Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1918, Muriel Spark was nearly forty years old when she completed her first novel, The Comforters (1957). Over the next five decades, Spark published twenty-one novels, three volumes of short stories, a collection of poetry, the occasional play, and children’s work. Spark’s sixth novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), went on to become adapted into a stage-play, feature film, and television series. Considered one of the most tantalizing writers of her generation, she was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and received the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1997. Muriel Spark died in Tuscany, Italy, in 2006.
Early Life and Conversion to Catholicism
Born Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh on February 1, 1918, Muriel Spark studied at James Gillespie’s School for Girls and Heriot Watt College, both in Edinburgh. From 1937 to1944 she lived in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her 1937 marriage to S. O. Spark was eventually dissolved. The couple had one son. Returning to Britain in 1944, Spark worked for the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office in London from 1944 to 1945 and served as General Secretary of the Poetry Society and editor of Poetry Review in London from 1947 to 1949. In 1954 she converted to Roman Catholicism.
Early Works and the French Avant-Garde
Dame Muriel Spark was nearly forty years of age when she completed The Comforters, her first novel. Over the next five decades she published twenty-one novels, three volumes of short stories and an occasional play, a collection of poetry, and children’s work. The phenomenal success of Spark’s sixth novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—as a stage-play, feature film, and television series—ensured that she retains a popular appeal. After gaining several literary prizes and academic awards, she is now widely considered one of the most engaging and tantalizing writers of her generation. What is extraordinary about Spark’s achievement is that as well as having a large international readership she managed to engage with many of the most serious intellectual issues of her time. It is typical of her work that it both gestures towards and acknowledges many of the debates and concerns of the age without ever being wholly reliant on them.
Spark gained a good deal from avant-garde movements such as the French nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the British “experimentalism” of B. S. Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose in the 1950s and 1960s; feminist writing of the 1970s; and postmodern and magical realist fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, she continued the long tradition of English social realism and literary satire in much of her work and placed these more conventional modes alongside the avant-garde. But what is clear from even a cursory reading of Spark’s dazzling and cunning fictions is that she engaged with these various literary modes only in so far as they could be subsumed by her essentially singular vision. Spark’s quirky and playful voice refuses to be contained by any one doctrine. Her abiding doubleness, above all, places a sense of history, tradition, and the avant-garde next to an irreverent and whimsical sense of the absurdity of all human philosophies.
Literary Criticism and Didactic Tales
Spark’s ability to subsume the larger cultural questions of her day was in part a consequence of her formative years as a literary critic. Along with a collection of poetry, her books in the early 1950s consisted of a tribute to William Wordsworth; a reassessment of Mary Shelley and selection of her letters; editions of the poems and letters of Emily Bronte; and an account of John Masefield.
Spark might well have continued as a critic and occasional poet if it were not for the publication of “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” which won the Observer short-story prize. This story made such a profound impact that it literally transformed Spark’s life. After it was published, she was immediately introduced to the editor and staff of the Observer and began writing occasionally for the newspaper. Because she was poverty-stricken and unwell at the time, Graham Greene offered to support her financially and was an influential patron. More importantly, “The Seraph and the Zambesi” attracted the attention of Alan Maclean, the fiction editor of Macmillan, who commissioned her to write a novel and collection of short stories that subsequently became The Comforters and The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories. Such was Spark’s meteoric rise as a writer of fiction.
Her twenty-one novels reflect Spark’s competing fictional identities as both an unchanging moralist who also happened to be playfully anarchic. The reason that she was equally well known as a Scottish-Jewish writer, Catholic convert, and poetic modernist is that she managed to defy all the categories. Her fictions are tantalizing precisely because they are able to sustain such radically different readings. The key to understanding Spark’s fiction is to recognize that it is constantly in dialogue with itself and that each of her novels, or groups of novels, zigzags between her converted and unconverted selves. After initially descending into the world of her private emotions and unconverted history in her first two novels, she eventually finds refuge behind an impersonal and God-like narrator in her neoclassical third novel, Memento Mori. This was a pattern she continued throughout her career.
Spark’s early didactic tales such as Memento Mori or The Girls of Slender Means were quickly followed by more unruly books, such as The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. If her novels became too impersonal—as in The Driver’s Seat or Not to Disturb—she wrote anarchic works such as The Abbess of Crewe or The Takeover, or ostensibly autobiographical books such as Loitering with Intent or A Far Cry from Kensington. Spark’s abundant gifts were such that she refused to rest on her laurels. Always shifting in time, from the 1940s to the 1990s, her fiction encompassed Rhodesia, Edinburgh, and Jerusalem and rotated between London, New York, and Rome. But no one time, place, or culture was allowed to delimit her imagination.
Spark’s Gentile Jewishness
Spark’s self-confessed “Gentile Jewishness” can be placed in the context of the self-questioning and doubleness that characterize her best works. Clearly an aspect of her unconverted self, her part-Jewishness is dealt with at length in The Mandelbaum Gate, set in Jerusalem in the early 1960s, and the story that came out of this novel, “The Gentile Jewesses.” Both the novel and the story are instances of Spark at her most exuberant and playful, although she subsequently rejected the novel (but not the story) because it remained outside of her narrative control. Given its unrestrained form and Jewish subject matter, it is fitting that The Mandelbaum Gate continued to disturb Spark long after it was written. While many of her critics marginalize Spark as a “Catholic writer,” it is clear that the wit, intelligence, and subversiveness of her fiction were driven not by an unchanging morality but by a radical singularity (which included her Gentile Jewishness). Far from smoothing over her sense of difference, Spark’s conversion to Catholicism in 1954 places her many contradictions in a sustained, and abundantly creative dialogue.
Death and Honors
Beginning in the late 1960s, Muriel Spark lived in Italy, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, where she died on April 14, 2006. Her many awards include the Observer Story Prize, 1951; the Italia Prize (for radio play), 1962; James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1966; FNAC prize (France), 1987; Bram Stoker Award, 1988; Royal Bank of Scotland-Saltire Society Award, 1988. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1963) and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1978). In 1967 she was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire, in 1988 an Officier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), and a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1993. She received the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1997.
Selected Works by Muriel Spark
The Comforters (1957).
Memento Mori (1959).
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960).
The Bachelors (1962).
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 (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).
Reality and Dreams (1996).
Aiding and Abetting (2000).
The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories (1958).
Voices at Play (includes the radio plays The Party through the Wall; The Interview; The Dry River Bed; The Danger Zone) (1962).
Collected Stories 1 (1968).
Bang-Bang You’re Dead and Other Stories (1981).
The Collected Stories of Muriel Spark (1994).
Open to the Public (1997).
Doctors of Philosophy (1962).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: A Drama in Three Acts (1969).
The Party through the Wall (1957).
The Interview (1958).
The Dry River Bed (1959).
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960).
The Danger Zone (1961).
Out of a Book (as Muriel Camberg) (1933).
The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952).
Collected Poems 1 (1967).
Going Up to Sotheby’s and Other Poems (1982).
Editor, with Derek Stanford. Tribute to Wordsworth: A Miscellany of Opinion for the Centenary of the Poet’s Death (1950).
Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1951, revised edition as Mary Shelley: A Critical Biography, 1987).
Editor, A Selection of Poems by Emily Bronte (1952).
Emily Bronte: Her Life and Work, with Derek Stanford (1953).
John Masefield (1953).
Editor, with Derek Stanford. My Best Mary: The Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1953).
Editor, The Bronte Letters (1954, as The Letters of the Brontes: A Selection, 1954).
Editor, with Derek Stanford. Letters of John Henry Newman: A Selection (1957).
The Very Fine Clock (1968).
Editor, The Essence of the Brontes: A Compilation with Essays (1993).
Bold, Alan. Muriel Spark. London and New York: 1986.
Brauner, David, and Axel Stähler, eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Modern Jewish Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
Cheyette, Bryan. Muriel Spark. Tavistock: 2000.
Cheyette, Bryan. “Was Muriel Spark Jewish?” The Times Literary Supplement, February 2018.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark. Columbia: 1990.
Hynes, Joseph. The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark’s Novels. Rutherford, New Jersey: 1987.
Hynes, Joseph (editor). Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: 1992.
Kane, Richard C., and Iris Murdock. Muriel Spark and John Fowles: Didactic Demons in Modern Fiction. Rutherford, New Jersey: 1988.
Little, Judy. Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark and Feminism. Lincoln, Nebraska: 1983.
McQuillan, Martin (editor). Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction. London: 2002.
Page, Norman. Muriel Spark. London: 1990.
Randisi, Jennifer Lynn, On Her Way Rejoicing: The Fiction of Muriel Spark. Washington, DC: 1991.
Rees, David. Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Ian McEwan: A Bibliography of Their First Editions. London: 1992.
Sproxton, Judy. The Women of Muriel Spark. New York and London: 1992.
Tominaga, Thomas T., and Wilma Schneidermeyer. Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark: A Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: 1976.
Copyright © 2003 from Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Editor: Sorrel Kerbel. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.