real and objective threats.  Both suffered in body and spirit.  No wonder Spark felt considerable kinship with them.

Spark was always sensitive to criticism, particularly if it veered away from the literary to the personal. And not just from Derek Stanford.  Others did feel the sting of retaliation.  Three cases, one rather well-known, the other two not so, stand out.  In her early days at the Poetry Society, Spark ran afoul of several of the old guard, one of them, Marie Stopes, the champion of birth control for women.  Stopes wrote to Spark and asked if it were true that her husband had divorced her; in reply, Spark told Stopes to mind her own business.  Stopes pursued the matter and Spark responded (29 May 1948):  “My private affairs are no concern of yours and your malicious interest in them seems to me to be most unwholesome.”  Spark was eventually dismissed from her position.  She neither forgot nor forgave Stopes for her role in the matter.  More than forty years later, in Curriculum Vitae,Spark rendered Stopes with just a few withering lines:  “I met her at one of our meetings and knew she disliked me intensely on sight.  I was young and pretty and she had totally succumbed to the law of gravity without attempting to do a thing about it. . .I used to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control.”

            One imagines a kind of Dantean scheme with an arrangement of concentric circles spiraling downward with each offender permanently fixed in place.  It is a pity that we do not know the punishments Spark might have assigned to each.  Stopes was likely not consigned to the deepest circle.  Stanford, perhaps?  Others had their places.  Take the cases of John Bayley and Hilary Spurling.

             Bayley, husband of the Anglo-Irish novelist Iris Murdoch, was an Oxford don noted as much for his eccentric behavior as for his critical works on English and Russian literature.  In a letter dated 23 August 1994, Alan Taylor, prominent Scots journalist and editor, and member of that year’s Booker Prize panel, wrote to Spark:  “The chairman is John Bayley, a sweet man of undeniable eccentricity who, apparently, shuffles unfinished potatoes from his plate into his jacket pockets.  Have you ever come across him?”  Spark responded on 27th August:  “Yes, I know John Bayley, spouse of Iris [Murdoch], and I am not a bit surprised that he takes his potatoes home where I don’t think he gets many.”  Five years later Murdoch, having suffered a horrifying, painful descent into Alzheimer’s, died.  Spark was affected by the loss, for they had been friends for years, exchanging letters and visits.  Though writers (and women) of a different stripe, each respected the other.  Shortly before Murdoch’s death Bayley published a detailed account of his wife’s terrifying decline: a noble intellect and generous heart twisted beyond recognition into a haunted child.  Spark was horrified at such private agonies being made public, and so was her good friend Doris Lessing.  The two women were so upset that they drafted a letter to the Times, but thought the better of it and never sent it. 

            On 27 February 1999 Spark wrote thus to Lessing:  “It was a good thing that Iris was spared further suffering.  For some reason or other – it is really inexplicable – John Bayley gives me the creeps.  He once said to me, ‘You’re a dear little thing but you don’t really believe all that rubbish about the Church, do you? (As if I’d say it if I didn’t.)  I hated that ‘dear little thing’ – f**k him.”  So much for Prof. Bayley.

            And the biographer Hilary Spurling was likely consigned to a deep circle, for her offense involved biographical truth.  Spurling published Paul Scott: A Life in 1990. Ever-vigilant about her name and reputation, Spark learned that the book contained an erroneous account of a dinner  with Scott – the time, twenty years off; the place, incorrect; the dramatis personae inaccurate and incomplete.  Spark was incensed, and Spurling added fuel to the fire when she repeated the story in an interview with the Times. 

            Spark pounced.  She threatened the American publisher of the biography, Norton, with an injunction to stop its release in the United States until the account was corrected.  She sued the Times and got an apology, with the newspaper forced to pay her legal fees of L1000 (she was well aware that she could have sued for additional damages but chose not to, later stating, “I did them a great favour by claiming nothing for myself.”)  Two letters in the archives are fascinating footnotes to the episode.  One is from Thomas Fleming, editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, known to Spark from a visit to Chicago when she received the T.S. Eliot Award from the Ingersoll Foundation, sponsor of the magazine.  On 17 June 1993 Fleming wrote, “I commissioned a rather well-known literary biographer to write a review of your memoir, but it came in unsatisfactory.  In fact, it was a piece of studied malice.  I do not know what gets into the minds of people.”  On 26 June Spark wrote back to Fleming, “Could the literary biographer you mention be Hilary Spurling?  I pointed out to her, quite privately, a serious mistake in one of her books.  Since when she has been dedicating the whole of her menopause to my demolition.”

            While to some responses such as these concerning two established figures in the literary world of Spark’s time may seem a bit excessive, she was fiercely protective of her name and reputation, established in the course of many decades. The events of her life needed to be recorded with precision and utmost accuracy. Truth was truth, and it was to be respected and preserved.  Lies were lies and they were to be obliterated. 

            Examining the papers and documents left behind by a deceased person is a delicate and demanding task – delicate, because the reader does feel like an interloper at best, a voyeur at worst, demanding because one wants to be open-minded and scrupulously fair in evaluating the evidence of a life on paper.  Spark once said, “I don’t think really, that in order to describe somebody’s life, – you need more than just. . .glance through an open door as you’re going up the stairs, and catch a glimpse of the room before the door shuts.”  The dozens of boxes of material evidence, now available at the National Library of Scotland in the Spark archives, do provide a glimpse and before the door closes we are privileged to learn something more about this enormously talented, enigmatic artist whose published works comprise an extraordinary legacy. It may very well be that the papers not yet kept at the National Library will provide even more than a glimpse.

Robert E. Hosmer jr teaches in the Dept. of English

Language & Literature at Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA

My thanks Penelope Jardine,Muriel Spark’s literary executor, for access and permission to quote; to Kenneth Dunn and Sally Harrower at the National Library, for generous assistance. RH

 

Blog / Discussion

In Search of Seamus

by Alan Taylor

Iolaire

by Ian Stephen

For the Good Times

by Alasdair McKillop

Underland

by Peter Ross