Lectio Divinia: The Prime of Miss Muriel Spark

There’s a revealing moment toward the end of Muriel Spark’s 1992 memoir of her early career, Curriculum Vitae. Times were hard for her in 1953. She was 35 and still quite poor—so poor that when, the next year, she began to have the hallucinations that prompted her first novel, The Comforters, her doctor assumed that the cause was simply lack of food. She blamed the cheap diet pills she took to make herself “feel less hungry” while she lived hand to mouth in London. There she was a minor poet, book reviewer, and freelance literary critic; she edited the Bronte family letters, worked on a life of Mary Shelly, and prepared a study of the poet laureate John Masefield.

Things eased a little when Graham Greene, who strongly believed in her talent, gave Spark £20 and a few bottles of wine each month to keep her going. One day in 1953, coming home from an authors’ lunch, she bumped into the literary entrepreneur, Fr. Philip Caraman, the Farm Street Jesuit and editor of the British Catholic journal The Month. She so amused him with her stories as they walked that he sent her a check the next day for £15 “for having made him laugh.”

As though prompted by this anecdote about Fr. Caraman, Spark devotes the next paragraph—and only the next paragraph—of Curriculum Vitae to her conversion, finally mentioning, 202 pages into a 213-page book, that this Scottish-born daughter of a Jewish engineer and an English mother had joined the Catholic Church. “The simple explanation,” she writes, “is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed.”

What’s revealing about this is, of course, its unrevealingness. Language and structure are everything in the fiction Muriel Spark has spent her life composing. You can see it in the perfect construction of her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1962, with its tale of a self-dramatizing teacher’s effect on a Scottish girls’ school. You can see it in the careful unfolding of her best book, Memento Mori from 1959, in which a voice rings up on the telephone a collection of London’s elderly men and women only to whisper over and over, “Remember that you must die.” You can see it in the somewhat cold precision of The Abbess of Crewe, her 1973 parody of the Nixon White House as a nunnery. You can see it even in those slim, elegant titles she chose for her slim, elegant novels: The Girls of Slender Means (1963), Loitering with Intent (1981), and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988).

In all her work-20 novels and more than 50 stories—she never made any personal confessions and astonishingly few insights into her characters’ psychology, at least as the word “psychology” is usually meant these days. Characters always first appear on Spark’s stage as members of a particular class of humanity. Her 1961 The Bachelors begins by denying any individuality among the unmarried men whose uniform existences are shaped by cooking, cleaning, and living for themselves. “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions,” The Girls of Slender Means opens. Of Miss Jean Brodie, the author cruelly remarks that there were “legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties.”

And yet, these characters are not mere types or symbols or deliberate representatives whose humanity has disappeared into their literary function in Spark’s fiction. Sometimes they manage to grow into unique personalities by the novel’s end, as Matthew emerges from his crowd at the end of The Bachelors or William at the conclusion of the 1990 Symposium. But that is usually reserved for the few characters who accept the necessity for self-sacrifice, stumble across a chance for self-denying love, or find a small measure of selfless grace.

In the opening pages of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a student claims that Leonardo da Vinci is the greatest Italian painter. Jean Brodie answers, “That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.” Later in the book, she responds to the news that her student, Sandy, has become a nun by saying, “Do you think she has done this to annoy me?” In both instances, Spark has launched as brutal an attack as anyone against self-absorption, self-importance, and the use of self as the measure for truth.

Real individuality, in Muriel Spark’s fiction, is reserved for those who manage to forget their individuality. Each small success people have at disappearing from themselves is unique, and each small revelation that a human life can lose itself is a story never before told.  But our supposedly unique failures are in fact merely universal, and our supposedly individual lives are actually indistinguishable participations in the common arc of fallen man.

There is considerable irony in a novelist taking such a view of things, for what the novel as an art form typically undertakes—illustrating the universal human condition by drawing a picture of a particular human being—is exactly the opposite of what Spark attempts. This is perhaps the irony that made all Catholic fiction of the 1940s and 1950s—the Graham Greene books, for instance, of the era in which Spark was formed as a writer and a convert—so peculiar. But in Spark’s case, the irony of fiction’s inverted purpose produced a set of simultaneously witty, elegant, satirical, and macabre novels, each extremely short, each dominated by the calm detachment of a very distant third-person narrator, and each ruled by a sternly deliberate structure designed to conceal the key incident until the novel’s end.

Language and structure are everything for Spark because they have to be. In the world long after Vatican II, we can forget both the enormous wave of famous converts in the 1940s and 1950s and the extent to which Catholicism appealed to those converts precisely because what it offered was a structure and a language with which to express what they, in Spark’s words, “had always felt and known and believed” about the world. Personal faith in the truth of that structure and language was somehow simultaneously too obvious for Muriel Spark to bother putting in a novel and too hidden to be reached by literature. “When I am asked about my conversion, why I became a Catholic,” she writes, “I can only say that answer is both too easy and too difficult.”


  • J. Bottum

    At the time this article was published, J. Bottum was books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard and a Crisis contributing editor.

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