(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 18, 2006)
In 1953, eight years before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published, Muriel Spark typed up her curriculum vitae; these two paragraphs will give you a flavour of the whole.
“1947-1949: edited “Poetry Review” and changed the policy, rather too abruptly, to include younger “modern” poets who had previously been anathemised by the journal. This caused a fuss… but otherwise the job was fun while it lasted.
Took up full-time literary work. First publisher went bankrupt. Second publisher also went bankrupt. Lived on tinned soup, and did fine on it, until I found a third publisher, who was solvent, to take on the books. Have rather gone off soup since.”
Those were the soup years, the coffee-and-Dexedrine years. Muriel Spark never romanticized that period of her life, nor did she ever embellish it: the life of a starving artist was grim and dreary, and she had far too clear a vision not to recognize the dullness that went hand-in-hand with poverty. Some of her experiences came through in The Girls of Slender Means , a novel that succeeded so well in being amusing about the trials of hostel life for young girls that its essential harshness could escape the careless reader. In later years, when she built her massive personal archives from not just letters and manuscripts, but every conceivable scrap of paper—bus tickets, concert programmes, household bills—it was hard not to wonder whether that obsession for saving everything stemmed from that early experience of having so little.
Graham Greene sent her money, on condition that she would neither thank him nor pray for him. At a time when she suffered delusions, and hallucinations, and increasing self-doubt, a priest gave her shelter, and through his offices she returned to faith. In religion she found freedom, a release from doubt; she found religion as a ship finds safe harbour, and she gave something of that to Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie .
That book, her sixth novel, towers in the public imagination over the rest of her oeuvre. I can understand why it has such a hold on us. Through the small enclave of a convent school in Edinburgh, Muriel Spark took us mercilessly into the mysteries of childhood and the betrayals of middle age, examining wars, doubt, passion, friendship and obsession along the way. Many readers forget, or never knew, that Muriel Spark was primarily a poet—that is how she came to writing, and her poems accompanied her prose throughout her life. It is hard to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and not see the poet’s hand in those lines.
If I have a caveat about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , it is simply that it overshadows the rest of Muriel Spark’s work, and what the work itself had to say about writing. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), featured a young girl who is herself writing a first novel, and who is not pleased when an omniscient narrator puts her into a first novel, typing out her life from above, so to speak. Her last novel, Finishing School (2004), took a long, hard look at the contemporary cult of the writer: it pitted a writing teacher at the College Sunrise against a teenage wunderkind whose first novel seemed set for success.
“Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative-writing class, whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around 16 to 17 years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist’. Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”
The Finishing School is regarded as a slight novel, a relatively minor Spark. But Muriel Spark’s work has a way of illuminating the unexpected, with different novels, short stories and poems being “rediscovered” by each generation. Twenty years ago, it was The Girls of Slender Means ; today, Miss Brodie rules. It might be too early to dismiss The Finishing School , though; when they finally write the farcical history of literature in the 21st century, Muriel Spark may well turn out to have the last word on the subject.