Muriel Spark

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Muriel Spark


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


Though she was to leave for ever her native Scotland at the age of nineteen - she married Mr. Spark bound for Africa - Muriel Uezzell Camberg was well schooled in the ways of Edinburgh. Something of its austere elegance remains in her memory. Muriel Spark, citizen of the world, is a writer of cities in each of which she searches for the particular and the universal. In her memorable opening to The Girls of Slender Means she recalls the London of 1945 as a victorious ruin. The detail of her observation has the precision of an anatomist and the lyrical realism of a contemporary Picture Post photograph: 'most of all,' she says of the blitzed houses, 'the staircases survived, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the eye.' There is the city that was once and will be again. The constant is the city itself.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is perpetually alert to the telling gesture. Her characteristic fiction is concerned with manners, those elaborate codes of social intercourse which reconcile personal desire to the common good. Her landscape is peopled by self-betrayals through the chance remark. Her own mode of expression is nervously exact, seasoned by a laconic wit. Her observation is an amused sympathy with an undertone of malicious relish. Muriel Spark is powerfully aware of the good and evil presences in all human endeavour. Though there are other influences working through her imagination, Muriel Spark is essentially Scots in the way her 'justified sinners' are as much fascinated as they are repelled by mischief.

A devil of sorts actually appears in The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In an ordinary London suburb an enigmatic Scotsman charmingly intrudes into a lively social scene. There he insidiously wreaks havoc, destroying people's lives. The tale ends as it begins with the same incident, a bride jilting at the altar her husband-to-be. On first telling it is funny. In the end it is starkly tragic.

The tale is told lightly, but its theme is too dark for the amused, ironic tone of the narrative. The attraction of evil is a theme running through Muriel Spark's development as a novelist. Her surest work approaches this, and other themes, at an oblique angle. Her lightness of touch underlines the depth of the moral questions she raises. The Abbess of Crewe, for example, examines the nature of power. Governance of a society must be for the well-being of the whole, rather than an exercise in personal domination. Good ends will not come from evil means.

Equally, the governance of ourselves must be in accord with a sense, which we all have, of a natural moral order. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie offers an extravagant and self-deceiving character impelled entirely by her own will. Every pronouncement she makes is subjective. Every argument, in so far as she can argue a case, is emotive. She is a law unto herself in opposition to reason and intellect.

To a degree Miss Brodie is a caricature of every teacher one has known, for every teacher must be something of a charlatan. But if she were presented only as a caricature the entertainment would soon pall and the deeper intention be lost entirely. Miss Brodie is enigmatic, a creature of impulse who is driven by high ideals.

The success of presentation is that we never see Miss Brodie alone and as she really is. Our perception of her is filtered through one of her pupils. We are not privy to Miss Brodie's life except as it presents itself to Sandy or in situations of which Sandy is aware. Miss Brodie's theory of education (and there is no denying her dedication) is a return to the antinomian conviction that the elect are not subject to the moral law. In Miss Brodie's case the elect are herself and her chosen pupil-successors, in particular Sandy.

Her judgement of human nature is poor. Inevitably, she does not people the world with her own kind, but unwittingly fosters rebellion, just as she has rebelled. …

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