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Meeting Muriel Spark

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By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

The latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography adds entries on 213 men and women who shaped modern British life and who died in 2006. Of these new subjects one of the best known is the author Muriel Spark, whose novels include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Girls of Slender Means (1963), and the quasi-autobiographical works Loitering with Intent (1981) and A Far Cry From Kensington (1988).

The Oxford DNB entry is written by Martin Stannard, professor of modern English literature at the University of Leicester, whose Muriel Spark: The Biography was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2009. In the following article—an edited version of an essay that first appeared in the Sunday Times—Martin describes how he became Spark’s authorised biographer and his first meeting with the novelist.

In May 1992 a postcard changed my life. Three months earlier, on hearing that Muriel Spark was to review the second volume of my biography of Evelyn Waugh, I had expected a mauling. I knew that she was a friend of Auberon Waugh. I knew he disliked the book. Nevertheless, and much to my surprise, she had praised it, so I wrote to thank her. Shortly afterwards, a post card arrived depicting a detail of mosaics from the vault of the presbytery of the Chiesa di S. Vitale in Ravenna: two doves, or pigeons, side by side amid leaves and fruit. Turning this mysterious image over, I found an equally mysterious handwritten message from ‘Muriel Sp.’ saying that she hoped she would have as good a biographer as me when her turn came round.

Muriel SparkFor a moment I was baffled. I didn’t recognise the handwriting. I had received some correspondence about the book from people I didn’t know, several of them clearly eccentric. Who was this Muriel? Then it clicked. Or half-clicked. Was this a joke from one of my friends? Could it really have come from the greatest living Scottish writer and, if so, was this an invitation? Deciding, or hoping, that it was the latter, I replied. If she was serious, I said, she need look no further. She then wrote a letter. The idea interested her. If I were ever in Italy, we might talk about it. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, was soon to appear. That would tell me about her life up to 1957 and the publication of her first novel, The Comforters. As it happened, I was driving to the south of Italy that September for the family holiday. I proposed stopping off to see her in Tuscany on the way down or back. A day was booked and then extended to two days to allow thorough discussion. Penelope Jardine, Spark’s companion and owner of the house, faxed a map.

That summer was filled with thrilling trepidation at the prospect of this meeting. From the look of that hand-drawn map, Spark might be difficult to find. I had said that we would arrive around 4.30 p.m. and, not wanting to be late, arranged to stay the night before with friends nearby. With an hour to kill, I read again through the interviews I’d gathered, and one in particular stood out: Alex Hamilton’s with Spark in Rome just before the publication of The Abbess of Crewe (1974). This suggested an image of her impervious elegance, a Catholic of medieval disposition moving in aristocratic circles. My optimism drained. I wasn’t a Catholic, wasn’t married to my partner, knew no aristocrats and had the dress-sense of Norman Wisdom. What would she make of us?

Twenty minutes late we bumped up the stony track to discover what looked like a simple rustic house near the crest of a hill. This, we thought, couldn’t possibly be it, but a woman emerged as we got out, crossed the scrubby square of garden and extended her hand. ‘You found us, then. I’m Penelope.’ Introductions were scarcely complete when another, smaller, dark-haired woman came up behind her wearing a rust-coloured wrap-over dress of raw silk. I half-recognised her from the old publicity photographs: designer glasses, distracted eyes. A sharp Morningside voice merged into Kensington.

Through a stout front door, we were taken up a flight of stone steps to a small kitchen. ‘We live humbly,’ said Muriel. ‘Good,’ I replied before I could stop myself – but it seemed to be the right response. Penelope conducted us through the kitchen and up another flight to a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom. These, I think, were her quarters Muriel Spark Biogwhich she had given over to us: large, airy spaces, full of paintings books, and comfortable, slightly dilapidated furniture, the view beyond the shutters dropping away in mist across the valley.

Downstairs in the kitchen again we were offered drinks and, craving alcohol, I asked for tea. Then Muriel took me off: out of the kitchen, through a large sitting room, into an ante-room with a small desk (‘Where I sometimes do some work’), down some steep tiled steps to a windowless dining room, which seemed about a hundred yards from the kitchen. Clearly this house was, as estate agents say, deceptively large. ‘You see,’ Muriel said, switching on a light, ‘we can be grand.’ Before us stood a large dining table piled end to end and three feet deep with folders and box files, the entire collection covered with sheets of polythene. ‘This is the archive just acquired by the National Library of Scotland … It’s the record of a writer’s life and, in her early years, of her struggle with publishers.’

Muriel moved on from the archive to take me to the inner sanctum. This, it appeared, was her part of the house. I rather caught my breath at this point. This study was the centre of everything. Her books, she had said, were her life, and at this very point the books were created. A large, modern pale-wood desk dominated the centre of the small room. On three sides were tall, matching glass-fronted cabinets containing papers relating to work in progress and work recently completed. It wasn’t quite what I had expected: a business office rather than the tumult of the stereotypical writer’s den. She took me to one of the cabinets. ‘You see, in here I have all my files for my autobiography. I’d let you have access to all these. You see, the reason I thought you would be a good person was that you’re a good literary critic … So much misinformation has been put out about me. I’m sure you’ll try to get the record straight.’

I was altogether confused. I had thought I was there to give her the chance to size me up. All this was unexpectedly intimate. It seemed that she had already decided, and that the ultimate decision was mine. I asked if she would object to tape-recorded interviews. She paused. Would there be a problem with my interviewing those who know, or knew, her, I asked. ‘My son, for instance?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t know whether he’d want to see you. But I have no objection to your trying. You might discover all sorts of things you don’t like about me. There are a lot of gaps to fill.’

* * * * * *

On the following morning it was back to work with Muriel. The day before, standing by the archive, she had waved a hand towards it and said: ‘Treat me as though I were dead.’ When she now repeated this in Penelope’s presence, her companion quietly demurred, as though to say ‘Steady on. That might prove difficult.’ But Muriel was not to be deflected. I had mentioned the idea of a legal agreement with her so that we both knew exactly where we stood. During this second day, Muriel drafted the agreement freehand and faxed it to the Society of Authors for an opinion.

On our final morning we rose early and Muriel showed me the correspondence with her agent during the summer. I had heard that she had been making enquiries about me but I was astonished by this. The agent had suggested that, if she were offering exclusive rights, she take a cut of any income. She refused, even refused permissions payments. No, she insisted, Stannard must be a free and objective observer, be in full receipt of what he earns from his labours. We talked this through. I was quite happy, I explained, to pay for quotations. As to permissions, she said: ‘I take it from writers who quote me generally. Ten pounds here. Twenty pounds there. It adds up. But it would be quite wrong to charge you. You’ll wish to quote, and the more you quote, the happier I’ll be.’ What more could a biographer ask? But there was more: an inscribed copy of Curriculum Vitae and, from Penelope, two of her lovely ink sketches. Arrangements were made for us to drop back in, three weeks later, on the return journey.

The return visit, equally delightful, was somewhat different. We had only one night and, with business to discuss, Muriel was brisk. There was the draft legal agreement to look through. Peter O’Toole had used Loitering With Intent as the title for his memoirs and, irritated by what she took to be poaching, she was investigating the possibility of legal action to get his book re-named. I knew that there was no copyright in titles but did not dare say so. That affair coloured the atmosphere and, although the meal and the morning were bright with laughter, I came away with a sense of the woman Stephen Schiff was soon to detect in his 1993 New Yorker profile: both ‘warm and enormously friendly’, someone to whom you felt you could say anything, and the grande dame of British letters with ‘one of the most trenchant and accomplished bodies of work since the Second World War’, fierce in defence of her reputation and intellectual property. Welcome – but watch out.

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