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Muriel Spark Biography

(1918–2006), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scotland on Sunday, Poetry Review

British author, born in Edinburgh; her father was Jewish and born in Scotland, her mother was English and Anglican. Spark was educated at James Gillespie's School for Girls in Edinburgh, on which her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was based, and which she claimed was ‘more progressive than I realised’ (Scotland on Sunday, 16 Sept. 1990). In 1937 she married Sydney Oswald Spark and they moved to Africa where their son, Robin, was born. The marriage soon failed but Spark did not return to Britain until 1944 when she began working for the Foreign Office. In 1947 she became secretary of the Poetry Society and edited its Poetry Review, but left two years later. At this time she published her first collection of poetry, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse, in 1952. Meanwhile, in 1951, she won the Observer short story competition and was asked to write a novel. She was reluctant at first, finding the novel a lesser art. In 1954 she became a Roman Catholic which, she claimed, enabled her to speak with her own voice, and many of her works deal, obliquely or directly, with metaphysical and moral questions. In her first novel, The Comforters (1957), her protagonist, Caroline Rose, a Catholic convert, reflects on the ‘exorbitant’ and ‘outrageous’ demands Christianity makes on its adherents. Other early novels, such as the blackly comic Memento Mori (1959) and the bizarre morality tale The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), reflect on the nature of death and the existence of evil with characteristic sang-froid. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) reflects on the corrosive power of guilt, told from the point of view of a nun looking back on her childhood involvement with the woman whose influence has shaped her life. In 1962 Spark became what she described as ‘an international exile’; she first moved to New York, and in 1966 she settled in Italy where several of her novels have been set. Her other novels include The Girls of Slender Means (1963), a tragi-comedy set in a Kensington hostel in 1945, which deals with themes of good and evil later to recur in a novel with a similar setting, A Far Cry from Kensington (1988); The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), set in Jerusalem; The Public Image (1968), about a beautiful but shallow actress living in Rome; The Driver's Seat (1970), in which a woman travels to a southern European city to keep an appointment with death; The Abbess of Crewe (1974), a satirical fantasy about the political machinations of a power-mad ecclesiastic, written in the aftermath of the Watergate affair; The Takeover (1976), also set in Italy; Loitering with Intent (1981), narrated by a young writer whose involvement with an ‘Autobiographical Association’ provides material for her first novel; Symposium (1990) deals with the complex psychological and sexual relationships of a group of wealthy socialites, first encountered at an Islington dinner party. Apart from The Mandelbaum Gate her novels are short, and despite the seriousness of many of their themes they are witty, satirical, eccentric, and often macabre. Spark's fascination with the demonic and with the perverse aspects of human behaviour manifests itself in many of her books. Her distinctive elegant style, her use of the device of narrative omniscience, and the element of fable or parable often introduced into her fictions has influenced a whole generation of post-war writers. As well as novels, several of which have been dramatized and filmed, and poems (Collected Poems 1, 1967), she also published short stories (Collected Stories 1, 1967 and 1994), plays for the radio, juvenilia, and critical works, including Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley (1951), Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work (1953, with Derek Stanford), and John Masefield (1953, revised 1992). She has edited A Tribute to Wordsworth (1950, with Derek Stanford), A Selection of Poems (1952) by Emily Brontë, My Best Mary: The Letters of Mary Shelley (1953, with Derek Stanford), The Brontë Letters (1954), and Letters of John Henry Newman (1957); The Essence of the Brontës: A Compilation with Essays (1993) brings together Spark's earlier work on the Brontës. In 1992 she published Curriculum Vitae—Autobiography. Among several critical studies are those by Alan Bold (1986) and Norman Page (1990). See also Ruth Whittaker's The Faith and Fictions of Muriel Spark (1982).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Souvenirs to St Joan of the Stockyards (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe)