Muriel Spark was born Muriel Camberg in the genteel suburban Brutsfild area of Edinburgh on 1 February 1918. She was educated at James Gillespie’s School for Girls – later the model of the Marcia Blaine School featured in her most famous novel and subsequent film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Muriel had a precocious interest in literature and at fourteen she won first prize in a poetry competition commemorating Walter Scott’s centenary in 1832.
At the age of 19 Muriel married Sidney Oswald Spark (known as “SOS”) and soon followed him to what was then called Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Their son Samuel Robin was born in July 1938. Soon after she found out that her husband was a manic depressive, dangerously unstable and often violent. In 1940 Muriel left Sidney and Robin and returned to the UK and in early 1944 started to live at the Helena Club in London. Years later the club would be an inspiration for the fictional May of Teck Club in The Girls of Slender Means.
It wasn’t until after the war that Muriel started writing seriously beginning with poetry and literary criticism. She wrote under her married name (“Camberg was a good name, but comparatively flat. Spark seemed to have some ingredient of life and fun.”). In 1947 she became editor of the Poetry Review. For ten years between 1955 and 1965 she lived in a bedsit at 13 Baldwin Crescent, Camberwell, south-east London and where she wrote her first novel, The Comforters, published in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie published four years later in 1961 was far more successful and until the middle of the 1970s, Spark wrote almost a novel a year, plus many short stories, plays and essays. She eventually moved to New York when she felt to well-known for her former friends but then went on to fall out with everyone there too (“she went through people like pieces of Kleenex”, said the blind writer Ved Mehta)
After New York she moved to Rome, where she met artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine in 1968. In the early 1970s they settled in Tuscany, in the village of Oliveto. She was the subject of frequent rumours of lesbian relationships from her time in New York onwards, although Spark and her friends denied any truth in this. When Spark died in 2006 she left her entire estate to Jardine, while taking measures to ensure that her son received nothing. She is buried in the cemetery of Sant’Andrea Apostolo in Oliveto.Carole Shields wrote about The Girls of Slender Means in 2003 for the Guardian:
To reread The Girls of Slender Means is to appreciate the economy and brilliance of Spark’s style. This was an innovative book in 1963 – not that I knew that then – and it still, today, flashes its own disguising Schiaparelli dress, with the beauty of youth pressed close against youth’s bewilderment. Innocence is abruptly overturned in these pages, but Spark has structured her novel so that we realise we are about to be blown into tragedy.
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