Muriel Spark

Dame Muriel Spark

Spark in 1960
Born Muriel Sarah Camberg
(1918-02-01)1 February 1918
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 13 April 2006(2006-04-13) (aged 88)
Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist
Notable works The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Mandelbaum Gate
The Driver's Seat
Memento Mori

Dame Muriel Sarah Spark, DBE, CLit, FRSE, FRSL (née Camberg; 1 February 1918 – 13 April 2006)[1] was a Scottish novelist. In 2008, the Times newspaper named Spark as No. 8 in its list of 'the 50 greatest British writers since 1945'.[2]

Early life

Muriel Camberg was born in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh, the daughter of Bernard Camberg, an engineer, and Sarah Elizabeth Maud (née Uezzell).[3] Her father was Jewish and her mother had been raised a Presbyterian, as was Muriel.[1][4] She was educated at James Gillespie's School for Girls (1923–35).[5] In 1934–35 she took a course in 'commercial correspondence and précis writing' at Heriot-Watt College. She taught English for a brief time and then worked as a secretary in a department store.[6]

On 3 September 1937 she married Sidney Oswald Spark, and soon followed him to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Their son Samuel Robin was born in July 1938. Within months she discovered that her husband was manic depressive and prone to violent outbursts. In 1940 Muriel left Sidney and Robin. She returned to Britain in early 1944, taking residence at the Helena Club in London;[7] years later the club would be her inspiration for the fictional May of Teck Club in The Girls of Slender Means.[7] She worked in Intelligence for the remainder of World War II. She provided money at regular intervals to support her son. Spark maintained it was her intention for her family to set up home in England, but Robin returned to Britain with his father later to be brought up by his maternal grandparents in Scotland.[8][9][10][11][12]

Writing career

Spark began writing seriously after the war, under her married name, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. In 1947 she became editor of the Poetry Review. In 1953 Muriel Spark was baptised in the Church of England but in 1954 she decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, which she considered crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist.[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, a fellow novelist and contemporary of Spark, wrote that Spark 'had pointed out that it wasn't until she became a Roman Catholic... that she was able to see human existence as a whole, as a novelist needs to do.'[13] In an interview with John Tusa on BBC Radio 4, she said of her conversion and its effect on her writing: 'was just a little worried, tentative. Would it be right, would it not be right? Can I write a novel about that — would it be foolish, wouldn't it be? And somehow with my religion — whether one has anything to do with the other, I don't know — but it does seem so, that I just gained confidence…' Graham Greene, Gabriel Fielding and Evelyn Waugh supported her in her decision.

Between 1955 and 1965 she lived in a bedsit at 13 Baldwin Crescent, Camberwell, south-east London.[14] Her first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957. It featured several references to Catholicism and conversion to Catholicism, although its main theme revolved around a young woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)[lower-alpha 1] was more successful. Spark displayed originality of subject and tone, making extensive use of flashforwards and imagined conversations. It is clear that James Gillespie's High School was the model for the Marcia Blaine School in the novel.

After living in New York City for some years, she moved to Rome, where she met artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine in 1968. In the early 1970s they settled in Tuscany, in the village of Civitella della Chiana, of which in 2005 Spark was made an honorary citizen. She was the subject of frequent rumours of lesbian relationships[15] from her time in New York onwards, although Spark and her friends denied their validity. She left her entire estate to Jardine, taking measures to ensure that her son receive nothing.[15]

Spark refused permission to publish a biography of her written by Martin Stannard. Penelope Jardine now holds publication approval rights, and the book was published in July 2009. On 27 July 2009 Stannard was interviewed on Front Row, the BBC Radio 4 arts programme. According to A. S. Byatt, 'she [Jardine] was very upset by the book and had to spend a lot of time going through it, line by line, to try to make it a little bit fairer.'[16]


Spark received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the US Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1967 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent.[17] In 1998, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for a 'Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature'.[18] In 2010, Spark was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 for The Driver's Seat.

Spark received eight honorary doctorates in her lifetime. These included a Doctor of the University degree (Honoris causa) from her alma mater, Heriot-Watt University in 1995;[19] a Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris causa) from the American University of Paris in 2005; and Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, St Andrews and Strathclyde.[20]

Relationship with her son

Spark and her son Robin had a strained relationship. They had a falling out when Robin's Orthodox Judaism prompted him to petition for his late grandmother to be recognised as Jewish (Spark's maternal grandmother, Adelaide Hyams, had married Spark's maternal grandfather, Tom Uezzell, in a church; it was unclear whether both of Adelaide's parents were Jewish).[21] Spark reacted by accusing him of seeking publicity to further his career as an artist.[22] During one of her last book signings in Edinburgh she responded to an enquiry from a journalist asking if she would see her son by saying 'I think I know how best to avoid him by now'.[23][24][25]



Other works


In the 1940s Spark began to keep a record of her professional and personal activities that developed in to a large and comprehensive personal archive containing many diaries, numerous accounts and cheque books and tens of thousands of letters and correspondence. Spark used her personal archive to write her autobiography, 'Curriculum Vitae', and after its publication in 1992 much of her archive was deposited at National Library of Scotland.[26]


  1. The story was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1961, and was first published as a separate novel in 1962.


  1. 1 2 3 "Obituary", The Guardian.
  2. "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945", The Times, 5 January 2008, retrieved 19 February 2010.
  3. "Muriel Spark, Novelist Who Wrote 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' Dies at 88". The New York Times. 23 April 2010.
  4. Glendinning, Victoria (20 May 1979). "Talk With Muriel Spark". The New York Times.
  5. Hager 1999.
  6. James Gillespie's High School (official site).
  7. 1 2 Taylor, Benjamin (May 2010). "Goodbye Very Much: The many lives of Muriel Spark". Harper's. Harper's Foundation. 320 (1,920): 78–82. Retrieved 21 August 2011.(subscription required)
  8. "Author Muriel Spark dies aged 88", BBC News, 15 April 2006.
  9. "Obituary", News, BBC.
  10. "Dame Muriel Spark, 1918–2006: The novelist of identity", The Weekly Standard, 1 May 2006.
  11. "Spark of Genius" (magazine), Doublethink (a consideration of the author's work) (Winter), 2006.
  12. "Muriel Spark". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  13. Hager, Hal (1999), "About Muriel Spark", The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, New York: Harper Perennial, p. 141.
  14. Mount, Ferdinand, "The Go-Away Bird", The Spectator (review of Muriel Spark, the Biography by Martin Stannard).
  15. 1 2 "Muriel Spark leaves millions to woman friend rather than son", The Standard.
  16. "Companion shelves 'unfair' Spark biography", The Telegraph.
  17. "Muriel Spark". The Man Booker Prizes.
  18. "Golden Pen Award" (official Website). English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  19. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". Retrieved 2016-04-04.
  20. Sleeman, Elizabeth (2002). The International Who's Who of Women 2002. London, England: Europa Publications. p. 540. ISBN 1857431227.
  21. "letter killeth, The". The Spectator. Find articles. 1998.
  22. "A far cry from Morningside", The Scotsman, 23 April 2006.
  23. Readings (5), Edinbourgh: Book Festival, 2004.
  24. "Bard Mitzvah", Sandie go reader, 2 July 1998.
  25. "Spark's son: I won't cash in on mum", The Scotsman, 14 May 2006
  26. "Muriel Spark archive". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 15 March 2014.

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