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The Prime of Muriel Spark

Esta vez toca una entrada en inglés ;) 

At Donostia Book Club's meeting in September we have talked about Muriel Spark and her most recognized novel, ¨The Prime of Miss Jean Brody¨. It is  a rather short text, but, as Spark's own life, it's quite complex.
She was a talented student and at age 12 received the Walter Scott prize for a poem entitled 'Out of a Book'. However, she was unable to afford university and left school at 16 to take a course in précis-writing at a secretarial college, the Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh working at the same time at a fashionable department store. She later also taught English to finance the school.

Muriel Spark at the Edinburgh Festival

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Sarah Campbell in Edinburgh on February 1st, 1918 to a Scottish father, Barney Camberg and an English mother, Sarah, known as Cissy. She studied at James Gillespie’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. That's when she strated writing poetry (at the age of 9). Gillespie's School was an inspiration for Marcia Blaine School in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody". One of her teachers at James Gillespie's High School was Christina Kay, who would later become the model for the main character in that novel. 

Christina Kay in the middle

From 1937 to1944 she lived in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where at the age of 19 she married Sydney Oswald Spark, a man mentaly unstable who, as soon as they got married revealed to be agressive and violent. He was a math teacher and nonobservant Jew 13 years her senior, who promised her a new life. In 1938 the couple had one son, Samuel, known as 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.

In 1940

Muriel left her husband and, as it was forbidden to transport children during the war, she left the 4-year-old boy in an African convent school. She returned to Scotland and she later said it had been her intention to establish a family home in Britain, but her husband returned separately, when the boy was already 7 years old, and their son was brought up by Muriel's parents in Edinburgh. Muriel and Robin never repaired their relationship and she left all her money and rights to the books to her agent and best friend, who she was living with in Italy.

Robin and Muriel never repaired their relationship
Penelope Jardi wrote a book about her friendship with Muriel

Returning to Britain in 1944, Spark worked for the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office in London from 1944 to 1945 (which was concerned with anti-Nazi propaganda, something similar to what Orwell was doing if you remember our meeting about him) and 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. She also served as General Secretary of the Poetry Society and editor of Poetry Review in London from 1947 to 1949. She was a 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, also Bronte sisters.

In 1952 she published her first book of poetry, a collection The Fanfarlo and Other Verse but she didn't decide to write fiction full-time until she won the Observer prize for short fiction. Muriel began writing under her married name, which she felt was more memorable than her maiden name.

In 1954, following a breakdown, she converted to Roman Catholicism. She admitted that until 1952 she had aboslutely no faith or religious experiences in her life. The same year she began her career as a novelist when Macmillan and Company commissioned her to write a novel. Spark said that her conversion enabled her to write longer fiction.

She was nearly forty years old when she completed The Comforters, her first novel. Over the next five decades she published twenty-one novels, three volumes of short stories and an occasional play, a collection of poetry and children’s work. The phenomenal success of Spark’s sixth novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—as a stage-play, feature film and television series—allowed her to live comfortably. Spark was able to leave London and, in 1967, took up residence in Italy. She enjoyed success tremendously. She dressed beautifully, sometimes in gowns and diamonds; bought a racehorse from the queen; and kept an apartment in New York and one in Rome. At the same time she disliked publicity, resented efforts to discuss her private life and by the end was close to a recluse. Her autobiography, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a little masterwork of evasiveness and score-settling that reveals next to nothing about the woman who wrote it.

Over her long career Muriel Spark has received countless literary tributes and honours. In 1971 she was awarded an honorary degree in literature from Strathclyde University and has been similarly honoured by the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh, London, Oxford and The American University of Paris. Heriot-Watt, where she studied précis writing, accorded her an honorary doctorate in 1995. In 1993, Spark was made a Dame of the British Empire and a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France) and, in 1997, she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

As I've mentioned above Muriel spent part of the 1960s living in New York. She moved to Rome in 1967, where she met the artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine, who became her agent. They settled in the village of Civitella della Chiana in Tuscany, where they lived until Muriel's death on April 14, 2006.

Now, I recommend you to read "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", if you haven't done it yet, and to compare some details from the book with the authors life. You might be surprised how she managed to mixed her own experiences into a totally fictional story.