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Mainly in Muriel’s interests

08 September 2009

This novelist did not let others get in her way, Alexander Lucie-Smith notices

Noted for her humour: Dame Muriel Spark in 1985

Noted for her humour: Dame Muriel Spark in 1985

Muriel Spark: The biography
Martin Stannard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

THE select bibliography at the back of this weighty book lists Muriel Spark’s 22 novels. Seeing them aligned in order of date, I note that after 1963 (the year of the publication of The Girls of Slender Means) her best work was behind her. Stannard gives us a useful round-up of critical reactions to the books as they came out, which does not contradict this. His own judgements are occasionally perceptive, noting the amorality of her tone and her sense of “ubiquitous corruption”, relating this to her admiration of Cardinal Newman’s theology of the Fall. “She never felt at home anywhere until she entered the Catholic Church,” he says.

Two Roman Catholic priests had a formative influence on her around the time of her conversion in 1954. One was Fr Ambrose Agius, a Maltese monk, who received her into the Church. The other was Fr Frank O’Malley, the Jungian counsellor who got her through a period of hallucinatory madness brought on by drug poisoning and malnutrition. But these two interesting and once well-known characters have the merest of walk- on parts.

One surprising revelation is that Spark went to live in Camberwell at the behest of Fr O’Malley, where she shared lodgings with his niece, Teresa Walshe, who, as a nurse, filled her in on geriatric hospitals, research that she used while writing Memento Mori. It is a pity that Stannard didn’t do further research into the characters of Fr O’Malley and Teresa; for he would have discovered, surely, just what a rackety world the young Spark inhabited, far more so than implied here.

But when success came, all these people were forgotten. Stannard’s book is sympathetic to Spark, especially over the highly public breach with her only child, but even he has to admit that Spark was ruthless in dropping those she had no use for, which included her own mother. She went to New York to get away from her family and all those others who stood in the way of her creative process, he tells us.

But what did she do when she got to New York? She spent her time going to parties and buying clothes. One can hardly grudge her a bit of fun after being holed up in Camberwell with Teresa Walshe and not much to eat, but her son, whom she had left in Africa, aged four, and then consigned to her mother, can only have felt more neglected than ever.

Relations with publishers were strained as well, and all this is admirably chronicled for posterity. As for her religious faith, there is little sign of it in the days of her prosperity. Stannard says that she moved to Rome to be near the heart of Catholicism, but reports her as saying that Paul VI was “provincial” as he came from Brescia (a remark so ignorant that it makes one wince), and that it was a mortal sin to listen to sermons (ditto). In later years, she seems hardly ever to have gone to Church.

She sacrificed so much to succeed as an artist, and succeed she did: but was it, in the end, worth it? I fear, reading this book, not.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith IC is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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