Biography

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 to a Scottish father and an English mother. She was educated at the Edinburgh James Gillespie's School for Girls - an experience which undoubtedly inspired the representation of Edinburgh public school life in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was a talented student and at age 12 received the Walter Scott prize for a poem entitled 'Out of a Book'. After leaving school, Spark took a course in précis writing at the Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh. She later taught English as a means to finance secretarial training.

In 1937, Muriel Camberg married Sydney Oswald Spark and they had a son, Samuel, known as Robin. For several years of her marriage Spark lived in Central Africa. Spark's marriage later ended in divorce.

During the Second World War, Spark was conscripted to the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office where she worked as a propagandist for the war effort. After the war she lived in London, where she began her literary career. She became General Secretary of The Poetry society, edited The Poetry Review 1947 -9 and wrote studies of Mary Shelley, John Masefield and the Bronte sisters. In 1952 she published her first book of poetry, a collection The Fanfarlo and Other Verse but it was her winning of the Observer prize for short fiction that finally inspired her to write fiction full-time. Her first published novel, The Comforters (1957), was written three years after Spark converted to Roman Catholicism and the novel was inspired by her studies on the Book of Job. Several critics agree that her religious conversion was the central event of her life.

With the success of her early novels and in particular The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark was able to leave London and, in 1967, took up residence in Italy.

Over her long career Muriel Spark has received countless literary tributes and honours. In 1971 she was awarded an honorary degree in literature from Strathclyde University and has been similarly honoured by the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh, London, Oxford and The American University of Paris. Heriot-Watt, where she studied précis writing, accorded her an honorary doctorate in 1995. In 1993, Spark was made a Dame of the British Empire and a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France) and, in 1997, she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

Dame Muriel Spark died at her home in Tuscany in April, 2006.

Works

Muriel Spark's most celebrated and best-known novel is undoubtedly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961 and adapted for stage, TV and film. Set in Edinburgh, the novel tells of the tragic and absurd fates of five schoolgirls under the tutelage of the remarkable Miss Jean Brodie. Stylistically, the novel would mark a departure from conventional story telling. It is characteristically brief, playful, witty and to-the-point. In the first chapter we are told, suddenly, that one of the main protagonists is to die, 'aged twenty-three … in a hotel fire'. Spark's intention is to remove the element of suspense from the novel and to replace the readers' inquisitiveness as to what will happen with an attention as to why things happen. Spark's novels are both profoundly psychological and existential - in that they seek to both uncover personal motivations and to analyse the often unstable nature of private and public truths.

The novel is narrated with considerable humour - a chief characteristic of Spark's writing. But as several commentators have noted, there is a deeply serious undertone to her humour. Jean Brodie is the autocratic, eccentric schoolmistress of the novel's title and her Brodie Set are increasingly inculcated with a brand of 'Brodiesm' that marks them apart from other girls their age. At first they are glad of the distinction. But as they grow older, Miss Brodie's hold over them becomes increasingly ominous and they are drawn into a world of adult games and intrigues. Miss Brodie sends the naive Emily Joyce into a fatal adventure in the Spanish Civil War, she creates outsiders and favourites, manipulates love affairs and imposes her will ruthlessly until she is finally, anonymously betrayed by her most dedicated disciple, Sandy Stranger, who has discovered that Miss Brodie 'thinks she is Providence … thinks she is … God'. Set in the months preceding the Second World War, the novel is an ironic attack upon the nature of dictatorship, the desire for conformity, upon political romanticism and propaganda. In this complex and highly original novel Jean Brodie becomes both a symbol for tragic egoism, political despotism and the countless philosophical questions surrounding the authority of God and the nature of ultimate truth.

The Driver's Seat, published in 1970, was billed as 'an ethical shocker'. Stephen Schiff in The New Yorker wrote that Spark's 'spiny and treacherous masterpiece The Driver's Seat is so stark as to be nightmarish.' The book tells the story of Lise, one of life's ordinary misfits, a spinster and an accountant in an anonymous city somewhere in an unnamed country in Northern Europe. Spark famously described The Driver's Seat as a 'whydunnit', alluding to the fact that suspense is removed in the novel's third chapter when the reader is warned that Lise is soon to be the victim of a murder investigation. Characteristically, Spark's novel is an examination, not of what events take place but why they do so.

In a narrative that is deliberately detached, reinforcing Lise's strangeness, and her isolation, the reader eventually learns that the protagonist has suffered years of illness; her behaviour, which is erratic and often confrontational, and her provocative dress are intended almost to alert the world to a previously forgotten existence. Yet despite the fact that Lise desperately seeks acknowledgement she also seeks annihilation ('I wish my parents had practised birth control' she admits towards the end of the novel) and the story is ultimately the tale of a women seeking to control her own death. The Driver's Seat depicts a world in which modern individualism has produced isolation and alienation, in which faddish New Age lifestyles replace genuine spirituality and in which chaos and absurdity replaces the moral certainty of the God-ordered universe. Deprived of these social and spiritual values and existing instead within a small, sterile, impersonal world (symbolised by her spartan, state-of-the-art home), Lise is driven to search, not for her ideal lover but her ideal death. Spark turns the traditional fairytale romance on its head, denying her readership the assurance that modern isolation can be cured by the perfect love affair and instead raising several disturbing questions about the nature of female victimisation and empowerment, and about the social, sexual and spiritual values of modern society.

Reading Lists

Primary

The Comforters (1957)

Robinson (1958)

Memento Mori (1959)

The Bachelors (1960)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

Doctors of Philosophy (Play, 1963)

The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)

The Public Image (1968)

The Very Fine Clock (Juvenile, 1968)

The Driver's Seat (1970)

Not to Disturb (1971)

The Hothouse by the East River (1973)

The Abbess of Crewe (1974)

The Takeover (1976)

Territorial Rights (1979)

Loitering with Intent (1981)

The Only Problem (1984)

A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)

Symposium (1990)

Reality and Dreams (1996)

Aiding and Abetting (2000)

The Finishing School (2004)

Collections

The Fanfarlo: And Other Verse (1952)

The Go-Away Bird: And Other Stories (1958)

Voices at Play (1961)

Bang-Bang You're Dead (1982)

Going Up To Sotheby's (1982)

Stories of Muriel Spark (1985)

The Collected Stories of Muriel Spark (1994)

The Young Man Who Discovered The Secret of Life: And Other Stories (1998)

All the Stories of Muriel Spark (2001)

The Complete Short Stories (2001)

Selected Stories (2001)

The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark (2003)

All the Poems of Muriel Spark (2004)

Autobiography

Curriculum Vitae (1993)

Critical Works on Muriel Spark

Ruth Whittaker, The faith and fiction of Muriel Spark (1982)

Allan Massie, Muriel Spark (1979)

Alan Bold, Muriel Spark (1986)

Dorothea Walker, Muriel Spark (1988)

Norman Page, Muriel Spark (1990)

Theorizing Muriel Spark: gender, race, deconstruction, ed. by Martin McQuillan (2002)

Fotini E. Apostolou, Seduction and death in Muriel Spark's fiction (2001)

Bryan Cheyette, Muriel Spark (2000)

Judy Sproxton, The Women of Muriel Spark (1992)

Critical essays on Muriel Spark, ed. by Joseph Hynes (1992)

Jennifer Lynn Randisi, On her way rejoicing : the fiction of Muriel Spark (1991)

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