£200k saves Scots author Muriel Spark’s papers for nation

An undated portrait of Muriel Spark, who created Miss Jean Brodie. Picture: National Library of Scotland
An undated portrait of Muriel Spark, who created Miss Jean Brodie. Picture: National Library of Scotland
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A VAST treasure trove charting the final years of one of Scotland’s greatest writers has been secured for the nation after an international fund-raising campaign.

More than 20 donors have contributed the £200,000 needed to secure the last tranche of Dame Muriel Spark’s personal papers, which she collected over more than half a century.

The National Library of Scotland has also now been able to appoint a curator to lead efforts to go through the contents of 125 boxes shipped from Tuscany – where the writer lived for more than 30 years – to her home city of Edinburgh.

The collection of corres­pondence, notes, photographs and diaries will complete the huge archive of the author’s personal papers which will be extensively drawn from for a major exhibition celebrating her life and legacy in 2018 – the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Much of the final tranche, which covers the period from 2001 until her death in 2006, will touch on the bitter dispute which broke out between Spark and her biographer, Martin Stannard, who she had handpicked for the job.

Staff are gradually examining the contents of the boxes, which have all been carefully tied up by Penelope Jardine, Spark’s long-time companion, who is still her literary executor.

In one letter, to the writer Doris Lessing following an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2004, she revealed how she was being “tormented” by the forthcoming biography.

The book would go on to discuss at great length how she became embroiled in a series of disastrous relationships, had a doomed marriage, disowned her son and her fall-outs with agents and editors.

Spark told Lessing that she had disowned the bio­graphy, branding it “dull, boring, inaccurate and all out of context.”

In another letter, to the literary critic Frank Kermode just two years before she died, she tells him: “I think you are the only man in the world who understands me.”

Among the many other writers she was in correspondence with was Beryl Bainbridge, who contacted her to expresses fears that she had lost her creative energy at the age of 70.

She told Spark: “I admire your work enormously more than anyone else today and want to know whether I am just tired or dried up.”

Less than two years before her death, Spark replied to say: “One does have less physical energy, but there are no signs of many writers I know of their losing creative power in their old age. In fact, it sometimes matures.

“In your case, as you are undoubtedly a very practised writer, I should think that you are just stunned at being 70. Penelope is about to be 72 today and it doesn’t mean anything except a bottle of champagne. Everything matters a lot, but nothing matters very much.”

Widely regarded as one of the finest British authors of the 20th century, Spark is best known for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was inspired by her schooldays at James Gillespie’s High School.

She was 39 when she began her literary career after the Second World War, when she was conscripted to the intelligence department of the Foreign Office, writing propaganda.

After a spell as editor of the Poetry Review, Spark had her first book, The Comforters, published in 1957 and she went on to write 22 novels, the last of which, The Finishing School, was published just two years before she died.

Described as “a hoarder by her own admission” on the National Library’s website, Spark is said to have thrown virtually nothing away after 1949.

Writing in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, she said: “I became aware of the value of documentary evidence, both as a means of personal defence against inaccuracies and as an aid to one’s memory.”

The National Library of Scotland has been gradually acquiring the author’s papers since 1992, after the publication of her autobiography, in which she wrote: “I became aware of the value of documentary evidence, both as a means of personal defence against inaccuracies and as an aid to one’s memory.”

However, by this time many of her papers dating from the early 1940s had gone overseas, to the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma.

Sally Harrower, manuscripts curator at the National Library of Scotland: “We basically bought up tranche of her papers every time she brought a new novel out. We already had a set relating to her final book and this final part of the archive is what came after that.”

“We know a lot the final trance is to do with the biography by Martin Stannard, which was a very painful experience for her, and I expect for him as well. It became a bit of an obsession on both sides.”

Library chiefs launched a campaign, fronted by crime writer Ian Rankin, to safeguard the final portion of the archive last autumn, pledging that it would help create a resource for researchers, students and fans “to discover how one of the most significant British writers of the post-war period lived and worked”. Donors pledging at least £5,000 to the campaign can still take up the chance to open one of the boxes and examine its contents.

Lois Wolffe, head of development at the library, said: “Most of the donations have come from philanthropic individuals, along with several trusts and foundations. We’ve been talking about the project for quite a long time so we had a good idea who would be interested. Muriel Spark decided herself that Scotland should be the home for her archive and the library would be the best place for it.”