Authors: Muriel Spark

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish novelist, short-story writer, and biographer


Muriel Spark is one of the most critically acclaimed of contemporary novelists. Born Muriel Sarah Camberg, Spark was educated at James Gillespie’s School for Girls (which appears fictionally as the Marcia Blaine School in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and wrote poetry from the age of nine. At the age of nineteen she moved to Rhodesia and married S. O. Spark; they had one son, Robin. Many of Spark’s short stories (such as “Bang-Bang You’re Dead,” “The Go-Away Bird,” and “The Curtain Blown by the Breeze”) can be linked to this period of her life.{$I[AN]9810000847}{$I[A]Spark, Muriel}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Spark, Muriel}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Spark, Muriel}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Spark, Muriel}{$I[tim]1918;Spark, Muriel}

Muriel Spark

(©Jerry Bauer)

In 1944, divorced from her husband and having returned to England, Spark began work with the Political Intelligence Office of the British Foreign Office, which was concerned with anti-Nazi propaganda. There, she gained an appreciation for the paradoxes of fact made into fiction and fiction presented as fact that figure in many of her novels. After the war, Spark was appointed General Secretary of the Poetry Society in London, and between 1948 and 1949 she served not only as editor of Poetry Review but also as coeditor and cofounder (with Derek Stanford) of Forum Stories and Poems. In the early 1950’s Spark’s interests turned to biography with her studies of Mary Shelley and John Masefield.

Although a critic, poet, and short fiction writer (she also wrote radio plays, a full-length drama, and a children’s book), Spark’s primary genre was the novel. Acknowledging no religious faith between her Presbyterian school days and 1952, Spark converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954 and began her career as a novelist when Macmillan and Company commissioned her to write a novel the same year. Spark said that her conversion, which was preceded by an illness and followed by several months of Jungian therapy, enabled her to write longer fiction, which she published consistently. Although her novels during the 1970’s (particularly Not to Disturb, The Driver’s Seat, and The Abbess of Crewe) reflect a bleaker view of the human condition, Spark’s work was generally satiric, focusing on the frauds, murders, blackmailings, and terrorism that representatives of the modern secular world practice upon one another. Drawing from the techniques of the Metaphysical poets, Spark forced the reader to join disparate ideas with a resulting effect that is close to what T. S. Eliot calls, in his 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” a “dissociation of sensibility.” That is, one is never quite certain in a Spark novel where the reality ends and the illusion begins.

The themes with which Spark was concerned remained consistent since the publication of her first novel in 1957. A modern woman and a Roman Catholic, Spark demonstrated an ambivalence toward the contemporary secular world in general and the Roman Catholic community in particular. Her novels are filled with lies and deceptions and those who scheme and blackmail through their use. As a novelist, Spark was herself a plotter, and her stories place the reader in a position not unlike that occupied by her characters. In The Comforters, for example, Caroline Rose finds herself manipulated by an agency outside the frame of the novel (a “typing ghost”), which is, like the novelist herself, a manipulator of plot. Fond of conjoining seen and unseen worlds, Spark often forced her characters (and readers) to accept the inexplicable: messages from Death (Memento Mori), novels coming to life (Loitering with Intent), and the existence of malevolent spirits (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, A Far Cry from Kensington, and The Bachelors). These examples allude to one of Spark’s primary themes: an acceptance of the existence of evil and the problem of human suffering (a theme explicitly treated in The Only Problem). Later novels also explore political themes such as terrorism (Territorial Rights) and the media industry (The Public Image). The Hothouse by the East River returns Spark to her year in publishing in New York, and A Far Cry from Kensington returns to early years in literary London. Soon after this novel, she published her indispensable autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Her most successful book remains The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Standing with Selina Redwood (The Girls of Slender Means), Margaret Murchison (Symposium), and Maggie Radcliffe (The Takeover), Miss Brodie is Spark’s most memorable “woman of power.”

Spark’s later work included Aiding and Abetting, a novel speculating on what was behind the scandal that occurred when the earl of Lucan disappeared in 1974. By contrast, Reality and Dreams is a comedy of manners revolving around the family of a famous film director.

Alan Bold has said that Spark’s “singular achievement as a novelist” has been “to synthesize the linguistic cunning of poetry with the seeming credibility of prose.” In general, critics have agreed, praising Spark for her wit and the economy of her prose style. While some reviewers believe Spark’s concerns as a Catholic interfere with her aims as a novelist, most see a connection between her faith and satiric vision, considering her one of the most important novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1993 Spark was created a dame of the British Empire. Spark moved to Italy in the late 1960’s. She remained in Italy until her death in Florence in 2006.

BibliographyBold, Alan. Muriel Spark. London: Methuen, 1986. Bold is concerned with the relationship between Spark’s personal background and the development of her characters, particularly links between Spark’s religious experience and the religious facets of her fiction. He includes biographical information, then discusses Spark’s works in chronological order, specifically the novels. An extensive bibliography is included, listing criticism, articles, essays, interviews, and books related to Spark and her work.Bold, Alan, ed. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984. Bold has compiled a collection of nine essays from different contributors, regarding various aspects of Spark’s fiction. The volume is organized into two sections. The first four essays explore Spark’s background and the content of her work. The remaining chapters contain critical articles centered on the diverse forms of Spark’s writings, including discussions of her use of satire, her poetry, and an essay by Tom Hubbard that deals exclusively with her short stories.Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1990. A critical and historical study of the psychological in Scottish literature. Includes a bibliography and index.Hynes, Joseph, ed. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. A comprehensive collection of reviews, essays, and excerpts from books on Spark’s fiction, by both her detractors and her admirers. Includes autobiographical essays and a survey and critique of past criticism.Little, Judy. “Muriel Spark’s Grammars of Assent.” In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Argues that in Spark’s fiction, characters often reject the steadying control of a notional assent and allow their personal obsessions to turn their lives to the freely imaginative. Asserts that most of her narrators distrust the presumption of realism and that her post-1960’s fiction focuses more on text than on realistic character portrayal.Montgomery, Benilde. “Spark and Newman: Jean Brodie Reconsidered.” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Spring, 1997): 94-106. An insightful study of the influence of John Henry Newman on the tension between Jean Brodie and Sandy Stranger in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, arguably Spark’s most enduring novel.Page, Norman. Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Part of the Modern Novelists series, this book contains biographical information, criticism, and interpretation of Spark and her works. Includes bibliography and index.Randisi, Jennifer Lynn. On Her Way Rejoicing: The Fiction of Muriel Spark. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991. Argues that Spark’s vision is metaphysical, combining piety and satire, deception and anagogical truth. Discusses the tension between mysticism and satire in Spark’s novels and stories.Richmond, Velma B. Muriel Spark. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Richmond explores Spark’s writing in terms of content and emphasis. Spark’s novels, poetry, and short stories are discussed in relation to their themes rather than their chronology. The closing chapter includes a discussion of Spark’s “comic vision.” Richmond includes biographical material along with a detailed chronology, a bibliography, and an extensive index.Spark, Muriel. Curriculum vitae: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Spark examines her life and literary career.Sproxton, Judy. The Women of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Looks at the female characters in Sparks’s fiction. Includes an index.Stubbs, Patricia. Muriel Spark. Essex: Longman, 1973. Stubbs’s essay deals with theme in Spark’s novels, from The Comforters through Not to Disturb. She traces the chronological development of Spark’s work, range, and attempts at experimentation. She criticizes Spark’s sense of distance and failure to solve problems but praises her efforts to force readers to view the world in a new way.Walker, Dorothea. Muriel Spark. Boston: Twayne, 1988. An informative study on the main themes of Spark’s work, with emphasis given to the wit and humor of her characters. The extensive bibliography is particularly helpful.Whittaker, Ruth. The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Whittaker’s work elaborates on the diversity of Spark’s themes, meanings, and purpose. The chapter divisions are organized according to topics–religion, style, structure, and form. The book is limited primarily to a discussion of Spark’s novels. Whittaker includes a biographical section as well as an extensive bibliography, notes, and an index.
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