Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark (1918 - 2006)
Photograph of Muriel Spark by Gordon Wright
Muriel Spark © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission)

Biography

Summary

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and lived most of her adult life in England and Italy. One of the most highly regarded British novelists of the 20th century, notably as the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , she herself wrote 'I have always thought of myself as a poet'. She mischievously uses the poetic conventions while unsettling them, and her themes echo those of the novels, personal and metaphysical.

Full Biography

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Sarah Camberg on 1 February 1918 in Edinburgh. Her father Bernard (Barney) was Scottish Jewish and her mother Sarah (Cissy) English Anglican, with a partly Jewish heritage. Although her parents married in a synagogue, probably as a matter of convenience rather than conviction, Muriel and her elder brother Philip were brought up in an undoctrinaire manner: the family were not regular attenders of either synagogue or church.

Her parents had some pretensions to gentility and, like many upper-working-class Scottish families, respected education. In spite of their relatively low income, the Cambergs sent Muriel and her elder brother Philip to a modest fee-paying school, James Gillespie’s. After Philip had left at 14 to begin an apprenticeship, the school became a Girls’ High School and Muriel’s education there gave her the material which she later shaped into the Marcia Blaine School for girls, whose charismatic teacher became the central character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the novel which became, as Spark put it, her ‘milch cow’.

Spark died aged 88 on 13 April 2006 in Florence; her funeral and burial took place at her local church, Sant'Andrea of the Apostle in Oliveto, Tuscany, where she had lived since 1985 with the sculptor Penelope Jardine. During her long life she had lived in Edinburgh, Southern Rhodesia, Milton Bryan, Kensington, Aylesford, Camberwell, New York, Rome, as well as travelling in Europe, the Holy Land and India. She described herself as an exile, yet seemed supremely at home wherever she went, an alien who could almost immediately turn local. She had published 22 novels, many short stories, literary biography, criticism, poetry and drama. She had won numerous awards, received many honours including a DBE in 1993; her obituaries celebrated her as ‘one of the great novelists of the 20th Century’ (Susan Hill), ‘a truly original writer, one of those rare figures who change the possibilities of an art form for other practitioners’ (David Lodge). Yet the inscription on her tombstone reads ‘MURIEL SPARK/POETA/1918-2006.  Muriel Spark was an exceptionally various figure, she was never ‘only’ anything: she was not ‘only’ a Jew, she was not ‘only’ a Catholic, she was not ‘only’ a Scot, she was not ‘only’ a cosmopolite, and she was not ‘only’ a novelist.

Spark’s last publications appeared in 2004: her novel, The Finishing School, and All the Poems. The latter title is misleading: it is a selection of poems from 1943 to 2003, arranged according to theme by her editor, Barbara Epler. Spark herself provided the dates that enable a chronological reading, and a statement claiming that her poems are central rather than peripheral to her work: ‘I have always thought of myself as a poet ... for creative writing of any sort, an early apprenticeship as a poet is a wonderful stimulant and start’ (AP, xii).

Spark was devoted to poetry from a very early age. Five of her poems were published in an anthology called The Door of Youth, one of them already showing that deftness in the transformation of cliché that was to remain a strategy throughout her writing career: ‘as I write this verse on Time / That self-same Time is flying’. Her poems also appeared regularly in the school magazine: when she was twelve the magazine exceptionally published five of her ‘out of the ordinary’ poems and two years later in 1932 she won a prize awarded to celebrate the centenary of Walter Scott’s death and was, rather to her embarrassment, crowned in a public ceremony. There are a few felicities in the magazine poems – a beetle who will ‘think of a lot of slippery things’, a desire in ‘A Dog-day Dream’ to pour the contents of an inkwell ‘down the little slot’ and ‘see the wet black stream flow slowly through’, but as a poet Muriel Spark was precocious without being a prodigy. Yet the tastes in poetry which would inform her fiction and her verse were already formed: ‘Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne, ... the Georgians, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Walter de la Mare, Yeats, John Masefield, Robert Bridges, and, the only woman among them, Alice Meynell’ (CV, 64). More important even than these were the Border ballads: ‘The steel and bite of the ballads, so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart’ (CV, 98).  

Spark continued to think of herself as a poet and to write poetry when she lived in Southern Rhodesia 1937-1944, during her brief, disastrous marriage to Sydney Oswald Spark, a teacher 13 years her senior with whom she had a son, Robin. Several poems won prizes in the Rhodesian Eisteddfod. The African experience formed one strand of her identity – she took it with her imaginatively but she fled from it physically. Obtaining a divorce from her husband because of his mental instability and leaving her son in a Convent school, she returned to Britain in a troop ship in 1944. Robin returned to Britain in 1945; attempts by Spark to establish a household with him fell through for various reasons and he was brought up by her parents in Edinburgh. There Robin espoused the Jewish religion, and as an adult he tried to persuade his mother to admit that she was really and wholly Jewish, provoking a battle that lasted beyond the grave and, when Robin went public in 1998, allowed ill-informed attacks on Spark’s character.

Back in England in 1944 Spark worked in the black propaganda unit of the Political Intelligence Office, in which she gained experience of the potentially benign effects of lying. After the war she worked in London, living in the Helena Club for young women (later to feature as the May of Teck Club in Girls of Slender Means). She joined the Poetry Society in 1946 and a number of her poems were published in the Society’s journal Poetry Review.  Her poems were very highly spoken of – ‘imaginatively inspired’, ‘impressive in sustained power’, and so on.

In spring 1947 she became General Secretary of the Society and editor of Poetry Review. Relations with the Society were difficult from the start. Spark was at the time neither settled nor emollient: she was having an affair with the still married poet Howard Sergeant, she expected from the Society a flat which would accommodate herself and her son (she never got it), and she wanted to flex her muscles, believing that ‘if you are in the driver’s seat, you drive’ (CV, 169). Poetry Review was not wholly reactionary. It had published Pound, Hardy, Osbert Sitwell, reviewed favourably MacNeice and Durrell, paid tribute to Edward Thomas. Ironically the issue that fulsomely praised Spark, carried both a grudging notice of Larkin’s The North Ship and a silly squib, ‘Modern Poetry’, attacking Dylan Thomas for unintelligibility and his ‘purple vest’.  Many of the Society members were conservative in their tastes and touchy about their social and intellectual positions.  Muriel Spark tells her side of the unedifying story in Curriculum Vitae. She was finally sacked in November 1948 (which she insisted on, since resignation would not have provided her with severance pay).

During her editorship, Poetry Review got a slightly more modern-looking format but many of the old names and tired styles persisted – magazines need time to change and Spark was not given that. She did, however, insist that poets were paid, thus professionalising the Review, and her combative but thoughtful editorials – ‘Cannot we cease railing against the moderns?’; ‘The word “obscure” is a convenient one that a superficial or dishonest critic might apply to any poem he fails to understand’; ‘since when was it more than an incidental function of art to give pleasure?’ – have not lost their point. The experience also gave Spark one of her most famous bon mots, on Marie Stopes who made herself Spark’s enemy: ‘I used to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control’ (CV, 178).

Between leaving the Poetry Society in 1948 and the publication of her first novel, The Comforters, in 1951, Muriel Spark had an affair with the poet Derek Stanford, with whom she collaborated on books on Wordsworth and Emily Brontë  (when Stanford  later sold her letters and wrote about her life, he became her lifelong enemy, lampooned in A Far Cry from Kensington, 1981, as a pisseur de copie), wrote a biography of John Masefield, published The Fanfarlo and Other Verse, joined the Anglican Church, converted to Catholicism, dieted wildly, using dexedrine, and had a breakdown.  None of these experiences was wasted but her writing resists explanation simply in terms of her experiences.

Even after winning the Observer short story prize for ‘The Seraph of the Zambesi’, which made the literary establishment notice her and prompted Graham Greene generously to subsidise her writing, Spark did not become ‘only’ a writer of fiction. Everything about Muriel Spark remained heterodox: her fiction subverted the categories critics tried to impose on it – avant-garde, Catholic, magic realist; her Catholicism refused all rules, since she didn’t much like orthodox Catholics, didn’t regularly go to church, didn’t confess and so on; and she continued to consider herself as a poet even when her sixth novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, made her internationally famous as a novelist and she had reinvented herself as a glamorous, and slim celebrity, living in Manhattan.

In 1967 Muriel Spark was back in Europe, living in Rome. That year in between The Mandelbaum Gate, her longest novel set in Jerusalem and written after a fraught visit to the Holy Land during Eichmann’s trial, and The Public Image set in Italy, Spark published her Collected Poems I, the title seeming to promise a continuing career as a poet. The longest poem in the collection is ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’, the poem which Spark had told Howard Sergeant was her ‘central statement in verse so far’, and features a cast of characters drawn from Baudelaire from whom its epigraph is taken.

Throughout the poems the seriousness of Spark’s commitment to the mundane and the eternal is never in doubt, nor is her conviction that they are inextricably entwined and that heaven will never yield itself to the despiser of the commonplace. The speaker of ‘Against the Transcendentalists’ hopes that:

                               If Byzantium
           Should appear in Kensington
           The city will fit the size
           Of the perimeter of my eyes
           And of the span of my hand. (CP, 11)

A similar refusal to toe any established line informs deceptively conventional poems. ‘Elegy in a Kensington Churchyard’ refuses to sentimentalise the dead, celebrating rather the irrepressible natural world:

           Lady who lies beneath this stone,
           Pupil of Time pragmatical,
           Though in a lifetime’s cultivation
           You did not blossom, summer shall. (CP, 34)

‘Sisera’ counts the cost of God’s victories and heretically rejects the heroines Jael and Deborah in favour of the dead Assyrian general: ‘I am for Sisera’ (CP, 83) This is startling, as Spark so often is. In a 1971 interview with W. Gordon Smith Spark says that her poems are ‘not very good’, and she only gets paid for them because her name, supported by her fame as a novelist, is attached. But the modesty was, one suspects, not quite genuine. Spark’s poems don’t follow a trajectory of development but they continue to make you sit up.

In 1982, a year after Loitering with Intent, Spark’s chilling, yet funny and optimistic retrospect of her years of poverty in London, Going Up to Sotheby’s brought together some new, some unpublished and some previously published poems. ‘Faith and Works’ casts a typically cold eye on the moral and the spiritual life:

           My friend is always doing Good
           But doubts the Meaning of his labour,
           While I by faith am much imbued
           And can’t be bothered with my neighbour.

The title poem about the selling by his grandchildren of a writer’s literary MSS asks obliquely where the value of art inheres: the writer’s papers ‘are going up  /to make their fortune at last, which once were so humble, tattered, and so truly working-class.’

Authors’ Ghosts, a limited edition pamphlet (56 copies, six for private distribution) published in 2004, shows Spark at 86 concerned to produce a miniature last tribute to friends and to poetry. Five of the seven poems appear in All the Poems but one which does not is worth remark. It records how Spark’s kitchen in Trastevere has been described by a visitor to a mutual friend in New York, who:

           Now balding, bent and puffy-eyed,
           Glues his regard on all my moves
           Recorded from the other side.

All the Poems was more widely reviewed than her earlier collections, possibly because Spark was perceived to be moving close to the four last things that had so preoccupied her alter ego, Jean Taylor, in Memento Mori. Frank Kermode, who was her friend, wrote: ‘the voice is always idiosyncratic, various and pure ... Spark is not afraid to be wise, grave on occasion, as well as, sometimes on the same occasion, mischievous’. Two years later she was dead.

Muriel Spark’s position as a novelist is unassailable.   Much has been written in and out of the academy about her fiction but very little has been written about the poetry. There is certainly a case for a new Collected Poems more conventionally arranged and admitting some poems excluded from All the Poems. Muriel Spark is sometimes accused of turning her back on world events, an accusation similar to that levelled against Jane Austen and equally fatuous. All the Poems includes ‘The Three Kings’, Spark’s version of Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’. The Three Kings have followed their star and returned home to find ‘the people demonstrating in the streets’. ‘They say they don’t need Kings any more’ ... ‘Wise Men? What’s wise about them?’ ... ‘And who needs them? – and so on.’

           Perhaps they will be better off without us,
           But where do we go from here?

Muriel Spark always knew how to leave her readers with an unanswerable question.

 

Dorothy McMillan

Poems by Muriel Spark

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Poetry:
The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (Aldington, Kent: The Hand & Flower Press, 1952)
Collected Poems I (London: Macmillan, 1967)
Going up to Sotheby’s and Other Poems (St Albans: Granada, 1982)
Authors’ Ghosts: Seven Poems (London: Rees & O’Neill, 2004)
All the Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2004)

Autobiography:
Curriculum Vitae (1992; London: Penguin, 1993)

Selected Biography and Criticism

There is very little criticism of the poetry outside reviews.

Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark: the biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009) (includes an excellent bibliography)

‘Nativities: Muriel Spark, Baudelaire, and the quest for religious faith’, Review of English Studies, NS, 55:218, 91-105

Other Useful Info

Copyright 

David Higham Associates Ltd

Manuscripts and Papers

The National Library of Scotland