Celebrated Scots author Muriel Spark '˜haunted by family rifts'

A new book on Dame Muriel Spark by a journalist who became a close friend in her final 16 years of her life is to lift the lid on how she was haunted by long-running family rifts and relationships which turned sour.

Dame Muriel Spark (right) with her former secretary Penelope Jardine at home in Tuscany. The Edinburgh-born author never reconciled with her son.
Dame Muriel Spark (right) with her former secretary Penelope Jardine at home in Tuscany. The Edinburgh-born author never reconciled with her son.

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 because of the prospect of either her ex-husband or son turning up and causing a scene.

The book, drawn from numerous visits made by Taylor to Spark’s home in Tuscany, 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.

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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.

The book, published next month, also discusses how Spark was determined to keep working as she became increasingly dogged with illness. A nurse visited her at home twice a day to administer injections and she started a new book in her final months.

Appointment in Arezzo, named after the interview that prompted the friendship with Taylor, reveals the author’s “hurt” at suggestions she had turned her back on Scotland and was living in “exile”. But it suggests she found it “too inward-looking, too mindful of other people’s business, too mean-spirited, too unreceptive to the wider world”.

The book, published ahead of the 100th anniversary of Spark’s birthday in 2018, 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 together.

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.

But in 1937 she left the city when she met and married Sydney Oswald Spark, the man she would later nickname “SOS” and they moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She moved to London when the “unmitigated disaster” of a marriage broke up in 1944, but Robin returned to Edinburgh, to be brought up by his maternal grandparents.

Taylor’s book reveals how Sydney Oswald Spark, a manic depressive, “did everything he could to stop Robin joining Muriel in London where she was trying to make ends meet”.

He writes that when Spark returned to Edinburgh while her father was in the final weeks of his life, she was told to “get out” of the family home by Robin, who had a long-running feud with his mother, who converted to Catholicism, over her Jewish roots. 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.”

The book reveals how Spark’s famous habit of keeping all her personal correspondence stemmed from her relationship with the writer Derek Stanford, described in the book as a “cad and betrayer”.

Describing Spark’s feelings about Stanford, Taylor writes: “Whenever his name cropped up in conversation, which it did from time to time, it was invariably in the guise of someone whom she had once trusted, perhaps even loved, and whom she now thought of as beyond the pale. She was well aware that no matter what she said and did she could not erase him from her past. It was Stanford’s greed and disloyalty that most upset Muriel.”

The book said there was more than a degree of truth in the assumption that Spark had turned her back on Scotland and that felt she had outgrown the country of her birth.

However Taylor writes: “As Penny is at pains to explain, Muriel did not actually consider herself an exile, suggestive as that is of banished and enforced separation.

“It is true that her absence was long and that her visits – usually to see her mother and son – were infrequent over the years, not least because of the possibility of unpleasantness on the part of his son and her ex-husband, whom she was always anxious might turn up at public gatherings and make a scene.”

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 feel about the flutter and fuss of the festival.”

However, describing her appearance, Taylor writes: “As she began to read, her voice firm and nerveless, her accent familiarly local, one could sense that the audience was willing her on and that they were witness to an occasion unlikely ever to be repeated.

“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.”