Dame Muriel Spark’s little-known work writing “black propaganda” for MI6 during the Second World War will be examined during a year-long programme of events marking the centenary of her birth.
The celebration of Edinburgh-born Spark, who published her debut novel after honing her writing skills with the intelligence service, will include a special event looking at how her MI6 role helped develop her writing skills and went on to influence her novels.
The Muriel Spark 100 line-up will include the biggest ever exhibition of material drawn from the personal archives of the author, who died 11 years ago at the age of 88.
The National Library of Scotland, which will unveil a wealth of material never seen by the public before when the show opens next months, has developed the centenary celebrations with national arts agency Creative Scotland.
A new BBC Scotland TV documentary on Spark’s life, the release of new editions of her 22 novels and the first Muriel Spark walking tour of Edinburgh are all planned.
Leading Scottish female writers Ali Smith, Val McDermid, Janice Galloway, Kate Clanchy and Louise Welsh will also be discussing how Spark has influenced their writing in a major BBC Radio 3 series.
Other events include a centenary symposium expected to see Spark devotees, academics and writers converge on Glasgow University to discuss the author’s work, and an exhibition inspired by vintage covers of Spark’s books, which students at Glasgow School of Art will be working on.
Born in Edinburgh in 1918, the then Muriel Camberg attended James Gillespie’s High School, where one of the teachers, Christina Kay, went on to inspire Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The writer left the city aged just 19 when she met and married Sydney Oswald Spark and moved to Southern Rhodesia. However, the marriage broke up shortly after the birth of their son, Robin, and she returned to Britain.
Determined to carve out a writing career, she took a job with the intelligence service in 1944, producing what she later described as “a tangled mixture of damaging lies, flattering and plausible truths.” Her experience of crafting effective propaganda for MI6 is thought to have heavily influenced books including The Mandelbaum Gate, The Hothouse by the East River and Territorial Rights.
The National Library event will recall Spark’s secret war-time work during Edinburgh Spy Week, an annual series of events exploring espionage, fiction and film organised by Edinburgh University.
Dr Simon Cooke, a lecturer in English literature at the university, said: “The idea of the event is to explore a pervasive cultural concern. While Spark wasn’t a spy out in the field, she had a career in political intelligence and she did meet a lot of people who were spies. It was a small part of her life in some ways, but if you look at her fiction, the notion of secrecy occurs with some frequency.”
National Librarian Dr John Scally said: “The opportunity to celebrate the life and work of Muriel Spark is as exciting a prospect as opening one of her books for the very first time.”