Spark: A Landscape of Letters and Life

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    There was no one quite like her. A young woman who, by sheer determination and hard work, made her way out of a bad marriage and wartime poverty, past serious health problems and the scorn of lesser talents whose resentments and jealousies were legion, to become, by critical consensus, one  

of  

a  

handful  

of  

post  

World  

War  

Two  

novelists  

of  

the  

first  

rank.  

Praised  

 and encouraged by established writers, like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene who took considerable pride in having discerned her talent early on (Greene went so far as to send her an allowance of twenty pounds a month and several bottles of wine, ‘which took the edge off cold charity’, she noted), she established herself as one of the great writers of her generation, publishing volumes of poetry and short stories, several biographies, scores of essays, and twenty-two novels before her death, aged eighty-eight, in 2006.  

One  

of  

the  

novels  

attracted  

the  

attention  

of  

William  

Shawn,  

longtime  

 editor of The New Yorker, so much so that he published the entire book in one issue of the magazine: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) which made  

her  

internationally  

famous  

and  

comfortably  

self-sufficient  

–  

through  

 book  

sales  

as  

well  

as  

stage,  

television,  

and  

film  

adaptations.

    This young woman was, of course Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark. Since her death, Spark has not moved into the realm of the literary shades. Most of her work remains in print in the United Kingdom and the United States, and translations continue to be rendered: the online Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation lists more than three hundred records of translations of Spark’s work. A new stage adaptation of Jean Brodie is in the works, and her literary executor has signed over one hundred contracts since the writer’s death.

    Following publication of Curriculum Vitae  

 (1992),  

 the  

 first  

 –  

 and  

 unfortunately  

 only  

 –  

 instalment  

 of  

 her  

 autobiography,  

 Spark  

 sold  

 part  

 of  

 her  

 collection  

 of  

 papers  

 to  

 the  

 National  

 Library  

 of  

 Scotland.  

 Other repositories  

 –  

 Texas,  

 Princeton,  

 Vancouver,  

 Reading,  

 St  

 Louis  

 and  

 the  

 McFarlane  

Library  

at  

Tulsa  

–  

house  

papers  

as  

well.  

There  

is  

plenty  

to  

go  

 round. In Curriculum Vitae she had noted, ‘since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper’, and the archives now kept at Edinburgh, though incomplete (the quite substantial remainder will be deposited  

following  

the  

final  

settlement  

of  

the  

writer’s  

estate),  

is  

indeed  

a  

 rich  

repository  

–  

school  

notebooks,  

records,  

and  

photos;;  

personal  

papers  

 (diaries,  

notebooks,  

cheque  

books,  

photos);;  

correspondence  

both  

literary  

 and  

personal;;  

legal  

and  

financial  

papers;;  

press  

cuttings;;  

biographical  

notes  

 and interviews.

    In  

July  

1992,  

to  

mark  

the  

presentation  

of  

the  

first  

batch  

of  

materials,  

Spark  

 went  

 to  

 Edinburgh  

 and  

 spoke  

 on  

 the  

 occasion;;  

 her  

 speech,  

 really  

 only  

 notes, typically economical and evocative, she had jotted down on a page of notebook paper. Characteristically, the manuscript, written in her beautiful looping cursive, bears no signs of hesitation or revision as she expresses her lasting gratitude for Edinburgh’s resources (‘All during my young life up to my nineteenth year I had frequent recourse to the reference and lending  

libraries  

very  

near  

here  

at  

George  

IV  

Bridge.  

Without  

those  

public  

 libraries of Edinburgh I really don’t know how I could have developed and matured’) and for the privilege of having her ‘lifetime’s archive . . . taken care of by the National Library of Scotland.’

    This is especially touching coming from a writer noted more perhaps for emotional  

 astringency  

 and  

 detachment  

 than  

 warmth  

 and  

 feeling;;  

 but  

 it  

 might  

be  

said  

that  

those  

of  

us  

who  

were  

fortunate  

enough  

to  

know  

her  

find  

 it quite characteristic of Spark’s private side. Though she never lived again in Edinburgh once she had left in 1937, Muriel Spark cherished her Scots identity and even to her last days the lovely lilt of Morningside softened her impeccable English.

    The run of desk diaries reveals little other than random jottings for appointments (‘hair’ and ‘shopping’) and a regular entry for 1 February (‘my birthday’). The notebooks, however, offer a glimpse into her domestic world and occasional fascinating insight into Spark as artist as well. The earlier notebooks document the young writer’s persistence is sending her work out. Under the heading ‘Work in Circulation’, in a notebook dated ‘27

    April  

1951  

–  

9th  

Nov.  

1952’,  

are  

details  

of  

rejection  

after  

rejection,  

mostly  

to  

 do  

with  

poems;;  

but  

the  

entry  

dated  

‘5/11/51’  

leaps  

off  

the  

page:  

concerning  

 her story then titled ‘The Seraph, the Zambesi, and the Fanfarlo’, she wrote ‘Got it’. This story, chosen from among nearly seven thousand entries in a contest sponsored by the Observer  

newspaper,  

won  

first  

prize  

(£250,  

a  

 considerable sum then, especially for a young writer strapped for funds) and signaled the real beginning of Spark’s literary career.

    Other  

notebooks  

in  

the  

run  

(1947-1970)  

detail  

and  

document  

elements  

of  

 Spark’s  

personal  

life  

–  

dress  

fittings,  

parties,  

the  

purchase  

of  

a  

recording  

 of Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland and some Elizabeth Arden ‘Vivid  

 Rouge’  

 lipstick,  

 exercises  

 in  

 Italian.  

 Household  

 expenses  

 are  

 recorded  

precisely;;  

entries  

made  

during  

her  

Roman  

residence  

are  

typical:  

 ‘cigarettes,  

400  

lira’;;  

‘2  

scandal  

sheets,  

250  

lira’;;  

‘6  

eggs  

–  

200  

lira’;;  

‘church  

 candle  

–  

500  

lira’;;  

‘baby  

food  

for  

cats  

–  

1020  

lira’;;  

‘tip  

to  

porter  

for  

catching  

 Spider  

[one  

of  

her  

cats]–  

1000  

lira.’  

The  

household  

accounts  

were  

kept  

by  

 a  

secretary;;  

but  

the  

books  

show  

that  

Spark  

herself  

checked,  

revised,  

and  

 recalculated where necessary before signing off.

    A richer mine to explore is the literary correspondence. Scattered throughout are letters from correspondents as diverse as Ronald Firbank, Blanche Knopf, Alec Guinness, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Harold Macmillan, and Alan Jay Lerner. Firbank’s lengthy handwritten epistle is classic Firbank written after he had recommended the manuscript of Spark’s poetry collection, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse,  

to  

the  

firm  

that  

 would publish it in 1952 (The Hand and Flower Press). Firbank knew Spark and  

Derek  

Stanford,  

the  

man  

in  

her  

life  

in  

the  

late  

forties  

and  

fifties,  

and  

 he writes to propose that they all live together (‘we would live like a nest of  

singing  

birds’),  

but  

is  

much  

more  

interested  

–  

typically  

–  

in  

anecdotes  

 about himself, here his recent turn on stage: ‘I wish you could have seen me in Lear. I have got the most beautiful legs, and I had them in sheer nylon tights of a hyacinth shade, with an enormous cod-piece of mirror sequins, all designed and lovingly executed by myself. I had such a time keeping my seams straight . . .’

    The letters between Graham Greene and Spark seem rather more like obligatory notes than personal exchanges. Certainly, Spark never forgot Greene’s  

great  

kindness  

to  

her  

in  

the  

beginning  

–  

she  

never  

failed  

to  

send  

 him a copy of each novel as it appeared. His responses, however, seem cold and perfunctory: concerning Not to Disturb (1971), he wrote: ‘You have  

reached  

the  

point  

where  

all  

the  

little  

people  

become  

jealous’;;  

about  

 The Abbess of Crewe (1974): ‘Don’t make your books any shorter, please, or you’ll disappear like Beckett.’ Yet curiously one of his notes elicited a revealing, fuller response from Spark: ‘I’ve just [written] an ‘I’ book –  

 In  

 some  

 ways  

 I  

 found  

 it  

 cramping.  

 One  

 has  

 to  

 be  

 present  

 all  

 the  

 time  

 and can’t describe what goes on in one’s absence except by hearsay or supposition or sleuthwork, all indirect. But I had to do an ‘I’ because it’s a fictional  

autobiography  

and  

treats  

of  

other  

autobiographies.’  

The  

novel  

that  

 she refers to is probably Loitering with Intent, which would be published in 1981. And in an earlier note to Greene (28 December 1977), Spark had written, ‘ . . . am trying to shift my style of writing to the extent I’m re- writing  

a  

book  

from  

the  

start.  

I  

was  

nearly  

through  

a  

first  

version  

when  

I  

 realized it’s awful.’ Her responses show an unusual frankness about her own working methods.

    The correspondence with Spark’s other great early champion, Evelyn Waugh, is scant and though brief, does have a certain personality and charm: about Jean Brodie he wrote, ‘All the book delightful. The letter pp. 95-96 genius.’ Waugh never ceased to champion Spark’s work and she remained appreciative.

    Of  

a  

different  

tone  

and  

temper  

are  

letters  

and  

notes  

from  

Blanche  

Knopf,  

 éminence grise of the publishing house founded by her husband, Alfred, and herself;;  

 a  

 relationship  

 of  

 depth  

 and  

 personality  

 emerges.  

 Blind,  

 crippled,  

 and wafer-thin, Blanche Knopf established a roster of impressive writers at Knopf (Freud, Sartre, Gide, Camus, Mann) and she succeeded in adding Spark to the list in January 1963 (Storm Jameson had encouraged her to do so).  

The  

two  

women  

met  

for  

lunch,  

and  

traded  

confidences  

as  

well  

as  

gifts.  

 Spark once sent Knopf an eighteenth-century silver pill box for her dog and Knopf wrote a thank-you in the dog’s voice. It seems clear that they were genuinely close. Particularly poignant is a brief note from Knopf in her last days (May-June 1966):

    Darling, Deeply touched [by] your letter. Miss you but cannot see anybody – it just hurts too much. I think the end is in sight. Wonderful news about the book. Roses are adorable. God bless and thanks –

    A number of years after Blanche’s death, Muriel described Knopf as her ‘best publisher’ in her online diary for Slate.

    A fascinating thread works its way through the correspondence in several letters from Alan Jay Lerner, the American composer who had achieved great acclaim with My Fair Lady. Sometime in late 1980 or early 1981 Lerner had written a very appreciative note to Spark, praising her work, noting that ‘your writing . . . has about it the perfume of music and lyrics.’ In response, Spark sent him a copy of Loitering with Intent (1981), accompanied by a note saying that ‘It has the sort of ‘myth’ which might be suitable’;;  

but  

Lerner  

responded,  

‘I  

cannot  

see  

how  

to  

set  

it  

to  

music.’  

Spark  

 answered, ‘I quite see that it isn’t what you want for a musical. How about my novel The Girls of Slender Means?’ but nothing came of that. Lerner died before he could turn that novel into a musical. What a pity, since either novel, or Jean Brodie, also under consideration at one point, would have brought some distinctive magic to the musical stage.

    Lerner  

may  

have  

been  

a  

bit  

of  

a  

celebrity  

himself,  

but  

several  

other  

figures  

 dazzle with even higher wattage. The Driver’s Seat (1970), arguably Spark’s greatest novel (she thought so and so do some critics), became a film,  

directed  

by  

Franco  

Rossellini  

with  

Elizabeth  

Taylor  

playing  

the  

lead,  

 Lise, and Andy Warhol playing a down-at-the heels English aristocrat. Taylor’s undated note conveys her enthusiasm at having won the role:

    Dear Mrs Spark

    Thank you so much for your lovely letter and your enthusiasm at the  

idea  

of  

my  

playing  

Lise.  

I  

cannot  

tell  

you  

how  

pleased  

and  

flattered  

 I am. I shall do my very best to live up to your faith in my portrayal.

    Richard and I are, and always have been, great fans of your enormous talent and look forward so very much to meeting you.

    With respectful affection, Elizabeth Taylor Burton

    Unfortunately, the movie, titled Identikit, was neither a popular nor critical success, a great disappointment to Taylor and Spark.

    The world of cinema intersected with Spark’s world again in letters and notes about a projected interview with the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci. In April 1987, Wayne Lawson, Executive Literary Editor of Vanity Fair, had commissioned Spark for the project, and the sum of $2500 plus expenses had been agreed upon. The correspondence as well as Spark’s notes and annotations make for fascinating reading. Working through a go-between, Spark agreed to do the piece if she could have a meeting with the director and  

if  

he  

would  

send  

her  

videos  

of  

five  

films  

including  

‘Ultimo Tango (!) and The Last Emperor’. The reticent Bertolucci let it be known that his private  

life  

would  

be  

off-limits  

and  

that  

was  

just  

fine  

with  

Spark  

(‘Hear!  

 Hear!’ she wrote next to that stipulation). Her interest in the project lay in Bertolucci’s aesthetics and in his take on China, not in his personal affairs. Bertolucci retreated, and Spark inserted a simple, handwritten note (‘cancelled  

1/6/87’)  

in  

the  

file.

    As in the case of the Lerner project, it is a shame nothing ever came of it, for it would have been illuminating indeed to read Spark on Bertolucci. She had  

a  

keen  

interest  

in  

film,  

as  

well  

a  

considerable  

knowledge  

of  

cinematic  

 technique, which she put to good use in a number of her novels, perhaps most effectively in The Driver’s Seat (1970). In the late 1970s she wrote a screenplay of her novel, The Takeover (1976), for the director Joseph Losey.  

Her  

fascination  

with  

the  

world  

of  

film  

figured  

in  

more  

than  

one  

of  

 her  

novels  

as  

well:  

the  

central  

figure  

in  

The Public Image  

(1968)  

is  

a  

film  

 star;;  

and  

the  

protagonist  

in  

Reality and Dreams  

(1996)  

is  

a  

film  

director  

 in-crisis. Both novels show an insider’s knowledge of that world.

    And lest it be thought that Vanity Fair an odd place for Spark’s work, we might recall that in the December 1984 issue of that magazine, a glossy production with Joan Collins in full paint on the cover, appeared one of her finest  

essays,  

‘Spirit  

and  

Substance’,  

a  

deep  

and  

searching  

meditation  

on  

 the Madonna del Parto fresco by Piero della Francesca.

    But even Elizabeth Taylor and Bernardo Bertolucci are eclipsed in celebrity  

 by  

 Jacqueline  

 Kennedy  

 Onassis  

 who  

 wrote  

 in  

 October,  

 1988, prompted by her friend Sir John Pope-Hennessy, a frequent dinner companion of Spark’s. Sir John, the art historian and former curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had written to Spark in September, 1988, letting her know that he had mentioned Spark’s autobiography-in-process  

 to  

 Onassis,  

 who  

 had  

 become  

 an  

 editor  

 at  

 Doubleday.  

From  

her  

house  

at  

Martha’s  

Vineyard,  

Onassis  

wrote  

to  

Pope- Hennessy, asking for advice about broaching the subject with Spark. Pope- Hennessy  

encouraged  

Onassis  

to  

write  

directly  

to  

Spark  

and  

supplied  

the  

 writer’s  

address.  

Spark’s  

initial  

response  

to  

Onassis  

is  

not  

in  

the  

archives,  

 but  

 Onassis’s  

 prompt  

 reply,  

 dated  

 ‘October  

 6,  

 1988’,  

 and  

 handwritten  

 in  

 her distinctive script is. In it she expresses her delight at Pope-Hennessy’s news and her enthusiasm for such a project (‘What a joy it would be to be associated with this book’), offering $100,000 for world rights to  

 the  

 volume.  

 Onassis’s  

 letter  

 is  

 charming,  

 professional  

 and  

 appreciative, though perhaps a bit sentimental The letter was sent by FedEx Express but delivery was delayed: it was found abandoned in a cemetery near Spark’s residence before being retrieved and delivered by a neighbour.

    Spark  

wasted  

no  

time  

in  

replying.  

  

In  

her  

letter,  

dated  

‘18th  

October  

1988’,  

 she  

 told  

 Onassis  

 that  

 she  

 had  

 informed  

 her  

 agents  

 of  

 Doubleday’s  

 offer,  

 and  

 shrewdly  

 discerned  

 a  

 potential  

 problem  

 (‘I  

 think  

 there  

 is  

 difficulty  

 about world rights as there are existing arrangements in other countries’). In closing she expressed the hope that matters might be arranged.

    Doubleday would not, as it turned out, publish the American edition of Curriculum Vitae;;  

that  

contract  

went  

to  

Houghton  

Mifflin,  

who  

produced  

 a handsome edition, nearly identical to the UK printing done by Constable, but with a glossier jacket. Nevertheless, the correspondence between Jacqueline  

 Kennedy  

 Onassis  

 and  

 Muriel  

 Spark  

 reveals  

 Onassis’s  

 taste,  

 energy, and professionalism as well as her keen appreciation of Spark’s writing and Spark’s appropriately proprietary sense of her own work. Certainly, Spark’s years of dealing in the publishing world had taught her the value of her own work, and even the very considerable charm offensive launched  

by  

a  

celebrity  

like  

Onassis  

was  

met  

with  

a  

matter-of-fact  

business  

 sense worthy of any daughter of Edinburgh.

    In the end, what might be gained from looking at some papers in the National Library of Scotland’s Spark archives? Even a selective, incomplete review of the archive of Muriel Spark’s manuscripts is useful, revealing, and  

fascinating.  

We  

learn  

more  

about  

the  

context,  

characters,  

and  

conflicts  

 of  

her  

early  

days,  

the  

often  

difficult  

days  

of  

her  

work  

at  

the  

Poetry  

Society,  

 her hardscrabble life in post-World War Two London, her commitment to her vocation as a writer, the intoxicating moments of publicity and critical praise and the subsequent career launched across countries and decades. The  

 cast  

 of  

 characters  

 floating  

 through  

 the  

 scenes  

 of  

 her  

 life  

 is  

 varied,  

 sometimes  

 eccentric,  

 always  

 fascinating  

 –  

 Queen  

 Frederika  

 of  

 Greece,  

 Harold Macmillan, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, Harold  

Acton,  

Iris  

Murdoch,  

Doris  

Lessing,  

Alec Guinness,  

Gore  

Vidal,  

 Blanche and Alfred Knopf and Lionel Trilling. Their words conjure up a remarkable, now long gone, landscape of letters and life.

    Fascinating as that outer life is, the inner life that can be gleaned from the documents eclipses the former. Born into a working-class family in the dark  

days  

of  

the  

last  

year  

of  

World  

War  

One,  

Muriel  

Camberg  

discerned  

 her vocation at an early age (she was known as the ‘poet and dreamer’ of Gillespie’s School) and lived out that vocation conquering poverty, illness, and opposition spawned from prejudices concerning gender, class, and privilege. From earliest notebooks to late correspondence emerges a  

 woman  

 of  

 confidence,  

 ability,  

 and  

 accomplishment,  

 someone  

 not  

 to  

 be  

 taken for granted or underestimated. If some were offended or alienated, so be it. Her dedication to craft and calling was intense, inspired, and paramount.  

 What  

 she  

 once  

 said  

 of  

 her  

 fictional  

 Jean  

 Brodie  

 (she  

 was  

 a  

 woman of ‘completely unrealized potentialities’) could never have been said  

 of  

 the  

 real  

 Muriel  

 Spark;;  

 the  

 sheer  

 variety  

 and  

 volume  

 of  

 her  

 work  

 spanning nine decades stands as eloquent testimony to an extraordinary woman who lived out the demands of that vocation to the end: even during the  

difficult  

weeks  

preceding  

her  

death  

she  

was  

at  

work  

on  

another  

project,  

 a twenty-third novel for which we have precious notes and fragments.

    Special thanks to Penelope Jardine, Muriel Spark’s literary executor, for encouragement and permission to publish from Spark’s work, and to Sally Harrower, Kenneth Dunn and Graham Stewart of the National Library of Scotland.

    The image of Muriel Spark on the homepage is copyright of Evening Standard