14th Apr 2011
Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Many were surprised when, in 1992, Dame Muriel Spark – who once, only half-jokingly, described herself as ‘Lucrezia Borgia in trousers’ – appointed a university professor, Martin Stannard, to write Muriel Spark: The Biography.
She was born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh, 1918, to a Jewish father and Anglican mother. Her parents took in boarders to pay for her education at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls.
One of Muriel’s teachers, Christina Kay, inspired her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
At 19, Muriel married a much older man, and moved to Africa. They had a son, Robin, but the marriage was a disaster. In 1944, Muriel returned to Britain and worked in London, while Robin was raised in Scotland.
In 1951, Muriel wrote a pioneering study of Mary Shelley, and won The Observer’s short story competition that Christmas. By 1954, she had converted to Catholicism.
Dissatisfied with her British publishers, she went to New York, where she wrote The Girls of Slender Means, and Brodie.
She moved to Rome in 1968, and her life at this stage reads like a Fellini movie. Her ability to transform herself, both in life and writing, was remarkable.
Some found her later work too heavily stylised, but Stannard considers The Driver’s Seat (1971) her masterpiece, and argues that with its multiple voices and narratives, Spark’s novels were a precursor to post-modernism.
After many years of independence, Muriel found companionship with a painter, Penelope Jardine. Based in Tuscany, she continued to write novels, such as Loitering With Intent, A Far Cry From Kensington, and Aiding and Abetting.
Muriel corresponded with Stannard as he researched her biography, but she must have found it hard to relinquish control. After her death in 2006, Jardine objected to Stannard’s book and, initially, tried to block its publication.
She felt that Stannard had portrayed Spark unfairly, though less charitable critics thought he was too sympathetic. To her friends, Muriel was warm, funny and endearingly vulnerable. But her career always came first.
Stannard’s careful, nuanced study is worthy of a brilliant, elusive woman who lived by her own rules, and was most ‘herself’ in her work.
Recommended for: Readers of critical biography, modern classics, and women’s literary fiction
Other recommended reading: For Spark’s own take on her early career, try Curriculum Vitae, or this anthology of her best novels from Everyman Library. And for an absorbing look at another literary icon, read Carole Angier’s Jean Rhys: Life and Work.