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Muriel Spark Centenary (1918 – 2018)

Part One: A ‘Sparkfest’ of poetry and prose.


In the centenary month of her birth on 1st February 1918 let us remember and praise the marvellous Muriel Spark. She is famed in particular for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). It was turned into a very successful film (20th Century Fox) starring Maggie Smith in the title role. The author set the story in her native city of Edinburgh.


Nevertheless, writing from her home in Tuscany in 2003, Muriel Spark held that:


Although most of my life has been devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet.  I do not write poetic prose, but I feel that my outlook on life and my perceptions of events are those of a poet.


In the preface to her book All the Poems (Carcanet, 2004) Muriel Spark further explained that she had written poems throughout her literary life, from the late 1940s onwards. She declared her conviction that for creative writing of any sort, an early apprenticeship as a poet is a wonderful stimulant and start.


Some critics refer to Muriel Spark’s books as novellas rather than novels. I don’t think that they are any the worse for being less than 200 pages long. I love her spare, edgy prose, her pared-down plots and her easy-flowing narrative. And so I entirely approve of an incident in her novel  A Far Cry from Kensington when Mrs Hawkins, working for a publishing firm, shows the door to a young author whose large manuscript of a novel she judges is much too long and rambling! BBC Radio 4 chose this delightful novel for its Book at Bedtime broadcast, during January 2018 to start a centenary tribute ‘The Vital Spark’.


The Girls of Slender Means (1963)


This novel was set in 1940s post-war west London where the story followed the working and social lives of a group of young girls that lodged at the May of Teck Club, a fictional hostel.


It is evident from Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) that many of the people, places and incidents in The Girls of Slender Means were drawn from her real-life diary and from the real-life Helena Club, in Lancaster Gate, where she sometimes lodged. Amongst the girls that she knew there, one used to compose poetry. This girl would come and read her efforts to Muriel Spark. One can discern the source of what the author and critic Carol Shields describes as ‘the snippets of poetry that ripple through Muriel Spark’s novels like propitiating music.’


My recent delight at finding a second hand Penguin 1966 paperback edition of The Girls of Slender Means was tinged with surprise when I spotted that one of the ladies on the front cover illustration was topless. Was such a thing allowed, in 1966, and by the respectable Penguin, of all publishers? Evidently, it was. And fair’s fair: towards the end of my re-read of the book, I found that the drawing on the front cover was a faithful representation of an actual incident in the story. Not all publishers are so accurate or honest, when they print a lurid illustration on the cover of a book!


The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)


Muriel Spark’s autobiography discloses that her writing of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) stemmed from a time in 1956 when ‘My digs in London were now in Camberwell, a less fashionable part than my old Kensington haunts.’


This time the story is set in the mid-1950s. It allows a delightful nostalgic return to an era that I can just about remember for myself. Young brides-to-be would save money, to fill their ‘bottom drawer’; young men fuelled by too much beer and whisky would step outside the pub on Saturday nights to fight about a girl; landladies would not allow their gentlemen tenants to take a young lady to their room. 


These and other typical incidents abound in another of Muriel Spark’s masterpieces of relaxed but assured storytelling. The central hero Dougal Douglas drives a path through the wit and black humour of it all. He is a young man who can be guaranteed either to charm or to infuriate everyone that he encounters. In a long-lost and fondly remembered world when the Personnel department in a company or factory was yet to be re-named Human Resources, and no one had yet invented the horror of Job Descriptions and Performance Appraisals, the canny Dougal manages to draw a good income from his employers without seeming to complete any tangible work.


Robin Spark (1938 – 2016)


The tenth anniversary of Muriel Spark’s death was made more poignant by the death in August 2016 of her only child, her son Robin.


Robin was born in Bulawayo, now Zimbabwe, in dramatic circumstances. The young Muriel Camberg had married Sydney Oswald Spark and in 1937 had sailed to Africa to join him. The marriage failed and she spirited herself and baby Robin away – initially to Cape Town and then by perilous stages during wartime she returned them both home to Britain.


Seeking work in bombed-out London, Muriel Spark left her young son in Edinburgh in the care of his grandparents. Fame and prosperity from her 22 novels did not come quickly. Winning the £250 prize in The Observer short story competition of 1951 was an important first breakthrough. But the following year 1952 brought discordance in the family: Muriel decided to become a Roman Catholic while her son, now aged 13, opted to adopt the Jewish religion. This split would unfortunately fracture the mother and son relationship. Estrangement and disinheritance followed. Muriel Spark disdained Robin’s career in the art world: his day job was warden at leading art galleries in Scotland, but he painted his own work too, achieving an ‘agitated intensity’ when he chose Jewish themes.


In the second part of my tribute to Muriel Spark, to be published next month, I will further explore how in poetry and prose she celebrated the London district of Kensington where she lived after the war.


Jerry Dowlen

January 2018


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Charles Raw

   Rumpole December 2017

   Roger Moore as Ivanhoe

   Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s

   The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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