The Prime of Ms. Muriel Spark

Learn about this acclaimed Scottish novelist with a penchant for dark comedy.

The Prime of Ms. Muriel Spark

Photo: Muriel Spark. Courtesy of Getty Images.

“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” —Muriel Spark, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Dame Muriel Spark (1918–2006) was an acclaimed Scottish novelist, short story writer, and poet whose rhythmic prose and penchant for dark comedy made her one of the 20th century’s most distinctive writers.

Spark was born Muriel Sarah Camberg on February 1, 1918, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her engineer father, Bernard, was Scottish, while her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Maud, was English family. Their mixed-faith background would fuel many of the moral concerns of Spark’s later novels. Spark was raised in Edinburgh and from an early age attended James Gillespie’s High School. There her education was closely guided by an idiosyncratic teacher named Christina Kay, the inspiration for the title character in her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

After school, Spark worked as a department store secretary, taught English, and took college courses before meeting Sydney Oswald Spark, whom she married in 1937. Sydney Spark had a teaching job in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Spark followed him there to get married in 1937. In 1938 she gave birth to a son, Robin. However, Sydney suffered from mental illness and was physically and verbally abusive. Spark left her husband, taking her son and his nanny with her in 1940, but because of World War II’s travel restrictions, she was unable to return to Britain until 1944.

Once arrived, she settled in London, where she worked for the Foreign Office; after the war, she took on a series of writing and editing jobs, mostly for literary and trade magazines. She was the editor of Poetry Review for a few contentious years, until her insistence on searching out unknown poets and paying them for their work caused discord. It was while editing a collection of letters by Cardinal Newman that Spark began to explore Catholicism, eventually joining the Roman Catholic Church in 1954.

After nearly collapsing under the pressures of poverty, loneliness, and an addiction to Dexedrine, Spark sought help for her drug use and began to work seriously on a first novel, The Comforters (1957), partly with the financial and emotional support of the novelist Graham Greene. Though a late fiction writer, Spark began producing novels and stories at a rapid pace. In 1961 she wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, widely considered her masterpiece. The novel follows a teacher at a girls’ school who carefully and manipulatively cultivates the minds and morals of a select handful of promising pupils. In 1969, it was adapted into an Academy Award–winning film starring Maggie Smith and was a Royal Command Performance.

Many of Spark’s novels were brisk, black comedies with vivid characters and subtle moral underpinnings, partly influenced by Spark’s interest in religion. The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), for instance, is set in Jerusalem during the Adolph Eichmann trials, which she covered for the observer newspaper. The Only Problem (1984) draws from the Book of Job, while The Takeover (1976) skewers shallow religious conviction. Aside from questions of faith, novels such as Territorial Rights (1979) and Reality and Dreams (1996) center on protagonists that search for a moral center.

Spark lived for a time in New York City, where she was given an office at the New Yorker. The city was the setting for her novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973). She lived in Rome for many years writing short and more experimental novels until she moved to Tuscany, where she would live for the final thirty years of her life with her assistant and friend, the painter and sculptor Penelope Jardine. Spark regularly published throughout these decades, garnering many honorary degrees and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1993, a Commandeur des Artes et des Lettres in 1996, and an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1978. She died in Tuscany in 2006.

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