Muriel Spark’s Novels: Concepts of Self


Dr Julia Garratt, Former Subject Leader in Visual Culture and Lecturer in English, Bath Spa University

16 February 2010


1. Introduction: Muriel Spark (1918-2006) by the Convenor

Muriel Spark (1918-2006) was born Muriel Sarah Camberg, in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, to a Jewish father, Bernard (‘Barney’) and an English mother, Cissie, who though born herself to a Jewish mother, became an Anglican, even though she married Barney in a synagogue.  Muriel married, aged only 19, the 32-year-old Sidney (‘Ossie’) Spark, a non-practising Jew, with whom she went out to Southern Rhodesia to escape her own family. The marriage was shortlived, as Sidney Spark turned out to be a violent manic-depressive, and Muriel returned to Britain alone in 1944. She left her son Robin (b. 1938) behind with Sidney, but supported the boy financially for many years. Beginning her writing career as a poet and critic, under her married name, she had a severe nervous breakdown, accompanied by hallucinations, in 1953. At this point she became first an Anglican, then took instruction and became a Roman Catholic, under the influence of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh (themselves both Catholic converts) amongst others. Ferdinand Mount has observed, speaking of her later years, that ‘she was, notoriously, more interested in theology than morality.’ Despite this, Muriel Spark remained steadfast in her faith to the end of her life, and there is no reason to doubt her sincerity.

Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, appeared in 1957, and her first collection of short stories, The Go-Away Bird, a year later. Her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, appeared in 1961, and The Finishing School of 2004 was her twenty-second and final novel. From 1950 to 1957, Spark wrote singly, or in collaboration with her then lover and later business manager Derek Stanford, a number of literary critical and biographical studies, including lives of John Masefield and Emily Bronte, a Tribute to Wordsworth, a study of Mary Shelley (Child of Light) a selection of Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters, and a volume of the letters of John Henry Newman. She branched briefly into drama in the early 1960s, and later there was even a children’s book, The Very Fine Clock (1968). Her Complete Short Stories were published in 2001, and All the Poems of Muriel Spark in 2004. This last volume included four free translations from the Latin of Horace and Catullus dating from 1949. In the foreword to this volume, Spark declared that ‘although most of my life has been devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet, (feeling) that my outlook on life and my perceptions of life are those of a poet.’ She then mysteriously says: ‘Whether in prose or verse, all creative writing is mysteriously connected with music, and I always hope this factor is apparent throughout my work’. This was a strange comment, made in old age by a writer whose contact with music of any kind had been minimal at any stage of her life.

After her writing career was established in the 1950s, Muriel Spark lived in a number of different locations, moving from London (Camberwell) to New York and back in the 1960s, then settling in Rome for nine years from 1966. The settings of her novels reflected her itinerant life, though The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, of course, built around her time as a schoolgirl in the 1930s at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh, fictionalised in the novel as Marcia Blaine School. Postwar London features in The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) and wartime London in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), two more of her best-known and best-loved early novels. Both of these, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, have been adapted for the screen.

Speaking of Memento Mori, a short novel of 1959 with numerous characters, David Lodge (Guardian Saturday Review, 5 June 2010) has commented on how unusual it was for any novel at this period to be set in a home for the very elderly, and to deal, in a humorous, surreal, even farcical way with the subject of approaching death. Spark, he observes, was ‘a postmodernist writer before the term was known to literary criticism’. Lodge notes ‘the speed and abruptness with which the narrative switches from one point of view to another, managed and commented on by an impersonal but intrusive narrator…’ and also that the ‘speeded-up, throwaway style’ of the whole remain characteristic of all Spark’s later work.

Muriel Spark was from the start a ‘…red-blooded heterosexual young woman’ (Martin Stannard, see below, p. 41) who had a series of lovers, with each of whom she invariably fell out in due course. She was, it seems, attracted to older and unavailable (because married) men, and was often drawn to gay or bisexual men without always realising their true nature. Spark was never lesbian by inclination, and, says Stannard, ‘…lesbians tended to worry her’. But when it came to men, who were regularly attracted to her because of her looks, charm and intelligence, she famously admitted that ‘I was a bad picker’.

Spark met Penelope Jardine, an artist and sculptor of independent means and even disposition, in a hairdresser’s in Rome in 1968. Jardine became Spark’s companion from the early 1970s to the end of her life. Muriel shared rent-free Jardine’s spacious house, San Giovanni, near Arezzo in Tuscany. As Stannard has observed in his recent biography (see below, p. 413) ‘Muriel’s life had always been like this. She was a cuckoo perching in other nests, a go-away bird, always ready to take flight’. Spark left her entire estate to Jardine, having decided to disinherit her son. Much acrimony lay behind this act. Robin had risen to become Chief Secretary to the Scottish Law Commission in Edinburgh, eventually retiring from this post in order to paint. The estrangement between mother and son was complex, and went far back in time, but centred later on Robin’s determination that Muriel, and her brother Philip Camberg, should properly acknowledge their Jewish origins. This they refused to do in the way he wanted, so that Robin regarded them as effectively traitors to Judaism. Muriel’s only partially revealing autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, appeared in 1992. It delighted many, and was an instant success, but it only takes her story up to early 1957. The following year 1993, aged 75, she became a DBE.

There had by then been many critical studies of Spark’s work over the years from American and British scholars.  Notable among these are works by: Joseph Hynes (1988 and 1992), Peter Kemp (a biography, 1974), Karl Malkoff (1968) Allan Massie (1979) Norman Page (1990), Mickey Pearlman (1989), Velma Richmond (1984), Judy Sproxton (1992), Patricia Stubbs (1973), Patricia Waugh (1988) and Ruth Whittaker (1982). Spark’s lover and collaborator Derek Stanford’s Muriel Spark: A Biographical and Critical Study appeared early in her writing career, in 1963. This was the year in which she and Stanford parted company in a typical blaze of anger and resentment from her over the sale by Stanford of a cache of her letters to him. In this case, she certainly had a point.

Martin Stannard, the distinguishes biographer of Evelyn Waugh, worked on his Muriel Spark: The Biography over many years, his efforts persistently challenged and criticised by his difficult subject, even though Spark had made her voluminous papers available to him. The warm tribute to Spark in Stannard’s Acknowledgments gives no hint of all this. At the time of Muriel’s death in April 2006, the future appearance of the book had apparently been left in the hands of Penelope Jardine. Fortunately, it was at last published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009, and is now available as a Phoenix paperback (Orion Books Ltd) as of 2010. Fittingly, the extensive and comprehensive Spark papers have been deposited in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Dr Robert Blackburn


2. Chronological list of Muriel Spark’s Novels, with settings

  • The Comforters                                   1957                                        S. E. England
  • Robinson                                             1958                                        Imaginary Island
  • Memento Mori                                    1959                                        London
  • The Ballad of Peckham Rye               1960                                        London
  • The Bachelors                                     1960                                        London
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie          1961                                        Edinburgh
  • The Girls of Slender Means                1963                                        London
  • The Mandelbaum Gate                        1965                                        Israel and Jordan
  • The Public Image                                1968                                        Rome
  • The Driver’s Seat                                1970                                        Europe
  • Not To Disturb                                    1971                                        Switzerland
  • The Hothouse by the East River         1973                                        New York
  • The Abbess of Crewe                          1974                                        England
  • The Takeover                                      1976                                        Nemi, Italy
  • Territorial Rights                                 1979                                        Venice
  • Loitering With Intent                           1981                                        London
  • The Only Problem                               1984                                        Lorraine, France
  • A Far Cry From Kensington                1988                                        London
  • Symposium                                          1990                                        London
  • Reality and Dreams                             1996                                        London
  • Aiding and Abetting                            2000                                        London and Paris
  • The Finishing School                           2004                                        Switzerland


3. Dr Garratt’s summary of her talk

The four novels discussed were: The Mandelbaum Gate, The Public ImageThe Hothouse by the East River and Loitering With Intent

It seems appropriate to begin with the identification of some key features of Muriel Spark’s fiction: its use of a range of genres, including ones not considered serious or respectable such as melodrama, gothic, adventure, and thrillers; its continuing exploration of different ways of writing, eschewing repetition of successful formulae; its combination of seriousness with playfulness and wit. I acknowledged the need, given this range, to focus on a specific topic, hence the decision to explore the way four novels engage with the complex subject of ‘the self’. The choice of novels allowed for the consideration of a crucial change in her practice following completion of The Mandelbaum Gate (1965); Muriel Spark vowed never again to write a long novel. It was three years before her next novel appeared, The Public Image, and she acknowledged the impact on her writing at this time of the work of Samuel Beckett and the French New Novelists (Nouveau Roman).

Many divisions are presented in The Mandelbaum Gate - between Israel and Jordan, between the two parts of Jerusalem, between Arab and Jew, between the Old Testament and the New, and, most significantly, within the main character, Barbara Vaughan, who is, like her creator, half Jewish, half Gentile and a Catholic convert. Her pilgrimage to the Holy Land leads her to question her own identity, and the novel suggests a distinction between ‘identity’ as a public, social construct and ‘self’ as a private, internal sense of being. Some of the characters accept without question an identity based on national and religious inheritance, the most extreme example being Eichmann; others resist such identification, formulate their own judgements, and these receive authorial approval. The novel itself is divided into two parts, which in turn reflect a further separation between cool reason and passion. Its title further reinforces the concept of division, but also suggests the possibility of meeting, as the gate at the time of writing was the point of access between the two parts of Jerusalem. The novel leads to an understanding that while we may have a sense of what we are, a sense that enables us to say, ‘I am what I am’, it is impossible to pin down and define. The self as presented here is multiple, contradictory, and nevertheless coherent and whole, or at least it coheres in moments of grace, even of transfiguration.

To switch from The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) to The Public Image (1968) is to leave the voice of a confident, knowing narrator to encounter one that is more detached and less reliable. Judgements that at first appear to emanate from the narrator are incompatible with represented actions and so more plausibly represent the views of a character. Having a film star, Annabel, as its central character allows the novel to represent the construction of a public image while questioning whether there is any reality against which the image may be judged. It shows characters acting in accordance with cultural norms, thereby posing the question of whether human behaviour is always an assumption of the performance that seems most appropriate in the circumstances. At the same time it suggests that actions are a more reliable indicator of worth than an individual’s self-estimation. In this it is consistent with the emphasis the Catholic Church has traditionally placed on good works rather than faith alone.

The Public Image resists secure interpretation; indeed it undermines the distinctions just drawn. However, it includes some intimations of the possibility of a reality that transcends image and performance. When Annabel is depicted in an empty apartment alone with her baby the writing has a quality that sets this scene apart. It lacks the ironic, harsh tone that pervades most of the text and draws attention to the fact of motherhood. The image of her as an ‘empty shell’, at first used pejoratively, takes on another significance in that her body is ‘empty’ as it no longer contains the infant. Through motherhood, birth and death, each generation is linked to the previous one, back through history, and in terms of European civilisation, back to Greece. At the end of the novel Annabel chooses to leave Rome and her career rather than submit to blackmail and she departs for Greece. When Muriel Spark wrote the novel Rome, with its film culture and photographers, was the city of la dolce vita while Greece, not yet a major holiday destination represented a less sophisticated, possibly more authentic, culture. The novel’s final sentence is:

Nobody recognized her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.

It may not be too far-fetched to see in this ending a veiled reference to the myth of Aphrodite and the origin of all life in the sea and, by extension, to the fact that we are all part of history and of a reality that exceeds the trappings of culture.

The Hothouse by the East River (1973) is more baffling even than The Public Image, disorientating the reader right from the start by its playfulness and rejection of realism. In 1971 Muriel Spark addressed the American Academy of Art and Letters and said: “…the only effective art of our particular time is the satirical, the harsh and witty, the ironic and derisive. Because we have come to a moment in history when we are surrounded on all sides and oppressed by the absurd.

This statement helps elucidate the absurdity of the novel’s plot and its satirical representation of New York life; it is especially derisive in its treatment of the ludicrous ‘specialities’ of its two psychoanalysts and their attempts to explain the inexplicable. The novel’s central conundrum is the shadow of its main character, Elsa, which always falls towards the west regardless of the ostensible light source. This causes her husband, Paul, great distress, until the end of the novel when he accepts that they were both killed long ago by a World War 2 bomb. The consensus among commentators is that the hothouse is purgatory in which Paul is trapped until he recognises the fact of his own death and the beauty of Elsa’s shadow. The significance of the shadow is revealed in the final words: ‘She turns to the car, he following her, watching as she moves how she trails her faithful and lithe cloud of unknowing across the pavement’. Linking her shadow to the title of a book by a fourteenth century English mystic indicates that it is an image of the limitation of human understanding. Furthermore it reinforces the idea that the source of the light that casts the shadow is divine and explains why Elsa sits in the apartment gazing across the East River. It is intriguing, and typical of Muriel Spark’s writing, that this satirical, absurd and funny novel engages with such a solemn subject. What it seems to say about the ‘self’ is that a sense of peace can come only through relinquishing the desire for complete knowledge and accepting God’s mystery.

Turning to Loitering With Intent (1981) is to enter yet another totally different and less confusing world; its setting is a recognisable, mid twentieth-century London. A key reason for choosing to discuss this novel is its engagement with the nature of fiction. The narrator, Fleur Talbot, is an aspiring novelist who takes a job with Sir Quentin Oliver and his Autobiographical Association. Sir Quentin interferes with the lives of his association’s members while Fleur intervenes in their writing. The contrast between their projects allows the text to present a difference between the danger of meddling with the lives of others and the safety of overt fiction making. Its implication for a discussion of ‘selves’ is its reminder that what we encounter in fiction are not ‘selves but ways of saying something about ‘selves’. Two modes of autobiographical writing are embedded in the novel: Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Benvenuto Cellini’s Life. The novel itself is a kind of Apologia for Fleur’s life, but it is far more a celebration of her delight in creativity and in this it is closer to Cellini’s exuberant memoir. She repeatedly uses his phrase, ‘I am now going on my way rejoicing’, and expresses no doubt about her own ability to succeed as a writer.

It is impossible not to see in Fleur a reflection of Muriel Spark’s own convictions about her work. Indeed, although I’ve avoided biographical interpretation, the subject of the talk led to a selection of novels in which the autobiographical element is nearer the surface than is characteristic of Muriel Spark’s oeuvre. In The Mandelbaum Gate she undoubtedly drew on her own questioning of her identity as a half-Jew, half-Gentile, Catholic convert. And in The Public Image the emphasis on actions rather than beliefs about the inner self corresponds to her expressed wish to be judged by what she did, that is by her writing, not by an idea of what she was. In The Hothouse by the East River we have a representation of the aspect of herself that was most concerned with the mysteries of her belief. And finally, in Loitering With Intent her delight in her success as a writer informs the text. A judgement as to whether the novels discussed reveal several different selves that collectively make up Muriel Spark, or a coherent, even if unknowable, self depends ultimately on the concept of ‘a self’ that is invoked.

Dr Julia Garratt