Edinburgh author Muriel Spark's worries on '˜Miss Jean Brodie' revealed

A new exhibition charting the career of Dame Muriel Spark reveals her fears that readers would think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a 'disguised autobiography'.

National Library of Scotland exhibitions officer Ciara McKenna was brushing up on her Muriel Spark ahead of todays opening of an exhibition about the author. Picture: TSPL
National Library of Scotland exhibitions officer Ciara McKenna was brushing up on her Muriel Spark ahead of todays opening of an exhibition about the author. Picture: TSPL

A note at the front of the handwritten manuscript, which is going on display for the first time ever, in her home city of Edinburgh today, makes clear that the novel is “a work of fiction”.

It is on display along with several handwritten pages of the manuscript, which the National Library of Scotland has borrowed from Tulsa University, in the United States, which acquired it from Spark in the early 1980s.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was famously inspired by her time at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh and her teacher, Christina Kay, whose former pupils have said she bore a remarkable resemblance to the main character.

But Spark’s handwritten note – which was did not make it into the published novel – said she would regard it as “a blow to my pride of invention” if any readers felt her work was a literal history of events.

The exhibition reveals how Spark, who returned from London to her parents’ home to write the novel in December 1960, said she felt obliged to point out the story was fictional as it is set in Edinburgh at the same time she was growing up in the city.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which like most of Spark’s novels was written on jotters from James Thin bookshop in Edinburgh, was published in 1961, and adapted for the stage in 1966. A film version, in 1969, won Maggie Smith an Academy Award, while Geraldine McEwan starred in an STV series in 1978.

Exhibition curator Colin McIlroy said: “We really wanted to get this particular manunscript, as it is the novel she is best known for. The manuscript was written in Edinburgh and would have gone back with her to London, where she was staying then.

“She sold the manuscripts for her first 17 novels to Tulsa University when she was living between Rome and Tuscany. It’s only conjecture, but I think that, knowing that they were of worth and that people would be interested in them, she perhaps felt they would be safer in an institution.”

The exhibition, which runs until May, features handwritten poems from her schooldays and a James Gillespie’s magazine, which published five of them when she was just 12 and described her work as “so much out of the ordinary”.

Artefacts on display include handbags, dresses, a typewriter, a suitcase, a vanity box, a ration book and cuttings from her time as an Edinburgh Festival critic. Among the numerous letters and cards are correspondence and betting slips relating to Lifeboat, a racehorse she bought from the Queen, a note from Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor telling her that she and Richard Burton were “great fans” and an offer from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to buy the worldwide rights to her autobiography.

Born in 1918 to a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, Spark left aged just 19 when she met and married Sydney Oswald Spark and they 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, which have been gradually acquired by the National Library since the early 1990s.

Mr McIlroy added: “What comes through strongly is a picture of a generous, fun loving individual, which is not how she has always been portrayed. She did fall out with people and she knew how to stand up for herself, but she comes across as a much warmer and caring person than perhaps I was expecting.

“She kept friends for decades and was fiercely loyal. I hope this exhibition helps people to get a better understanding of the person behind the books.”