In search of the elusive Muriel Spark

Alan Taylor. Picture by Kirsty Anderson
Alan Taylor. Picture by Kirsty Anderson

One of the highlights of this year’s Small Wonder short story festival will undoubtedly be the talk by literary editor and critic Alan Taylor who, for nearly two decades, was the friend and travel companion of Muriel Spark.

The event takes place on Sunday, September 30 (5pm), and will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muriel Spark’s birth.

Within the pages of Taylor’s slim but searching memoir – Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark – there emerges a woman both warm and colourful, yet who could also be astringent and acerbic.

The book is affectionate and honest and yet, as I reached the end, I could not help wondering how much anyone, even her closest friends – really knew her.

As Alan Taylor says : “There was an ethereal, unearthly, elusive air to Muriel.”

He describes how, with her blue eyes, red hair, porcelain skin and elfin frame, she could appear almost doll-like, yet she could change her appearance at a whim and some old friends felt there were too many Muriels – that she was a chameleon.

But at her core she was immutable, says Alan Taylor in his memoir. She embodied the values instilled in her when she was growing up in her native Scotland, and was shaped by the school that saw, and encouraged, the writer she was to become – a school that eventually became the establishment at the centre of her most famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Alan Taylor traces Muriel’s decision to leave Edinburgh for Italy where, at a hairdresser’s in Rome, she met the sculptor and artist Penelope Jardine with whom she was to live for the rest of her life.

It was a friendship that was deeply supportive to both yet, contrary to rumour, totally non-sexual.

“We simply clicked,” she explained.

Although Muriel was attractive to men, she never seemed to pick the right ones, beginning with a disastrous marriage to the man whose surname she decided to keep.

Alan Taylor describes his first meeting with Muriel and Penny, and how over the years the friendship between the three was to deepen.

Alan and his wife stayed with the two women at their house in Tuscany – often house sitting for them when they took off on their travels to escape the stifling heat.

Speaking to me this week from his home in Scotland, Alan said the word that best summed up Muriel,was ‘charm.’

“She was actually a very easy person to get to know,” he said.

“She and Penny were incredibly hospitable, generous and sociable. From the moment I met her, until she died, I got along famously with her. It was, as Penny said, ‘as if blood was talking to blood.’”

The brilliant Tuscan landscape may seem a far cry from the stern and unbending Edinburgh where Muriel grew up.

Although a Scot at heart, it was Italy that enabled her to be herself and to find the freedom to write. Writing was meat and drink to Muriel Spark, her reason for being. Despite all the contradictions of her complex personality, she wanted only to be remembered as a writer.

Alan Taylor will be in conversation at Charleston with Nicolette Jones, writer, critic and broadcaster.

For the full Small Wonder programme (September 28-30) and to buy tickets visit Charleston.org.uk/smallwonder or call 01323 815150.

There is a shuttle bus to and from Lewes train station throughout the festival.

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