Muriel Spark Biography

Publisher, Poet, Literary Critic, Author, Academic (1918–2006)
Dame Muriel Spark was a Scottish novelist, poet and literary critic best known for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on February 1, 1918. Educated in Edinburgh, she became editor of Poetry Review, and later published a series of biographies on figures like William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. She is best known for her novels, notably Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark was made a dame in 1993. She died on April 13, 2006, in Florence, Italy.

Early Life and Career

Originally Muriel Sarah Camberg, writer Muriel Spark was born on February 1, 1918, in Edinburgh, Scotland. She attended the James Gillespie's High School for Girls. There she met educator Christina Kay who became the inspiration for one of Spark's most famous characters.

At the age of 19, she married Sydney Oswald "Ossie" Spark. The couple sailed to Africa soon after they wed. The union proved to be a brief and turbulent one. She had a son, Robin, with her husband before the pair split up. For a time, Spark supported herself doing odd jobs. She returned to England during World War II, leaving her son in Africa in the care of some nuns.

Back home, Spark became involved in London's literary world. She served as editor of the Poetry Review from 1947 to 1949, and published poetry, short stories and critical biographies of figures like William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. In the 1950s, Spark suffered a nervous breakdown and converted to Catholicism. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), earned critical acclaim from such established British writers as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

Literary Breakthrough

While she largely considered herself a poet, Spark built up an impressive career for herself as a novelist. After The Comforters, two more novels soon followed —Memento Mori (1959) and The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). But it was her tale of a teacher at a girls school that really brought her widespread commercial success. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie became a best seller when it was published in 1961. The book began the basis of a successful London play starring Vanessa Redgrave in 1964. This production later moved to Broadway with Zoe Caldwell as the title character. In 1969, Maggie Smith starred in the film version, which earned Smith an Academy Award for best actress.

By the end of the 1960s, Spark moved to Italy. She lived in Rome for many years. There Spark met artist Penelope Jardine. The pair became inseparable, eventually setting up house together in Tuscany. Jardine acted as Spark's aide and companion. While some have speculated that their relationship was a romantic one, Spark told reporters that it was an "old-fashioned friendship," according to The New York Times.

As her career progressed, Spark continued to explore both the dark and light sides of life in her work. Not everyone knew what to do with this odd balance of the comic and tragic. Allan Massie described her as "a comic writer with a sense of evil, a metaphysical in all sense of that difficult word" in the Spectator. Another critic for New Criterion wrote that "what first seems like caricature often passes, on closer reading, as unvarnished reportage."

Later Years

Spark turned her mighty pen on her own life with the 1992 memoir Curriculum Vitae. The following year, she received a special honor from Queen Elizabeth II. She named a Dame of the British Empire. Four years later, Spark won David Cohen Literature Prize for her life's work.

In 2004, Spark published The Finishing School, which proved to be her final novel. She died on April 13, 2006, in Florence, Italy.

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