IN THE winter of 1918, Scotland was dismal. The First World War was almost but not yet over, and the country reeling from grief. Never the cheeriest place on the planet, Edinburgh was more sombre and inward-looking than ever. Into this atmosphere, on February 1, in a tenement in Bruntsfield, Muriel Camberg was born. There was nothing in her upbringing that could have foretold the world-famous novelist that she was to become, but in her own mind at least, her chosen path was evident almost from the day she learned to read.
The centenary of her birth initiates an extensive year-long programme of events and broadcasts, celebrating one of Britain’s finest writers. One of our most under-appreciated too. (Why no Nobel Prize nomination or statue in her home city?) She is the natural heir to Robert Louis Stevenson, but it is remarkable how many who would call themselves well-read barely know Muriel Spark’s work, while some even now do not recognise its brilliance.
Aesthetic taste or personal preference is one thing, but the wilful literary slights that Spark endured have nothing to do with her post-modern tone or inventiveness, her willingness to break as many rules as necessary in order to attain the effect she desired. Two things explain her too-long neglect in her native land: that she spent her adult life elsewhere; and that she had a reputation as a difficult woman and a bad mother. By far the more corrosive of these prejudices was the last.
In the years following escape from her disastrous marriage to Sydney Oswald Spark in then-Rhodesia, the author’s tale is one that any thinking woman would find inspirational. When eventually she was reunited with her son Robin, she settled him with her parents in Edinburgh, and took a job in London. The distance she put between herself and her family was essential to find space to write, but nevertheless she paid not only her and Robin’s bills but, until the end of their lives, helped out with those of her mother and father, and her mentally unstable husband. These responsibilities she maintained until, by then in his sixties, her embittered and increasingly estranged son began to return her cheques.
There can be no doubt that the rumours of her being a latch-key mum, of keeping an unmaternal distance from her child influenced popular and even critical opinion of her. Yet in her London years, and later when she relocated to New York, Rome and finally Tuscany, she showed how dedicated, courageous and defiant a single woman, mother or not, must be if she is to prevail in a man’s world.
Spark was well aware of what was said of her. In her last novel, The Finishing School, published two years before her death, aged 88, in 2006, a young writer reflects: “the dedicated author might seem callous, not easily shattered, tough. Hence the reputation of artists in all fields for ruthless, cold detachment. Too bad. About this sort of accusation the true artist is uncaring. The true artist is almost unaware of other people’s care and distractions. This applies to either sex.”
What also applied was that a woman on whom her calling made all-consuming demands, could never live down the disgrace. Fellow female artists should take note. Society may have changed, but not that much. The emotional, judgmental pressures Spark faced still lie in wait, whatever people might think. The man who leaves his partner and young family for six months to write, or explore the Andes, or find God, is treated with sympathy and interest. But a woman who does the same will be labelled heartless.
That Spark was a warm, vivacious and loving person was poignantly brought home to me recently. Asked to inspect and certify items of hers sent from Italy to appear in the current exhibition of her life in the National Library of Scotland, I was able to hold some of her favourite dresses and skirts, handbags and rosary beads, typewriter and prayer book. As the conservator pored over each exhibit, it was as if Spark was in the room. Her jewellery box still carries the scent of her perfume; her pocket-sized devotional book is so well-thumbed, it is falling apart. But it was her evening gowns, and one dark blue velvet one in particular, that caught the throat. Laid flat, arms outstretched, it was like something Mary Queen of Scots would have worn, both of them glamorous and flame-haired. The curator pointed out sweat stains, a water mark on the lining, a zip that needed careful handling. It was a tender moment, and a reminder that genius though she was, Spark was like any of us, just more so.
As the centenary rapidly approaches, many others finally realise this. An ambitious Edinburgh International Book Festival event in the Usher Hall takes place tonight, titled The Creme de la Crème –1000 tickets sold for this in a matter of days. What better signal that, a century after her birth, Spark is receiving the attention, and affection, she is long overdue.
This article was originally published in The Herald newspaper.