Scottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.
by Zoë Strachan
Muriel Spark was a dangerous woman in many ways. Few authors have treated their subjects to quite the acute scrutiny that Spark exacts on hers. Her characters are grotesque as often as they are amusing, and no cruelty is too much to inflict on them. In The Driver’s Seat, Spark’s notorious metaphyiscal ‘whydunnit’, Lise instructs her murderer on how to tie her wrists with a silk scarf and her ankles with a necktie before stabbing her to death with a knife his aunt has bought him as a present: ‘First here, then here and here. Then anywhere you like.’ The only other condition is that there mustn’t be any sex; ‘You can have it afterwards,’ Lise shouts, but Spark’s final irony in the novel is that the woman who has literally as well as metaphorically been in the driver’s seat is raped after all. Spark is an author whose sense of humour can terrify as well as entertain. The critic James Wood once referred to the way in which she uses ‘the short blades of her elegant sentences to sever the expected, the formulaic’ and a perfect example can be found in her ghost story ‘The Portobello Road’, in which the narrator observes: ‘He looked as if he would murder me, and he did.’
Lise may meet a brutal end, but at least she has a novel all to herself. We might also think of those crucial but doomed secondary players like poor Mary MacGregor, the stupid one of Miss Jean Brodie’s set, of whom we’re told that she will end up running back and forth along the corridors, through the thickening smoke of an hotel fire. Or the climax of The Girls of Slender Means, when we are invited to listen, horrified, as Joanna Childe recites ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ while the May of Teck Club ‘for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means’ collapses beneath her. Of that book, AL Kennedy notes that, ‘There is a type of scientific disinterest in [Spark’s] ways of showing how easily humans can lose their humanity, not because of evil, not because of something as clear-cut or condemnatory as Original Sin, but certainly because of their nature – fascinating, wonderful, but also individually and epidemically flawed.’
Nevertheless, evil was something that concerned Spark very much indeed. ‘I believe,’ she wrote, ‘as Cardinal Newman claimed, that it is impossible to write a novel that does not contain evil if one is writing about human beings and their destiny. Evil is absolutely necessary for dramatic presentation. A novel without evil would be like the white of an egg without the yolk – insipid.’
The short blades of Spark’s sentences remain in evidence when she is writing about real people. Who could forget her damning appraisal of Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont? ‘There is a type of person who, having glimpsed the glories attendant upon the life dedicated to creative achievement, and who is yet unqualified to create, pursues in a vague sort of way not the achievement itself but its accoutrements. Such a person was Claire Clairmont, the type of young woman who today would be known as “arty”’. When Spark insists that, ‘there can be no more insidious or inconvenient company for the truly creative mind than this parasitic type of manqué individual’ one can’t help thinking of her equally damning dismissal of her ex-lover Derek Stanford. As well as slating his meanness with the ration book and ‘flamboyant and convoluted’ prose style in her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, she left her biographer Martin Stannard in no doubt of her opinion of Derek: ‘I found him convenient as a literary partner up to the time I did a selection of Mary Shelley’s letters with him. After that he was just a drag.’ (To be fair, Stanford had rather brought this on himself, having sold her letters to him.)
Spark’s biographical study of Mary Shelley and her work was her first book, and it presented a way of looking at art, and female artists, that challenged the existing critical canon. It seems inconceivable now that Mary Shelley should have been so neglected by critics before the 1951 publication of Spark’s Child of Light, but she was dismissed as an author of sensation rather than skill, a depressive appendage to her more famous husband. Spark establishes Shelley in her proper position as an artist in her own right and the advance guard of Wells, Huxley and Orwell, while also capturing the way in which Shelley realised her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideals ‘by natural acceptance of her status as a creature the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times’.
Muriel Spark identified with Mary Shelley for a number of reasons, not least that they shared initials. Like Shelley, Spark had a child to support and had to earn her living from her writing (and without the buffer of a guaranteed income of £2000 a year, which Shelley considered as being ‘quite ruined’). After the strong critical reception of Child of Light, and her first novel The Comforters, this became a more realistic proposition. With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie came great success, and a level of glamour. Spark treated herself to jewels by Shlumberger from Tiffany’s when she finished a book, and only gave up on haute couture when the ‘numerous fittings that the Diva-like dressmakers demanded piteously ate up my precious working mornings’.
The social whirl and adulation of the literary scene in London and New York were at odds with the ideal conditions for writing, and in the late 1960s Spark went to live in Italy, after a few years sharing a house with the artist Penelope Jardine, who went from being her secretary to her long term companion. Their friend Alan Taylor describes how Spark had to ‘remove herself from temptation and supplication, away from the hangers-on, pub bores, and spongers who would cling to her like barnacles’, while Spark drew an analogy with the work of Tuscan firefighters: ‘that’s what I’ve had to do with my life; make a counter-fire, to stop the encroachment of really devouring demands’.
In other words, she put her art at the centre of her life, no matter what sacrifices had to be made. These included her relationship with her son Robin, which does not seem to have recovered from when she left him, aged four, in a convent school in what was then Southern Rhodesia so that she could escape Africa and his mentally unstable father. Nothing that would raise an eyebrow had she been a male author of that generation, but a source of lifelong guilt for her. A suitable replacement father figure was not forthcoming, and Spark could certainly be seen as unconventional in that she was a beautiful and popular woman who ended up turning her back on the complications of sexual relationships in order to concentrate on her true calling, writing.
‘I wasn’t writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder,’ comments novelist Fleur Talbot in Loitering With Intent. We might imagine Spark herself uttering exactly the same statement. Critics are fond of describing her as ruthless, but at the same time it’s worth remembering that by no means did she have an easy life. When she writes of the influence of her childhood in Edinburgh in ‘What Images Return’ she says, ‘Myself, I have had to put up a psychological fight for my spiritual joy.’
However we respond to the untimely deaths of some of her characters, we can justify our appreciation of her sometimes dreadfully black humour by recalling that Spark believed that ‘purpose of art is to give pleasure . . . that element of pleasure which restores the proportions of the human spirit, opens windows in the mind.’ In the same year that she published The Driver’s Seat (1970) she called for ‘the desegregation of art . . . the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment,’ from easy reliance on art that ‘cheats us into a sense of involvement with life and society.’ Only by satire and ridicule might we, ‘bring about a mental environment of honesty and self-knowledge, a sense of the absurd and a general looking-lively to defend ourselves from the ridiculous oppressions of our times.’
In 2014 Penelope Jardine collected various essays, articles and fragments of Spark’s work as The Golden Fleece. As an epigraph for the ‘Art and Poetry’ section she takes a line from Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School: ‘Art is an act of daring’. While we must take any advice dispensed on the subject of creative writing in that particular novel with a hefty pinch of salt, readers everywhere may be very glad that Spark performed so many acts of daring. That the pen is mightier than the sword was a ‘silly old saying’, she said once, but Muriel Spark’s pen was sharper than most, and when it was in her hands she was a truly dangerous woman.