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Muriel Sarah Spark

Muriel Sarah Spark

Muriel Sarah Spark (born 1918) wrote biography, literary criticism, poetry, and fiction, including the novel that was considered her masterpiece, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Born in Edinburgh on February 1, 1918, Muriel Spark worked in the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office in 1944-1945, was the general secretary of the Poetry Society from 1947 to 1949, and served as the editor of Poetry Review in 1949. She was the founder of the literary magazine Forum and worked as a part-time editor for Peter Owen Ltd.

In the early 1950s Spark published her first poetry collection, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse (1952), and built a solid reputation as a biographer with Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1951); Emily Bronte: Her Life and Work (1953); and John Masefield (1953). She also edited A Collection of Poems by Emily Bronte (1952), My Best Mary: The Letters of Mary Shelley (1954), and, most important, Letters of John Henry Newman (1957).

While working in these areas of nonfiction, Spark was undergoing a crisis of faith and was strongly influenced by the writings of Newman, the 19th-century Anglican clergyman who became a convert to Roman Catholicism and eventually a cardinal in that faith. While she was dealing with her crisis, she received financial and psychological assistance from Graham Greene, also a Roman Catholic convert, and was eventually converted herself, a move that had significant influence on her novels.

Spark published the first of those novels, The Comforters, in 1957 and followed that with Robinson in 1958, the same year she authored her first short-story collection, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories. In this same period she began writing radio plays, with The Party Through the Wall in 1957, The Interview in 1958, and The Dry River Bed in 1959.

It was in 1959 that Spark had her first major success, Memento Mori, with some critics comparing her to Ivy Compton-Burnett and Evelyn Waugh. She followed this with The Ballad of Peckham Rye in 1960, writing a radio play based on the novel that same year; The Bachelors, also in 1960; and Voices at Play in 1961, likewise turned into a radio play.

In 1961 she also published the novel generally regarded as her masterwork, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, subsequently made into a play, a hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the years 1966-1968; a film in 1969; and a six-part adaptation for television, another transatlantic success, in 1978 and 1979. This was the portrait of a middle-aged teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh in the 1930s who has gathered around her a coterie of five girls, "The Brodie Set." Jean Brodie was one of those delightful eccentrics, common in English fiction, who walked a tightrope over the abyss of caricature but never tumbled in. She saw her task as "putting old heads on young shoulders" and told her disciples that they were the créme de la créme. In 1939 she was forced to retire on the grounds that she has been teaching fascism, the accusation made by the girl who eventually became a nun and defended herself against charges of betrayal by observing that "It's only possible to betray where loyalty is due." Critic George Stade probably best defined Spark's attitude toward Jean Brodie by pointing out that the novel embodied "the traditional moral wisdom that, if you are not part of something larger than yourself, you are nothing."

In 1962 Spark's sole venture into theater, Doctors of Philosophy, was presented in London and was not a resounding success. She returned to fiction and wrote The Girls of Slender Means (1963); The Mandelbaum Gate (1965); Collected Stories I (1967); The Public Image (1968); The Very Fine Clock (1968), her only work for juveniles; The Driver's Seat (1970); Not To Disturb (1971); and The Hothouse by the East River (1973).

Also in 1973 Sharp published another outstanding novel, The Abbess of Crewe, a work alive with paradox. To win election as abbess, the protagonist, Sister Gertrude, studied Machiavelli; once in charge, she combined an extreme conservatism in religious matters with the installation of electronic devices in the abbey and enlisted the aid of two Jesuit priests in exposing the affair between Sister Felicity and a young Jesuit. Released from the abbey, Sister Gertrude roamed the Third World like a loose cannon, indulging in such projects as mediating a war between a tribe of cannibals and a tribe of vegetarians. The novel was filmed in 1976 under the title Nasty Habits.

Subsequently there came the novels The Takeover (1976); Territorial Rights (1979); Loitering with Intent (1981); A Far Cry from Kensington (1987); The Only Problem (1988); Symposium (1990); Reality and Dreams (1997); and two collections of short stories, Bang-Bang You're Dead and Other Stories (1982) and The Stories of Muriel Spark (1985). In 1992, she published Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography.

Her twentieth novel, Reality and Dreams explored the boundaries and connections between realities and dreams in a story about a dream-driven film director who feels and seeks to be Godlike in his work, a theme which illustrated the aptness of critic Frank Kermode's insight that in Spark's novels portrayed a connection between fiction and the world, and between the creation of the novelist and the creation of God.

Much of the criticism about Spark's work focused on the extent to which her Catholicism influenced her writing; that is, was she a Catholic novelist or a novelist who was incidentally a Catholic? The former view was upheld by American critic Granville Hicks, who termed her "a gloomy Catholic, like Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor, more concerned with the evil of man than the goodness of God." J.D. Enright, on the other hand, felt that, unlike Paul Claudel or François Mauriac or Graham Greene, she had no interest in force-feeding Catholicism to her readers. Religion aside, Duncan Fallowell summed up her fiction in this way: "She is the master, and sometimes mistress, of an attractive, cynical worldliness which is not shallow." And that observation probably best encapsulated British critical opinion, which has been generally kind, if not generous, to her work for four decades.

In 1993, Spark was made Dame Muriel Spark, Order of the British Empire.

Further Reading

Obviously Spark's 1992 autobiography was essential reading. Otherwise, studies of her and her work abound. The best overview can be found in Joseph Hynes' Critical Essays on Muriel Spark (1992). There were about a dozen volumes by individual authors (some of the critics included in Hynes' collection). The most recent were the six works, all titled Muriel Spark, by Peter Kemp (1974); Allan Massie (1979); Velma B. Richmond (1984); Alan N. Bold (1986); Dorothea Walker (1988); and Page Norman (1990). □

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"Muriel Sarah Spark." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Spark, Muriel (Sarah)

SPARK, Muriel (Sarah)

Nationality: British. Born: Muriel Sarah Camberg in Edinburgh, 1 February 1918. Education: James Gillespie's School for Girls and Heriot Watt College, both Edinburgh. Family: Married S.O. Spark in 1937 (marriage dissolved by 1944); one son. Career: Worked in the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department during World War II. General secretary, Poetry Society, and editor, Poetry Review, London, 1947-49. Lives in Rome. Awards: Observer story prize, 1951; Italia prize, for radio play, 1962; James Tait Black Memorial prize, for fiction, 1966; F.N.A.C. prize (France), 1987; Bram Stoker award, 1988; Royal Bank of ScotlandSaltire Society award, 1988; Ingersoll T.S. Eliot award, 1992; David Cohen British Literary prize, 1997; Gold Pen award, International PEN, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1971; University of Edinburgh, 1989; Aberdeen University, 1995; University of St. Andrews, 1998; University of Oxford, 1999. D. Univ.: Heriot-Watt University, 1995. C.Litt: Royal Society of Literature, 1991. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1963; Honorary member: American Academy, 1978. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1967, Dame, Order of the British Empire, 1993; Officer, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1988, Commander, 1996. Agent: David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.



The Comforters. London, Macmillan, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1957.

Robinson. London, Macmillan, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1958.

Memento Mori. London, Macmillan, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1959.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye. London, Macmillan, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1960.

The Bachelors. London, Macmillan, 1960; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1961.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. London, Macmillan, 1961; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1962.

The Girls of Slender Means. London, Macmillan, and New York, Knopf, 1963.

The Mandelbaum Gate. London, Macmillan, and New York, Knopf, 1965.

The Public Image. London, Macmillan, and New York, Knopf, 1968.

The Driver's Seat. London, Macmillan, and New York, Knopf, 1970.

Not to Disturb. London, Macmillan, 1971; New York, Viking Press, 1972.

The Hothouse by the East River. London, Macmillan, and New York, Viking Press, 1973.

The Abbess of Crewe. London, Macmillan, and New York, VikingPress, 1974.

The Takeover. London, Macmillan, and New York, Viking Press, 1976.

Territorial Rights. London, Macmillan, and New York, CowardMcCann, 1979.

Loitering with Intent. London, Bodley Head, and New York, CowardMcCann, 1981.

The Only Problem. London, Bodley Head, and New York, CowardMcCann, 1984.

A Far Cry from Kensington. London, Constable, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Symposium. London, Constable, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Omnibus I. London, Constable, 1993.

Omnibus II. London, Constable, 1994.

The Novels of Muriel Spark (collection). Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Reality and Dreams. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Short Stories

The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories. London, Macmillan, 1958;Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1960.

Voices at Play (includes the radio plays The Party Through the Wall, The Interview, The Dry River Bed, Danger Zone ). London, Macmillan, 1961; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1962.

Collected Stories I. London, Macmillan, 1967; New York, Knopf, 1968.

Bang-Bang You're Dead and Other Stories. London, Granada, 1982.

The Stories of Muriel Spark. New York, Dutton, 1985; London, Bodley Head, 1987.

Open to the Public: New and Collected Stories. New York, NewDirections, 1997.


Doctors of Philosophy (produced London, 1962). London, Macmillan, 1963; New York, Knopf, 1966.

Radio Plays:

The Party Through the Wall, 1957; The Interview, 1958;The Dry River Bed, 1959; The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1960; Danger Zone, 1961.


The Fanfarlo and Other Verse. Aldington, Kent, Hand and FlowerPress, 1952.

Collected Poems I. London, Macmillan, 1967; New York, Knopf, 1968.

Going Up to Sotheby's and Other Poems. London, Granada, 1982.


Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. London, Tower Bridge, 1951; revised edition, as Mary Shelley: A Biography, New York, Dutton, 1987; London, Constable, 1988.

Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work, with Derek Stanford. London, Owen, 1953.

John Masefield. London, Nevill, 1953; revised edition, London, Hutchinson, 1991.

The Very Fine Clock (for children). New York, Knopf, 1968; London, Macmillan, 1969.

The French Window and the Small Telephone (for children). London, Colophon, 1993.

The Essence of the Brontës. London, Owen, 1993.

Curriculum Vitae. London, Constable, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Editor, with David Stanford, Tribute to Wordsworth. London, Wingate, 1950.

Editor, A Selection of Poems, by Emily Brontë. London, Grey WallsPress, 1952.

Editor, with David Stanford, My Best Mary: The Letters of Mary Shelley. London, Wingate, 1953.

Editor, The Brontë Letters. London, Nevill, 1954; as The Letters of the Brontës: A Selection, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Editor, with David Stanford, Letters of John Henry Newman. London, Owen, 1957.



Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark: A Bibliography by Thomas T. Tominaga and Wilma Schneidermeyer, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1976.

Critical Studies:

Muriel Spark: A Biographical and Critical Study by Derek Stanford, Fontwell, Sussex, Centaur Press, 1963; Muriel Spark by Karl Malkoff, New York, Columbia University Press, 1968; Muriel Spark by Patricia Stubbs, London, Longman, 1973; Muriel Spark by Peter Kemp, London, Elek, 1974, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1975; Muriel Spark by Allan Massie, Edinburgh, Ramsay Head Press, 1979; The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark by Ruth Whittaker, London, Macmillan, 1982, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983; Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism by Judy Little, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983; Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision edited by Alan Bold, London, Vision Press, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1984, and Muriel Spark by Bold, London, Methuen, 1986; Muriel Spark by Velma Bourgeois Richmond, New York, Ungar, 1984; The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark's Novels by Joseph Hynes, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988; Muriel Spark by Norman Page, London, Macmillan, 1990; Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1990; Re-Inventing Reality: Patterns and Characters in the Novels of Muriel Spark by Mickey Pearlman, New York, P. Lang, 1996.

* * *

"Her prose is like a bird, darting from place to place, palpitating with nervous energy; but a bird with a bright beady eye and a sharp beak as well." Francis Hope's description crystallizes one important aspect of Muriel Spark's highly idiosyncratic talent. A late starter in the field of fiction, she had until early middle age published only conventional criticism and verse which gave little hint of her real gifts and future development. These were triumphantly released with the publication of The Comforters in 1957, and the spate of creative activity which followed, speedily establishing her reputation as a genuine original with a style and slant on life uniquely her own.

Spark spoke in an interview of her mind "crowded with ideas, all teeming in disorder." In 1954 she had become a convert to Roman Catholicism; and she regards her religion primarily as a discipline for this prodigal fertility"something to measure from," as she says, rather than a direct source of its inspiration. Yet her Catholicism pervasively colours a vision of life seen, in her own phrase, "from a slight angle to the universe." For all her inventive energy, verve and panache, and glittering malice, this writer is profoundly preoccupied with metaphysical questions of good and evil. Like Angus Wilson, she is a moral fabulist of the contemporary scene who works through the medium of comedy; and like him, she is often most in earnest when at her most entertaining.

Her novels abound in Catholic characters, but these are by no means always on the side of the angels. In The Comforters they teeter on the brink of delusion, retreating from orthodoxy into eccentric extremes of quasi-religious experience satirized with the wicked acuteness with which she later pillories spiritualism in The Bachelors, focussing upon the trial of a medium for fraud. Religious hypocrites such as the self-consciously progressive couple in "The Black Madonna" are quite as likely to be her targets as rationalist unbelievers. Her awareness of the powers of darkness as a palpable force at work in the world is most effectively embodied in her study of Satanism in the suburbs, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in the diabolic person and activities of an industrial welfare worker born with horns on his head.

Such manifestations of the supernatural in the midst of prosaic actuality are a central element in Spark's novels. Her fantasy, earthed in the everyday, is presented as not illusion but natural extension of the material scene: the product of "that sort of mental squint," as she calls it, which perceives the credible co-existence of the uncanny with the most rational aspects of experience. Those who attempt to ignore or reject its realitylike the cynics staging their tawdry Nativity play and confounded by the avenging intervention of a real angel in "The Seraph and the Zambesi," or the sceptical George trying to explain away the flying saucer of "Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse"do so at their peril. Another short story, "The Portobello Road," is narrated by the ghost of a girl who materializes to her murderer in the Saturday morning street market; while Memento Mori, in which a number of old people are the victims of a sinister anonymous telephone caller, is a mordant exercise in the macabre. It is subtly suggested that these events might well, for those who choose to believe so, have a straightforward psychological explanation. The ghostly visitant need be no more than an externalization of the murderer's guilty conscience belatedly returned to plague him; the grim practical joker of Memento (never finally traced by the police) may embody the insistent reminder of imminent mortality already present within each aged subconscious mind.

Spark's work was highly praised by Evelyn Waugh, whose influence is detectable in the quickfire satirical wit of what one critic called her "machine-gun dialogue." The savage grotesqueries of early Waugh comedy are strongly recalled, too, by the chilling vein of heartlessness, even cruelty, in the violent ends to which so many Spark characters are remorselessly doomed: Needle, smothered in a haystack; the octogenarian Dame Letty, battered in her bed; Joanna Childe, bizarrely chanting passages from the Anglican liturgy as she burns to death; and the bored and loveless office worker of The Driver's Seat obsessively resolved to get herself killed in the most brutal fashion possible.

Yet if disaster and death haunt the pages of Spark's novels, her piquant humours are still more abundant. Although The Girls of Slender Means ends in tragedy, its portrayal of the impoverished inmates of a war-time hostel for young women of good family is as delectably funny as the depiction, in The Bachelors, of their gossipy male counterparts in London bedsitterland; or as the intrigues among nuns at a convent besieged by the media avid for ecclesiastical scandal in The Abbess of Crewe. Perhaps Spark's greatest comic triumph is her creation of the exuberant Edinburgh schoolmistress Jean Brodie, grooming her girls for living through an educationally unorthodox but headily exhilarating curriculum ranging from her heroes, Franco and Mussolini, to the love-lives of remarkable women of history, including her own.

Spark's narrative expertise is best exemplified in shorter forms, where her stylistic economy so often achieves a riveting intensity of impact. By contrast a longer, more ambitious book like The Mandelbaum Gate, about the adventures of a half-Jewish Catholic convert caught up in the divisions of warring Jerusalem, seems laboured and diffuse. Two novels, The Takeover, set during the 1970s but rooted in classical mythology, and Territorial Rights, have the Italian background which the author clearly finds a fruitful imaginative climate for exploring such themes as the exploitation of bogus religion and excessive wealth.

Loitering with Intent returns to her earlier London scene, and a time just after World War II. The composition of a struggling author's first novel is skilfully interwoven with her experiences in the employ of a bizarre society of pseudo-writers, whose grotesque fantasies, deceptions, and intrigues entertainingly reveal the possibilities of confusion between life and art. In The Only Problem the central character is a hapless scholar vainly seeking peace and seclusion in order to wrestle with interpreting the Book of Job. The daily problems of his own life increasingly impinge upon this tasknot least the procession of modern counterparts of his biblical subject's comforters, or persecutors.

All these works wryly illustrate those characteristic qualities of sly, deadly wit in observing human oddity and weakness, the ingenious fusion of fact with fantasy and unpredictable surprise, and the underlying moral seriousness, which make Spark one of our most stimulating and quirkily individual novelists.

Margaret Willy

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"Spark, Muriel (Sarah)." Contemporary Novelists. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Spark, Muriel (Sarah)." Contemporary Novelists. . (December 16, 2017).

"Spark, Muriel (Sarah)." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from