Nothing like a grand dame – Dame Muriel Spark


March 6, 2004

Half a lifetime ago – and it’s been a long lifetime – Dame Muriel Spark explained that much of her approach to writing was based on the “nevertheless” principle, a peculiarly Edinburgh habit of thought. Dame Muriel’s Edinburgh is now mostly a memory, but the principle remains useful in understanding Scotland’s greatest living novelist. As in: Dame Muriel is Scotland’s greatest living novelist, nevertheless she lives in Italy. Or: Dame Muriel has irreproachable manners, nevertheless those who bore her are soon aware of it. Or: Dame Muriel is a figure of considerable intimidatory presence, nevertheless she’s a wicked old girl.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

She’s in London for the launch of her 22nd novel, staying in the sort of white stucco hotel Selina Redwood might have visited with her American colonel in The Girls of Slender Means. There’s a hushed, half-lit air of fading gentility. A gold-painted hand points the way to the lavatory. I’m shown in to a panelled room filled with battered leather armchairs. The door opens and I hear a certain sort of Edinburgh voice: precise, sweetly enunciated, brooking no contradiction.

Dame Muriel is 86 years old, walks with a couple of sticks, has trouble with her eyesight, and is without doubt one of the most terrifying people I’ve ever met. Charming and punctiliously polite, with a dignity which interviewers offend at their peril. Perhaps it’s the result of great age and greater reputation, but her autobiography Curriculum Vitae suggests she’s always been like this. In 1932, as an Edinburgh schoolgirl, she won a writing prize which involved being crowned Queen of Poetry in a public ceremony, and endured the experience feeling like “the Dairy Queen of Dumfries”.

Before we get down to business she wishes to know my opinion of Scotland. Does it seem a little ingrown? The word conjures a vision of an enormous toenail. Dame Muriel seems to regard her native land as in need of a decent chiropodist. When I ask her why she left Edinburgh in 1937, never to live there again, she replies: “I think it’s necessary for everyone to leave Edinburgh.” She was formed by the city. It was there she read Stevenson and Scott. On the streets of Morningside she acquired her eye for characters, her ear for dialogue and her desiccated wit. Without Edinburgh there would have been no Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Nevertheless, had she not left Edinburgh, there might have been no novels at all.

At the age of 19 she went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to marry Sydney Oswald Spark, a teacher 13 years her senior. She wanted experience and excitement, and she certainly got them. The extraordinary sequence of events in her twenties and thirties has enlivened countless interviews. At the prospect of going through it all over again, Dame Muriel protests. “All this is such a long time ago.” Nevertheless, I say…

The marriage was a disaster. Her husband was a paranoid schizophrenic. “He was always in bins or else being had-up for attacking people.” Within three years they had separated. In 1943 “for my sanity’s sake” she returned to Britain. Her son Robin, who was too young to travel in wartime, was left in the care of a convent boarding school. In London she worked for MI6, putting out black propaganda to demoralise the Germans. After the war she settled Robin with her parents, but regularly saw him in Edinburgh. “My mother was wonderful to him, my father adored him. I would have had him, otherwise, with me in London. It wouldn’t have been quite such a good life for him.”

She found a job with the Poetry Society, editing its magazine for a turbulent two years when she made an enemy of the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes among others. She championed the work of the moderns, Eliot, Pound and Auden. Her opponents sent a defamatory anonymous letter and cast aspersions on her private life. Finally she was sacked. These were the years of poverty: one dress to her name, holes in her shoes. She spent her time writing poetry and literary criticism and preparing for the novels she knew she would write one day. Food rations were tight, often she shared hers with a boyfriend, Derek Stanford (of whom more later). To suppress her appetite she took dexedrine, a type of speed. As a result she suffered a breakdown. She was studying TS Eliot and, as she read, the letters on the page would rearrange themselves in sinister new meanings. It seems an apt form of madness, given the novels she was soon to write: literary, ingenious, with a hint of supernatural revelation about them. She wrote compulsively during those months and greatly regrets throwing the notes and poems away.

As soon as she stopped taking the pills she began to recover, and as soon as she recovered she converted to Catholicism: a major step for a daughter of Presbyterian Edinburgh. “I find Presbyterianism a bit too censorious. It has great qualities, mostly on the side of truthfulness – they’re very truthful in their approach to life, in the sense of moralistic, but it can be a bit arid,” she says. Catholicism entails a very different way of seeing life, but then “I was seeing life differently anyway. That’s why I was happy to be a Catholic: it matched up with the way I was feeling in any case.” The religious turning point also proved an artistic one, releasing her from whatever had been holding her back. Within three years her first novel, The Comforters – about a young woman who “hears” herself being written into a novel – was published to critical acclaim.

It’s tempting to find connections between the lurid events which spice Dame Muriel’s novels and the not much less lurid happenings in her own life. Ironic echoes abound. Take her description of herself as a “bad picker” of men, and Lise’s search for a boyfriend who is “her type” in The Driver’s Seat. (She turns out to be looking for a man who will murder her.) It’s clear from the autobiography that real people and events find their way into the books, transformed by her art, and even when there’s no obvious fictional counterpart, much of her life sounds like an unwritten Muriel Spark novel. The mad husband whose revolver she thought it prudent to hide, the anonymous letter, the poisoned pets, the jealous lovers, the attempted blackmail, the lookalike schoolfriend shot dead in an African hotel the night Spark happened to be staying there, the public quarrel with her son over her grandmother’s religion…

She smiles forbearingly. “There’s a lot of people think they can take my books and analyse me from them. On that principle Agatha Christie would be a serial killer.” Ouch. “You can analyse people from their dreams, which are unconscious, or from their unconscious pronouncements, but with an author of my type I’m conscious all the time of what I’m writing. There’s not very much of the unconscious to dig in to.”

Not for Dame Muriel the touchy-feely, intellectually reductive spirit of our age. Her novels offer us glittering surface: 22 intricately-crafted Fabergé eggs. There are meanings beyond the story, dazzling refractions, patterns which linger in the mind’s eye with fear and pity as well as laughter, but no Freudian substratum. She is an artist, not a manual labourer, and she regards those who ply the spade – be they novelist or interviewer – with polite disdain.

Fortunately there is a less formidable side to Dame Muriel. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, given the delicious wit of the books, but it can be hard to see past the grande dame manner. I make the same mistake with her clothes at first, noticing only the black and white trouser suit and elegantly co-ordinated shirt. Much later I spot her shocking pink socks.

The first glimpse of her impish streak comes as we’re discussing literary jealousy, the subject of her latest book, The Finishing School. It seems an appropriate moment to ask her about one of her old lovers, Derek Stanford. Her cheeks gleam with suppressed mirth. Her friend John Mortimer describes her boyfriends as having gone down the plughole of history. “I didn’t say that but I find it rather amusing.”

She met Stanford in London in the late 1940s. He worked in a second hand bookshop but had ambitions as a poet and critic. “He wasn’t good looking but he wasn’t bad looking…” she says with deadly fairness. “He used to give me books rather than bunches of flowers: that appealed to me greatly. I was quite gone on him with his books and his poetry.”

They became literary collaborators, producing critical biographies of Wordsworth and Emily Brontë. “I helped him a great deal in putting words together: he used to go round in circles.” The relationship outlived its ardour and became a way of life. Stanford stayed with his mother but wrote to Dame Muriel almost daily. She has 500 of these letters, many of them reporting the state of his health. (“The worst has happened. I am in bed with a cold.”)

“It was really very trying,” she says now. “I put up with that more than I should have because by this time we had contracts together.” Stanford wrote the critical passages of their books, and she the biographical. Her face acquires that mischievous gleam again. “All my biographical parts are still in print and all his critical parts…” she pauses with faultless comic timing “…have gone down the plughole of history. I was a better writer, I say that without shame.”

The triumph of her debut novel seems to have come as a shock to him. “He didn’t really think women came to anything. He was pretty furious that I had some success.” He had a breakdown and wrote informing her that he was advised not to see her as it made him ill. “I don’t know what was the cause of the breakdown,” she says. “I think self-esteem.” In 1963, when she was properly famous, he sold her love letters to a dealer in literary memorabilia who tried to sell them back to her for $1,500 on the grounds that they were “embarrassing”. The same year Stanford published a book about her. She also featured in his second book, about the 1940s, which came out in 1977. She felt tainted by both volumes. “He liked to sneer at women.” Worse, “he got everything wrong. I thought it damn cheek. He didn’t know me all that well. He didn’t know much about my motives for writing. He hadn’t been taking any interest in my work: I was just there to help him type out his manuscripts.”

But she had the last laugh, adapting her experiences to create the pisseur de copie Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington. An act of revenge? “I dare say,” she drawls. Nevertheless, it wasn’t just about Stanford: she’d seen other women afflicted by men of that sort. The Morningside in her accent becomes markedly more pronounced: “If I write anything it really is on a more general level. I’ve got quite a strict sense of what books are for. I don’t use novels to express my personal feelings.” I’m still smarting from this rap over the knuckles when her voice becomes playful again: “It could be revenge, it could be a warning…” Finally, she tells me I’d better be careful what I write as he’s still alive and she doesn’t want to trouble him. “He’s in some sort of home,” she says, in the tone of a woman still zipping around Europe in her Alfa Romeo.

Sooner or later, any journalist interviewing Dame Muriel has to decide just how frank their account is going to be. Should they report the odd infringement of political correctness and the provocative remarks about her son? Does the woman who shuddered when she was crowned Poetry Queen of Edinburgh really want to see a family quarrel in print? The only possible answer is: of course she does. Why else would she talk about it? She has her own sense of what is and is not appropriate: if it doesn’t accord with the woman’s magazine pieties of our age, too bad. “As for not being a proper mother, who’s a proper mother? By the time you’re in your eighties, if your children are in their sixties, the question becomes a bit macabre.”

The plain but these days oddly inadmissible truth is that families fall out. No doubt she has her regrets, but on balance she seems to find the battle rather invigorating.

The differences between mother and son first became public some years ago when Robin Spark, a painter and a practising Jew, claimed his maternal grandmother was Jewish; Dame Muriel maintained her mother was a Presbyterian, and the dispute was taken up by the newspapers. But this is just one of many bones of contention. “He said, ‘I don’t like the way you talk about my father’ – I don’t talk about him at all. He said ‘I don’t like the way you talk about my aunt’.” Dame Muriel sent some money to congratulate him on his retirement but he sent it back. “I said ‘thank you very much, that’ll come in useful’.”

Again she suspects artistic jealousy. “He thinks I should speak well of his art,” she says. And then, echoing Dr Johnson, “I speak well of his art in that I think it wonderful that he does it at all”. She gives him due credit for putting himself through university. Nevertheless, “Nothing is going to make me say somebody is a brilliant artist if they’re not, so I don’t say anything.”

Later, when I’ve put down my pen and she’s bought us both a drink, she suggests I might phone him up and try to see his paintings. She’d be interested to hear a second opinion. He turns journalists away when they’re writing about her, but if I said I was interested in him… She’s thought of ringing him up herself, disguising her identity. “I’m capable of that,” she says, agleam with naughtiness. The Daily Express is a useful cover. “I say, ‘I’m doing this cultural survey, can you help me…’ I know how to get information. I know how to be a spy.” She was in MI6, she reminds me, and Penny was in MI5: “So we’re full of the MIs.”

Penny, or Penelope Jardine, is sitting in on the interview. They met in Rome in 1968, when the novelist was looking for secretarial help and Penelope, a sculptor, wanted a part-time job. They’ve been friends ever since. Not lesbians, as Dame Muriel will point out if she thinks a journalist has the wrong end of the stick. She shares Penelope’s house in Tuscany. “It’s got a lot of rooms,” Penelope remarks, “which helps friendship.” They travel, and socialise, and the rest of the time Dame Muriel spends writing.

She thought The Finishing School would be her last book, not counting the Collected Poems due out in the autumn, but she feels lonely without a novel on her desk, so she’s started another. All she will say is that it involves a lot of professions and trades, so she’ll be taking a Yellow Pages back to Italy with her. She writes in longhand, one draft only. Her voice becomes droll: “I don’t go over the thing all over again, it might be work.”

And there we must leave Muriel Spark: pink-socked Dame of the British Empire, a Catholic best known for her definitive portrayal of Presbyterian Edinburgh, a woman with a strict sense of propriety and a relish for stirring things up. A citizen of the world, but a Scottish treasure nevertheless.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications