Spark at 100


Ken Wilson looks at the Edinburgh author as the city prepares to celebrate her centenary

Image of Spark at 100

2018 is the centenary of the birth of Edinburgh-born author Muriel Spark and 50 years since the movie that made her most famous character a Scottish icon. There is a new book on Spark (a memoir by Alan Taylor) and a slew of celebratory 2018 events as well as a campaign at the National Library of Scotland to secure the author’s papers for the nation. But what of her best-loved book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

In 1961 Muriel Spark wrote a devastating short literary novel inspired by her schooldays at Edinburgh’s Gillespie’s school for girls with its internecine warfare and romantic attachments between various teachers and girls. Miss B’s claim is a take on the old Jesuit mantra: “give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – deliciously darker than the movie – originally appeared in its entirety in the New Yorker (the manuscript is now housed at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma). It tells of the rise and fall of a 1930s teacher in a private school who selects special pupils for preferential treatment in a way that verges on grooming. According to critic James Wood Brodie Spark’s “brilliantly reduced style, of ‘never apologise, never explain’, seems a deliberate provocation” adding that the novel is “surely one of the greatest books about growing up”. For Alan Taylor “few… writers have written such short books layered with significance”. Spark had a reputation for waspishness but Taylor highlights her hospitality and rich humour, joie de vivre and abiding charm a quality she always prized.

Miss Brodie seems to sum up the city of Edinburgh’s dual personality – the Enlightenment and the slums, its genteel bourgeoisie and Trainspotting junkies. The wayward, seditious teacher is not at all a natural fit at the posh private school. And yet she balks at the idea of more progressive schools which she terms “crank”

The elegant Miss Brodie was the opposite of the repressed, bluestocking that is the usual lot of depictions of the schoolmarm. She is carrying on two affairs with male colleagues and attempts to get one of the girls (aged around 15) to sleep with the art master for whom Brodie still has the hots and then report back the salacious details. Brodie is a cipher: a metaphor for the evils of fascist dictatorship; a symbol of how office politics can go awry; and of the perils of self-delusion. It’s a huge responsibility any teacher has, to those in her care, those for whom she is acting in loco parentis. Brodie, seems on the surface like the teacher every adult wishes they had had – happy to go off-road in terms of the curriculum, full of personal stories that seem to illuminate the mysterious adult world, and offering field trips to the theatre and historic sites. Yet she relishes her God-like power over the girls. This is a tale of bullying and abuse (or at least abuse of power by a teacher). In one of the movie’s many confrontations her prize pupil turns on Brodie declaring that the teacher is “dangerous, unwholesome and children should not be exposed to you!”

The novel was first turned into a successful play by Jay Presson Allen (screenwriter of Hitchcock’s Marnie, recently turned into an opera) and premiered in 1967 in London and Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. The film rights were quickly bought up. A TV series followed, not to mention a succession of theatrical outings most notably at the Edinburgh Lyceum starring Siobhan Redmond in 2003. The Oscar-winning movie helped make Maggie Smith – best known now for Downton Abbey and Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films – a star and earned Spark shedloads of money. Films were made of several of her slim volumes including The Driver’s Seat with Elizabeth Taylor and The Abbess of Crewe (the film was called Nasty Habits and starred Glenda Jackson). Her The Girls of Slender Means (like Brodie) was made for TV. Thanks to the money she made from these adaptations she lived a pretty high life for a time with fancy restaurants and haute couture.

Brodie’s pupils learn much about life, especially sex. They conjure up romantic stories with their teacher as heroine, and have girlish passions with only a rudimentary knowledge of the facts of life. When one of their number chances upon a man exposing himself she and her bestie are more interested in the fascinating policewoman who comes to take a statement while the flasher is forgotten.

An overarching theme of the story is self-delusion and betrayal. The teacher betrays her pupils by putting dangerous ideas into their heads. She betrays the school and is ultimately betrayed by one of the students who grasses her up to the headmistress, Brodie’s longtime nemesis. Brodie draws the headmistress’s ire because the teacher goes distinctly off curriculum. Instead of instructing a class on the succession of the Stuarts she tells them of how her lover fell on Flanders battlefield of World War I, of the sublime aspects of Anna Pavlova’s ballet performances, the benefits of cold cream over plain soap and water and of her admiration of the fascist dictator Mussolini.

Muriel Spark couldn’t wait to leave the confines of “the saturnine heart of Midlothian” as she said of her hometown. The city was “never mine”. And Brodie was the only book she ever wrote with a Scottish setting which bodes the question among many scholars whether she can really be called a “Scottish writer”. She left home at 19 and was recruited into the Black Propaganda Unit of MI6 during WWII: “I played a small part,” Spark wrote, “but as a fly on the wall I took in a whole world of intrigue and method”. She saw exile as a positive thing according to Alan Taylor in his memoir. She lived in Rome, New York (hobnobbing with the likes of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal) and finally settled in the Tuscan countryside.

Spark was as much a part of the Brodie myth as Miss Kay the real-life teacher at Gillespie’s who was such an influence on the pubescent Muriel and was the model for Miss Brodie. Brodie and Spark had much in common – they had tricky relationships with men, their love of Italy, their waspish disdain for the ordinary and second-rate. They preferred colourful frocks and good food. Spark had a tortuous private life. There was an abusive husband and estrangement from her only son. Spark conjectured in the book that Miss Brodie was “an unconscious lesbian” – she created Scotland’s only literary camp icon and her school’s “old girls” are jokily nicknamed Gillesbians.

For years there were rumours that Spark and her long-time companion Penelope Jardine were in a romantic relationship (a fact refuted by Alan Taylor). Interviewed by Stephen Schiff in the New Yorker Muriel once said that she and Penelope “are not lesbians but were very fond of each other”.

When Alan Taylor writes of Spark he could be writing of Brodie: “in her, the cold, grey, porridgy Northern light clashed with the blinding sunshine and citrus shades of the South. Leaving Scotland gave a licence to be glamorous, to embrace colour. It also allowed her to take risks and to follow her instinct which in Edinburgh, that most cautious of cities, was frowned upon”.

Appointment in Arezzo by Alan Taylor is published by Polygon.

There is a year-long programme of events celebrating the centenary of the birth of Dame Muriel Spark including:

• The announcement of new funds for artists and groups to develop and present new work as part of the centenary year
• An open invitation from the Muriel Spark 100 organisers to any groups wishing to join the celebration.
• The launch of a dedicated centenary website – murielspark100.com
• The re-publication of all 22 of Spark’s novels by Polygon/Birlinn
• The unveiling of Spark’s extraordinary archive at a landmark National Library of Scotland exhibition (December 2017 to May 2018)
• Leading Scottish writers Ali Smith, Val McDermid, Janice Galloway, Kate Clanchy and Louise Welsh reflecting on Spark’s career in a new BBC Radio 3 series (January 2018)
• An international conference bringing together fans and academics to explore all aspects of Spark’s writing (January/February 2018)
• Edinburgh Spy Week’s spotlight on the ways in which espionage, played out in her work (April 2018)
• A specially commissioned BBC documentary about the author (early 2018).