NEXT year will see the centenary of the birth of Dame Muriel Spark, many people’s idea of Scotland’s greatest novelist of the post-Second World War period and certainly our greatest female literary writer of all time.

Already there have been announcements of plans to mark the centenary, and her 22 novels are being republished so that a new generation of readers can appreciate the wonders that she created.

If all she had ever written was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark would never be forgotten, but she wrote so much more and created many memorable characters and stories in a writing career that lasted into six decades.


BORN Muriel Sarah Camberg, the second of two children, to a Jewish engineer, Bernard, always known as Barney, and Sarah Maud, née Uezzell, always known as Cissy, Spark was raised in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh. Though her parents were married in a synagogue, neither Spark nor her elder brother Philip were raised in a particular religion.

She famously attended James Gillespie’s, an independent school in Edinburgh which became the model for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in her most famous novel.

At first she wanted to be a poet, and her early poetry was so impressive that in 1932 she won a prize in a competition that marked the centenary of the death of Sir Walter Scott. On leaving school, her parents could not afford to send her to university, so Spark took a course at a secretarial college and worked in a department store.

In 1937, she married Sydney Oswald Spark, a maths teacher 13 years her senior who had been born into a Jewish family but did not observe the faith. With their son Robin, the Sparks went off to live in Southern Rhodesia, but SOS, as she called him, became mentally ill and violent and she divorced him in 1943 and came home to London to work in propaganda – inventing lies, mostly – for MI6. Under wartime rules, she had to leave Robin behind when she returned to Britain and by the time he came home, Spark was struggling to earn a living as a writer in England and Sydney Spark took the boy to live in Edinburgh.


NOT at first. She kept only her married name from their eventually disastrous union, and published poetry that was well-received, so much so that in 1947 she became the editor of the Poetry Review. Money was a struggle, but throughout the 1950s she had literary supporters such as the novelist Graham Greene who later used to send her cash and a case of wine “to take the chill off cold charity.”

The most important event of her life after her marriage and the birth of her son Robin was her conversion to Roman Catholicism, which she said gave her the completeness to become a writer. She had been baptised a Christian in 1953 but converted to Rome the following year, at the end of a long period of mental illness which we would now see as depression but was then called “a nervous breakdown” brought on by over-consumption of diet pills.


INDEED. Her first novel The Comforters was not published until 1957 when she was 39, and it received excellent reviews from the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Greene, both of whom were converts to Catholicism, as was the book’s central character Caroline Rose who in a quite unusual device – Spark would become famous for such literary twists – imagines she is a character in a novel.

Her novels Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Bachelors followed, but in 1961 she achieved literary immortality with the magnificent The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her masterpiece.

It was made into a film starring Maggie Smith who won the Oscar for playing the title role. On winning, she sent Spark a telegram thanking her for creating such a wonderful character.

The Girls of Slender Means, filmed for television by the BBC, continued Spark’s run of literary novels which she produced until the year before her death in 2006 at the age of 88.

One of the best was The Abbess of Crewe, a satire on Watergate set in a convent that was the basis of the film Nasty Habits. If you want to know more about her books, GO AND READ THEM!


IT was spent in Italy and was rather spoiled by an open fight with her son who wanted her to acknowledge that she was Jewish. Spark stuck to her guns, as she always did.

A new biography of her, Appointment in Arezzo has been written by her friend for more than 20 years, Alan Taylor, and is out this month.

Last word to him: “She was a truly word-class writer and it is an abomination that she never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Jean Brodie is up there with Emma Bovary and Anne Karenina as literary creations.

“She was once asked what she attempted as a writer and she said ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’. She never ceased to challenge herself and did whatever she thought was right.

“Every one of her 22 novels is being republished and they read as fresh today as when she wrote them. If those books were made available in Scottish schools we would have a far more literate generation than we have at present. I can’t wait for all the centenary celebrations.”