Muriel Spark’s life celebrated with show of handbags and glad rags

Novelist Muriel Spark, born in Edinburgh in 1918, at work. Photograph: National Library of Scotland
Novelist Muriel Spark, born in Edinburgh in 1918, at work. Photograph: National Library of Scotland
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Dame Muriel Spark’s typewriter, dresses, handbags and rosary beads are to feature in a landmark exhibition marking 100 years since her birth.

The school magazine that published her poetry when she was only 12, a certificate from her evening class in writing in Edinburgh and her war-time ration book will be among the exhibits.

The National Library of Scotland exhibition will explore her negotiations to see her life story turned into a big-screen movie and stage musicals, the support she generated from fellow writers, such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and private correspondence with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and US President Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat.

The material in the exhibition, which opens next month, is drawn largely from Spark’s own personal collection, most of which is now held by the Edinburgh-based National Library.

The exhibition – which will feature an offer from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to buy the worldwide rights to her autobiography – is expected to recall how Spark was on the verge of agreeing a deal to see her early life turned into a feature film.

Based on her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, and the novel Loitering With Intent, which was inspired by her life in London, it was planned to be overseen by the American movie mogul Robert Enders.

Spark was also keen for songwriter Alan Jay Lerner – creator of My Fair Lady and An American In Paris – to help turn Loitering With Intent and The Girls Of Slender Means into musicals.

Born in Edinburgh to a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, Spark attended James Gillespie’s High School, where one of the teachers, Christina Kay, was to inspire her best known novel, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. She left the city aged just 19 when she met and married Sydney Oswald Spark, and the couple moved to Southern Rhodesia. She moved to London in 1944 when the marriage broke up shortly after the birth of their son, Robin. Determined to carve out a writing career, Spark took a job with the British intelligence service.

Spark, who lived with her close friend Penelope Jardine in Tuscany from the early 1970s until her death in 2006, famously refused to throw out any of her personal papers. The archive has gradually been acquired by the National Library, one of the main organisers of a nationwide programme of centenary events.

Dr Colin McIlroy, curator of the exhibition, which runs from 8 December till 13 May, said: “We have more than 400 boxes of Muriel’s private correspondence, notebooks, manuscripts, diaries and receipts. I’ve been working on this for two years, but the first year was really just about cataloguing all the material we have acquired.

“We are very fortunate that Penelope has very kindly allowed us to loan some of Muriel’s personal effects. The idea was not to have an exhibition that was just about bits of paper.

“She was an exemplary literary stylist but she was also very concerned with her own style. We thought it would be nice to have at least some reference to that and the fact that dress and style are so important in her books.”