Muriel Spark...author, secret agent & Scottish success.
Wummin Wednesday is back! Thanks again to student journalist Amy Lyall, this week she discovered the life of Muriel Spark....
Scotland, Zimbabwe, New York, Italy… Muriel Spark certainly lived a life well-travelled, and writing was the anchor of her existence. Producing over 40 novels, poems and other works, Muriel’s writings were set and appreciated worldwide. However, her most influential tale unfolds in her home city of Edinburgh.
Published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is repeatedly featured on lists ranking the best contemporary English literature, and has been adapted for stage, television and film. The story explores the lives and challenges of young girls growing up in 1930’s Scotland through the lens of Miss Brodie; an iconic and controversial character who refuses to be ignored.
Several key elements of the novel are drawn from Muriel’s childhood. Her education at the Edinburgh James Gillespie’s School for Girls was the inspiration for the fictional Marcia Blaine School, while her teacher Miss Christina Kay was identified as the model for Miss Jean Brodie.
The ambitious young writer won her first poetry prize aged 12 and later completed a writing course at Heriot-Watt College, as well as teaching at a private school in return for tuition in shorthand and typing.
A self-confessed ‘person-watcher’, at 18 years old Muriel had a part-time job in the office of William Small’s department store on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. She wrote, “… at Small's I never tired of soaking up the mixed atmosphere of luxury, real elegance and silliness.”
Muriel married at the age of 19 and followed her husband, Sidney Oswald Spark, to the country now named Zimbabwe, where she gave birth to their only child. The relationship quickly deteriorated and in 1944 Muriel returned to the UK, working in a political intelligence wartime post with MI6.
It wasn’t until the settle of WWII that Muriel seriously pursued writing. She began with poetry and literary criticism before editing the Poetry Review in 1947, making her one of the only female editors of the time. Her first novel, The Comforters, was published ten years later.
A long and celebrated career continued thereafter. Producing new works with each passing year, Muriel moved from the glamour of New York City to stylish Rome where she met artist Penelope Jardine. The -pair settled in the village of Oliveto, Tuscany from the early 1970’s until Muriel’s passing on 13 April 2006.
Universities across Scotland, London and Paris have honoured Muriel’s writing. However, as far as memorials go, much like her historical female counterparts, there remains an empty space in celebrating her literary achievements. Unlike the widely commemorated Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, it wasn’t until 2018, the centenary of Muriel’s birth, that Edinburgh council agreed to rename a pathway and a flight of steps in memory of the city’s greatest female author and her renowned character, Miss Jean Brodie.