New book lifts lid on life of Muriel Spark

Dame Muriel Sparks. Picture: Graham Jepson
Dame Muriel Sparks. Picture: Graham Jepson
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A new book on Dame Muriel Spark by a journalist who became a close friend in the final years of her life is to lift the lid on how she was haunted by long-running family rifts and relationships which turned sour.

Alan Taylor, a former deputy editor of The Scotsman, reveals how the Edinburgh-born author was too frightened to make a public appearance in her home city of Edinburgh because of the prospect of either her ex-husband or son turning up and causing a scene.

The book suggests Robin Spark was “brainwashed” by his violent and mentally unstable father, Sydney Oswald Spark, a teacher the then Muriel Camber married when she was just 19.

One former lover, Derek Stanford, is described as a “cad and betrayer” by Taylor, who tells how Spark never forgave him for selling some of her personal documents after she found fame, then published a biography describing her as a cross between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.

Appointment in Arezzo, published next month, also reveals the author’s “hurt” at suggestions she had turned her back on Scotland and was living in “exile”. But it suggests she found the country “too inward-looking, too mindful of other people’s business, too mean-spirited, too unreceptive to the wider world.”

The book also discounts the notion that Spark and Penny Jardine, the long-time companion she lived with for four decades in a farmhouse in Tuscany, were in a relationship.

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.

Recalling how Spark’s final decade was “blighted” by the deteriorating relationship with her son, the book states: “Robin, she believed, had been brainwashed by his father who, while she was busy elsewhere making a living, had turned her son against her.

“Sydney’s obsessiveness, his paranoia, his victimhood, was the inheritance he passed on to his son. With their shared sense of hurt, father and son were disturbingly alike.”

Taylor reveals that he had to persuade Spark not to cancel a rare public appearance in Scotland at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to help celebrate its 21st birthday in 2004 – just two years before she died – after she wrote to warn him: “I am beginning to get cold feet about the flutter and fuss of the festival.”

Taylor writes: “When the applause abated Muriel took as her text a passage from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, reading slowly and with a pause for dramatic emphasis: ‘If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.’ This was what they had come to hear and they were not disappointed.”

brian.ferguson@jpress.co.uk