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.
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