Sparkling women

Muriel Spark inhabited the complexity of the female mind

Nicholas Lezard

It is not hard to imagine what Muriel Spark, or one of her opinionated characters, would have had to say on the subject of International Women’s Day. Probably not much, in Spark’s case: maybe an arched eyebrow and a swift change of subject. One can imagine that her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, would have something cutting to remark, but then she always did. The novel is, after all, a record of her endless stream of obiter dicta if it is anything.

While Spark might have made a wry observation about the idea of a Women’s Day, there is a sense in which she is one of the most feminist writers ever. I am using the term very loosely. But her concerns are with women: she knows their minds, and her novels and stories are, in a sense, the reports of her research. Men, in her fiction, may drive the plot occasionally, but there is often something insubstantial or ludicrous about them. Anyone can have a half-baked idea in her world – in fact, the sheer quantity of half-baked ideas, misunderstandings, and wrong turnings is what makes her so funny – but the men seem to be exceptionally silly.

Her two best, and best-loved, novels take place in all-female environments: a girls’ school in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the boarding house of The Girls of Slender Means. There is a forced, hothouse atmosphere to such places which means that a large number of characters – sometimes it seems as if it’s all of them – stand on the verge of outright loopiness. Which is, of course, infectious. Think of the ill-supressed fits of the giggles when the girls at Jean Brodie’s school are thinking about sex; or the atmosphere of subdued hysteria at the May of Teck House in The Girls of Slender Means: 

“A scream of panic from the top floor penetrated the house as Jane returned to the club on Friday afternoon, the 27th of July. …She did not feel that the scream of panic meant anything special. Jane climbed the last flight of stairs. There was another more piercing scream, accompanied by excited voices. Screams of panic in the club might relate to a laddered stocking or a side-splitting joke.”

As it happens, there is a more or less good reason for these screams: one of the girls, Tilly, has got stuck in a narrow window, and everyone is trying to help. “Against their earnest advice, she screamed aloud from time to time.” For some reason, I find that “from time to time” particularly funny, as if Tilly feels it is somehow expected of her.

The key to Spark is her Catholicism. A close second to that is her Scottishness, even though she left the country in the Sixties and never returned. It is very often the case that when a British writer becomes, or already is, a Catholic, the reader is made very aware of this and is rarely, if ever, allowed to forget it.

When she gives some anti-Catholic lines to Jean Brodie, I think this is a way for Spark to make sure we don’t confuse her with her creation. (The same might apply to Brodie’s admiration for Fascism, but then in later years Spark did hang out with – not a term I can see her using – an Italian count who had been Mussolini’s private secretary, so perhaps it is best not to pull on that thread.) As for Scottishness, this is as much a matter of tone as anything else. She herself once noted, in a 1960s essay about Edinburgh, that “much of my literary composition is based” on what she called the “nevertheless” principle – to be pronounced “niverthelace”. She wrote:

“I can see the lips of tough elderly women in musquash coats taking tea at MacVittie’s enunciating this word of final justification… I believe myself to be fairly indoctrinated by the habit of thought which calls for this word. In fact I approve of the ceremonious accumulation of weather forecasts and barometer-readings that pronounce for a fine day, before letting rip on the statement: ‘Nevertheless, it’s raining.’”

Niverthelace, indeed. (“It was on the nevertheless principle that I turned Catholic,” she added.) Her third-person narrator is very keen on reminding us where her characters are mistaken. I would say it’s a trait of the novelist who is a convert rather than a cradle Catholic to imply that non-Catholics are in some way deluded, or living without a full grasp of the matter. She also said she couldn’t become a novelist until she’d become a Catholic, because it was only then she was able to see the bigger picture. 

Memento Mori is a novel whose driving MacGuffin is an anonymous telephone caller who rings up people nearing the end of their lives to tell them that they are going to die: 

“In the course of the night Granny Trotsky died as the result of the bursting of a small blood-vessel in her brain, and her spirit returned to God who gave it.” 

Spark shows that life is not all fun and games, and her faith gives a serious underpinning to the central idea of Memento Mori: don’t be a baby, of course we’re all going to die; and don’t forget who gave you life in the first place.

Spark doesn’t seem, then, to be a prime candidate for canonisation in the ranks of the sisterhood, but then few other writers have, for me as an “insubstantial” man, offered such insights into the female sex. There are all the big things, but also the little ones. Is it a coincidence that the two funniest moments in Brodie have jam as their punchlines? 

Describing the kind of Edinburgh woman Jean Brodie was, Spark writes: “They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word ‘guaranteed’ on a jam-jar really meant.” And near the end of the book, Jean Brodie asks Sandy why she had an affair with Teddy Lloyd, the Art teacher.

“‘Whatever possessed you?’ said Miss Brodie in a very Scottish way, as if Sandy had given away a pound of marmalade to an English duke.” The veracity of the Scriptures versus jam; marmalade (which is famously Scottish, of course) versus the English aristocracy. (And don’t forget those “democratic” counters.)

And that is the great joy of Muriel Spark: the feeling that we are never far from a joke, or an intimation of the absurd – which is all too often to be found in the foolish hearts and minds of men. Perhaps, under the arched eyebrow, there might have been the hint of an indulgent smile at Women’s Day.

Nicholas Lezard was a book reviewer for the Guardian for 25 years and writes the New Statesman’s “Down and Out” column

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