The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie author discussed by Lit Society

Curator Dr Colin Mcilroy with the London collection'Major exhibition to celebrate the life of one of Scotland's greatest writers  ''- Muriel Spark
Curator Dr Colin Mcilroy with the London collection'Major exhibition to celebrate the life of one of Scotland's greatest writers ''- Muriel Spark

The members of the Lit were delighted to have Professor Gerry Carruthers of the University of Glasgow speak to them about the author Muriel Spark.

It is almost exactly 100 years since her birth in Edinburgh in 1918.

Gerry explained that although his main academic studies had been on 18th century literature he was also fascinated by, and hugely admiring of, the work of Muriel Spark and her place in Scottish literature.

He started by discussing if she could be regarded as a ‘condition of Scotland’ writer.

Firstly, she was born in Scotland, but after moving to Zimbabwe aged 18, she had subsequently lived in London (working for British Intelligence in WWII), followed by New York, Rome, and for the last 30 years of her life in Tuscany.

Secondly, apart from ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, she didn’t write about Scotland in any traditional sense. So perhaps not a ‘Scottish writer’. Gerry chose to describe her more as a ‘Catholic writer’.

It was Spark’s religious conversion under the influence of T S Elliot, first to the Anglican faith and then on to Roman Catholicism in 1954, which allowed and encouraged her to move from writing poetry to writing fiction.

She later described that her faith gave her freedom to think about good and bad. Gerry pointed out that the author used ‘flash forward’ (prolepsis) as a narrative device in a number of her books.

There is an example of this ‘foretelling of the death of a character long before that person’s story has even started’ in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. The idea links to predestination in Catholic doctrine. With the new found theological dimensions to her writing Muriel Spark publicly crossed swords with the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes over the latter’s work.

Disputes about religious origins fuelled the acrimonious relationship Muriel had with her estranged son Robin, who was brought up by his maternal grandparents.

When, in adulthood, Robin wanted to become a Jew like his grandfather, Muriel forcefully denied that her mother had been a Jew thereby thwarting the matriarchal line.

As well as numerous volumes of poetry, short stories and essays Muriel wrote 22 novels between 1957 and 2004, which were all critically and popularly received. Gerry mentioned the themes of many of them and said that ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, ‘The Girls of Slender Means’ and ‘The Mendelbaum Gate’ could almost be read as a trilogy although they were perhaps not written with that in mind.

In returning to his initial consideration of Muriel Spark as a Scottish writer, Gerry named, in his personal opinion, the three most important Scottish Tradition books as James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (1824), Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’ (1949) and Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (1961).

The final meeting of the Lit will be held on Tuesday, March 13 when the topic will be ‘Rothesay Pavilion Back to the 1930s’.

New members and visitors will be made very welcome.