Muriel Spark

From New World Encyclopedia

Dame Muriel Spark, (February 1, 1918 – April 13, 2006) was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times; however, she ironically departed Scotland as a teenager and returned thereafter only for brief visits. Yet this distance may well have helped her as a novelist of international acclaim as her Scottish roots emanate throughout her writing. Spark's works embody her Catholicism, addressing the problems of human society in Modernity when God is not present, while emphasizing the value of religious ideas, such as faith and forgiveness. In fact, at the heart of Muriel Spark's writing is Christian ideology and the idea that man's blessings are due to the presence of God, and a lack thereof would turn mankind into savages. She is renowned for the cruel ways in which she paints the dark destinies of her characters, the most notorious being Miss Jean Brodie.

Early life

She was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, to a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, and was educated at James Gillespie's High School for Girls. She is also known by several other names: Muriel Spark, Muriel Sarah Spark, Muriel Sarah Camberg, Muriel Sarah Spark Stanford, Evelyn Cavallo, and Dame Muriel Sarah Spark. In 1934-1935 she took a course in "Commercial correspondence and précis writing" at Heriot-Watt College. She taught English for a brief time and then worked as a secretary in a department store.[1]

On September 3, 1937, she married Sidney Oswald Spark, and soon followed him to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Their son, Robin was born in July 1938. Within months she claimed that her husband was a manic depressive prone to violent outbursts. In 1940 Muriel had left Sydney and Robin. She returned to the United Kingdom in 1944 and worked in intelligence during World War II. She provided money at regular intervals to support her son as he toiled unsuccessfully over the years. Spark maintained it was her intention for her family to establish residence in England. Robin returned to Britain with his father, and was brought up by his maternal grandparents in Scotland.[2][3][4][5]

Relationship with her son

Spark and her son had strained relationship. They had a falling out when Robin's Judaism prompted him to petition for his late grandmother to be recognized as Jewish. The devout Catholic Spark reacted by accusing him of seeking publicity to further his career as an artist.[6] During one of her last book signings in Edinburgh she responded to an inquiry from a journalist asking if she would see her son by saying 'I think I know how best to avoid him by now'.[7][8][9] It was reported in the Daily Mail on April 22 2006 that her only son Robin, 68, had not attended her funeral service in Tuscany.

Writing career

Spark began writing seriously after the war, under her married name, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. In 1947, she became editor of the Poetry Review. In 1954, she decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, which she considered crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist. Penelope Fitzgerald, a contemporary of Spark and a fellow novelist, remarked how Spark "had pointed out that it wasn't until she became a Roman Catholic … that she was able to see human existence as a whole, as a novelist needs to do."[10] In an interview with John Tusa on BBC Radio 4, she said of her conversion and its effect on her writing: "I was just a little worried, tentative. Would it be right, would it not be right? Can I write a novel about that–would it be foolish, wouldn't it be? And somehow with my religion—whether one has anything to do with the other, I don't know—but it does seem so, that I just gained confidence…" Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh supported her in her decision.

Her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) was more successful. Spark displayed originality of subject and tone, and featured a character who knew she was in a novel. Spark told her characters' stories from the past and the future simultaneously. It is clear that James Gillespie's High School was the model for the Marcia Blaine School in the novel.

After living in New York City briefly, where New Yorker magazine published the entire book of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she moved to Rome, where she met the artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine in 1968. In the early 1970s they settled in the Italian region of Tuscany and lived in the village of Civitella della Chiana, of which in 2005 Spark was made an honorary citizen. She was the subject of frequent rumors of lesbian relationships[11] from her time in New York onwards, although Spark and her friends denied these accusations. She left her entire estate to Jardine, taking measures to ensure her son received nothing.[12]

She refused to agree to the publication of a biography of her written by Martin Stannard. Penelope Jardine now has the right of approval to publication and the book is unlikely to appear soon. According to A. S. Byatt, "She was very upset by the book and had to spend a lot of time going through it, line by line, to try to make it a little bit fairer." [13]

She received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the US Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the British Literature Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature.

In Her Own Words

Muriel Spark, in an interview, put her writing, and her own life in perspective: "I don't see what else you can draw on for fiction but your life, not only your own life but what you've learned or read from other people's lives. It's one's own experience after all, don't you think?"[14]

Later in the interview she addresses the relationship of truth and lies in fiction, "Fiction is lies. And in order to do this you have got to have a very good sense of what is the truth. You can't do the art of deception, of deceiving people so they suspend disbelief, without having that sense very strongly indeed… Of course there is a certain truth that emerges from a novel, but you've got to know the difference between fiction and truth before you can write the novel at all. A lot of people don't—a lot of novelists don't—and what you get then is a mess … people run away with the idea that what they are writing is the truth…. You must be all the time aware it's not." [14]

Assessing her own work, she states, "I think it's very difficult to put my work in any genre and under any label—very very difficult," she admits. It bothers people. I write as a Scot and I write as a Catholic," she says. "I don't even have to think about it. That's there like your freckles, you know." Not much later she says something I've read her say before, in an interview from 1970: "It just comes natural to me. I just construct it as I go along. It's a built-in sense." When asked how her critics would receive her work, she said, "My one aim, especially with Loitering with Intent, was to give pleasure… and give experience. All artists should give experience and should show people how to get experience—to open windows and doors. If you don't do that you've failed. I'm sure of that."[14]


Spark was the recepient of numerous literary accolades during her lifetime. Her first award in the literature field was the Observer short story prize (1951) for "The Seraph and the Zambesi." She followed that up with the Prix Italia, 1962, for the radio play adaptation of The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Four years later, her novel The Mandelbaum Gate earned her the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year award, 1965, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Several decades letter in 1987, Spark received the Scottish Book of the Year award for The Stories of Muriel Spark; First Prize, F.N.A.C. La Meilleur Recueil des Nouvelles Etrangeres, 1987, for the Editions Fayard translation of The Stories of Muriel Spark; Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1988, Commandeur, 1996; Bram Stoker Award, 1988, for Mary Shelley; Ingersoll T. S. Eliot Award, 1992; Dame, Order of the British Empire, 1993; David Cohen British Literature Prize, 1997; PEN International Gold Pen Award, 1998; Campion Award, Catholic Book Club, 2001.

Honorary degrees, University of Strathclyde, 1971, University of Edinburgh, 1989, University of Aberdeen, 1995, Watt University, 1995, University of Saint Andrews, 1998, and Oxford University, 1999.

Literary Works


  • The Comforters (1957)
  • Robinson (novel)|Robinson (1958)
  • Memento Mori (novel)|Memento Mori (1959)
  • The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
  • The Bachelors (novel) (1960)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
  • The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
  • The Public Image (1968)
  • The Driver's Seat (novel) (1970)
  • Not to Disturb (1971)
  • The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
  • The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
  • The Takeover (novel) (1976)
  • Territorial Rights (1979)
  • Loitering with Intent (1981)
  • The Only Problem (1984)
  • A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
  • Symposium (novel) (1991)
  • Reality and Dreams (1996)
  • Aiding and Abetting (novel) (2000)
  • The Finishing School (2004)

Other works

  • Tribute to Wordsworth (edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford) (1950)
  • Child of Light (a study of Mary Shelley) (1951)
  • The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952)
  • Selected Poems of Emily Brontë (1952)
  • John Masefield (biography) (1953)
  • Emily Brontë: her life and work (by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford) (1953)
  • My Best Mary (a selection of letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford) (1953)
  • The Brontë letters (1954)
  • Letters of John Henry Newman (edited by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford) (1957)
  • The Go-away Bird (short stories) (1958)
  • Voices at Play (short stories and plays) (1961)
  • Doctors of Philosophy (play) (1963)
  • Collected Poems (1967)
  • Collected Stories (1967)
  • The Very Fine Clock (children's book, illustrations by Edward Gorey)(1968)
  • Bang-bang You're Dead (short stories) (1982)
  • Going up to Sotheby's (poems) (1982)
  • Curriculum Vitae (autobiography) (1992)
  • Complete Short Stories (2001)
  • All the Poems (2004)
  • You Should Have Seen the Mess (short story)

Analysis of Muriel Spark's Major Works

Muriel Spark's works seem to have a constant theme running through. Victor Kelleher commented in "Critical Review," that "Spark does not stop short at simply bringing the question of Catholicism into her work; she has chosen to place the traditionally Christian outlook at the very heart of everything she writes…. [Her tales proclaim] the most basic of Christian truths: that all man's blessings emanate from God; that, in the absence of God, man is nothing more than a savage." Catharine Hughes makes a similar assessment of Spark's religious sentiment in an article in the Catholic World. The critic observed: "[Spark satirizes] humanity's foibles and incongruities from a decidedly Catholic orientation. One is conscious that she is a writer working within the framework of some of Christianity's greatest truths; that her perspective, which takes full cognizance of eternal values, is never burdened by a painful attempt to inflict them upon others."

In her stories, her characters are placed in a background of upper class England or Italy and are often faced with conflicting destinies and intricate ties of friendship, marriage, etc. "In the tradition of the intellectual novelist, Spark avoids florid descriptions of the physical world, preferring instead to concentrate on dialogue, on "the play of ideas and experiences upon the mind, and the interplay of minds upon each other," according to Joseph Hynes in his Critical Essays on Muriel Spark."


Muriel Spark's legacy rests in the development of her characters, particularly Miss Jean Brodie, and her "finely polished, darkly comic prose." In fact, the character of Miss Jean Brodie has come to be known as one of the funniest and most sinister characters in modern fiction. Often controversial, Spark's work had an emphasis on the life beyond, which often gave her work a nonchalant tone, and drew disdain from her critics for spiraling her characters into merry deaths. 'In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion. Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch."[15] She herself, leaves her own legacy when she states, "People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."[16]


  1. James Gillespies High School Official Site.
  2. Author Muriel Spark dies aged 88, BBC News. April 15, 2006, accompanied by an obituary
  3. Dame Muriel Spark, 1918-2006: The novelist of identity, a May 1, 2006, Weekly Standard article
  4. Kelly Jane Torrance Spark of Genius, a consideration of the author's work in the Winter 2006 Doublethink magazine
  5. Biography [1] National Library of Scotland.
  6. NICK PISA The Sunday Scot A far cry from Morningside 23 Apr 2006, Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  7. Edinborough International Book Festival 2004. transcriptions Book Festival readings Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  8. Bard Mitzvah July 2, 1998
  9. Spark's son: I won't cash in on mum 14 May 2006
  10. Hal Hager, "About Muriel Spark," Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999), 141.
  11. How The New Yorker Made Muriel Spark's Reputation April 17, 2006
  12. [2] Muriel Spark leaves millions to woman friend rather than son. April 14, 2007, Evening Standard.Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  13. Tim Walker"Companion shelves 'unfair' Spark biography" April 22, 2007, Telegraph UK.Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 [3] "Death, Lies and Lipstick." A conversation with Muriel Spark, July 1999. Galloway Archives.Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  15. HELEN T. VERONGOS and ALAN COWELL Muriel Spark, Novelist Who Wrote 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' Dies at 88,April 16, 2007, The New York Times. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  16. Muriel Spark, Novelist Who Wrote 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' Dies at 88 Retrieved November 24, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Karl Malkoff. Muriel Spark. New York, Columbia University Press, 1968. OCLC: 236606
  • Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962. OCLC: 366922
  • Spark, Muriel. Reality and dreams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., Copyright 1996. ISBN 9780395838112.
  • Walker, Dorothea. Muriel Spark. Boston: Twayne Publishers, Copyright 1988. ISBN 9780805769609.


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