‘The Crooked Dividend: Essays on Muriel Spark’, edited by Gerard Carruthers and Helen Stoddart

This collection of essays arises in part from the Muriel Spark Centenary Symposium held at the University of Glasgow in February 2018, with additional contributions. It is a groundbreaking volume that celebrates and reaffirms Spark’s outstanding literary achievement and contribution as a distinctive and prolific poet, novelist, essayist, editor, critic, biographer, playwright, radio dramatist, children’s author, and memoirist.

The Crooked Dividend: Essays on Muriel Spark includes fourteen essays divided into two sections, ‘Spark, Biography, and Female Experience’ and ‘Writing Materials’. As Gerard Carruthers remarks in the introduction: ‘In both terrains Spark’s numerous memorable female characters and the author’s own colourful cultural career can be discerned and dissected’.1 This volume investigates these two terrains in Spark’s literary output from various perspectives, including Spark’s biography and archive, her female characters, fashion and design ideology, Scottish literary heritage, history and architecture, as well as art and publishing industry.

A remarkable feature of The Crooked Dividend is its close study of the Spark archive. In ‘“I knew what was what”: Correspondence and the Meta-Archival in the Muriel Spark Archive’, Colin McIlroy shares his experience as curator of the Spark archive – ‘the largest modern literary archive of any single author held at the National Library of Scotland’.2 McIlroy remarks on the usefulness of this treasure-trove of original source material in altering and augmenting our understanding of Spark, ‘a meta-archival writer’.3 Likewise, in ‘Muriel Spark and the “Hired Grammarians”’, Helen Stoddart offers a close reading of the New Yorker version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Stoddart analyses Spark’s concession of authorial rights on the editorials to secure the New Yorker publication, and argues for Spark’s intention to ‘invent and defend a distinctive new narrative discourse unimpaired by grammarian orthodoxies’.4 Ian Brown, in his essay ‘Dramatic Contexts and Metatheatricality in Muriel Spark’s Writing for Performance’, explores the culture and nature of Spark’s dramatic works and explains why Doctors of Philosophy becomes ‘Spark’s only original stage play’ in the context of the theatrical practicalities of London in the 1950s and 1960s.5

The Crooked Dividend also provides biographical and chronological studies of Spark’s life, career and works, with a particular focus on her and her protagonists’ female experience. In ‘“Unfortunately you have left out all the love poems”: Spark in Love’, Willy Maley and Dini Power deal with Spark’s little-known and uncollected love poems written in the 1940s and 1950s and investigate her understanding of love and her collaboration with her erstwhile lover Howard Sergeant before her emergence as a novelist. In ‘Spark’s Spinsters: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in the Novels of Muriel Spark’, Susannah Thompson examines the topics of spinsterhood and bedsit living in Spark’s early novels written or set in the 1950s and 1960s and her later novels published in the 1980s, reflecting on that period. Thompson notes that bedsit living allows Spark to have time and freedom for her creative writing in the late 1950s. Following the same period of Spark’s life, Ernest Schonfield examines Spark’s work experience in the London publishing world of the late 1940s and early 1950s and her fictional accounts of these formative years. Schonfield notes Spark’s critique of the lack of acknowledgement of ‘the vital labours of (often female) sub-editors in the publishing industry’.6 In her contribution, ‘Muriel Spark’s Waywardness’, Carole Jones interprets Spark as author, and as creator of distinctive female protagonists, in terms of wayward women, and examines her various attempts to subvert male versions of reality.

The Crooked Dividend offers interdisciplinary studies of Spark, in which two essays investigate the interactions between Spark’s literary output and the art industry. Fiona Jardine, in ‘Art and Industry Must Walk Hand in Hand: Muriel Spark and Twentieth-Century Design Ideology’, studies the links between Spark’s works and ‘The Festival of Britain’ in 1951 and the influence of Herbert Read’s design ideology and Betjeman’s Middle England conservatism on Spark’s sense of aesthetics. Monica Germanà also interrogates Spark’s personal interest in couture and her deployment of ‘fashion’s elusive visual language, its fraught relationship with female desire, and its non-linear temporality’ in her life and fiction.7

From the perspective of history, Colin Kidd, in ‘All the Abbess’s Nuns: Muriel Spark and the Idioms of Watergate’, analyses Spark’s clever transposition of the Watergate scandal involving Richard Nixon and his cronies in 1972 and 1973 in her novella The Abbess of Crewe (1974). Kidd argues that ‘the novella certainly transcends satire and is possibly in some remote sense a Catholic parable’.8 Kidd concludes that the characterisation of a memorable protagonist, the Abbess Alexandra, arguably presents ‘a portrait of the artist’s own whimsical authorial despotism’.9 Amy Woodbury Tease’s essay, ‘Muriel Spark’s Windows and the Architecture of Surveillance’, highlights how Spark’s wartime surveillance work at the British Intelligence office in London and the motif of the window inform her two post-war novels – The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Hothouse by the East River (1973) – and her less well-known children’s story, The French Window (1993). Tease argues that the fear and paranoia induced by war makes us question the reliability of a safe space insulated from war’s violence and its aftermath.

Both Catriona M. M. Macdonald and Mark Currie’s essays have overlapping critical concerns around temporality, narratology, and characterisation. Macdonald challenges the long-held conception of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a historical novel and explains why ‘Miss Brodie’s prime denied her a history’.10 Similarly, Currie offers a peculiar examination of the authorial figures and unfinished acts of writing in Spark’s works and interrogates the collision between the divine and human script, analysing the philosophical and perhaps existential atmosphere in Spark’s oeuvre.

The Crooked Dividend is one of the strongest critical collections to address Spark’s literary art. It will prove a valuable resource for students and scholars interested in Spark, in contemporary Scottish literature, and in women’s writing more broadly. It offers fresh and interdisciplinary interpretations of Spark’s life and writings in the context of post-war British society and within the framework of diverse Scottish literary traditions. In ‘Muriel Spark and J. M. Barrie’, for instance, Cairns Craig delineates Spark’s invocation of Barrie’s works, including the classic Peter Pan. The Crooked Dividend also provides direction, inspiration, and substantial references for future critics to approach Spark’s writing from different disciplines and theoretical perspectives, including history, architecture, archival studies, visual art, the publishing industry and book history.

The Crooked Dividend: Essays on Muriel Spark is published by Scottish Literature International.

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End Notes

  1. Gerard Carruthers, ‘Introduction: Critical Concerns for Muriel Spark’ in The Crooked Dividend: Essays on Muriel Spark, ed. by Gerard Carruthers and Helen Stoddart (Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2022), pp. ix–xxviii (p. ix).
  2. Colin McIlroy, ‘“I knew what was what”: Correspondence and the Meta-Archival in the Muriel Spark Archive’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 1–24 (p. 2).
  3. Ibid., p. 21.
  4. Helen Stoddart, ‘Muriel Spark and the “Hired Grammarians”’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 161–79 (p. 176).
  5. Ian Brown, ‘Dramatic Contexts and Metatheatricality in Muriel Spark’s Writing for Performance’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 264–87 (p. 265).
  6. Ernest Schonfield, ‘The Publishing Scene in A Far Cry from Kensington’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 247–63 (p. 261).
  7. Monica Germanà, ‘Between Desire and Control: The Fashioned Image in Muriel Spark’s Life and Fiction’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 63–87 (p. 63).
  8. Colin Kidd, ‘All the Abbess’s Nuns: Muriel Spark and the Idioms of Watergate’ in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 126–43 (p. 141).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Catriona M. M. Macdonald, ‘“Making patterns with facts”: Unmaking History in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, in The Crooked Dividend, pp. 144–60 (p. 158).
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Kaiyue He

Kaiyue He is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow working on ‘Muriel Spark’s Houses of Fiction’. She has reviewed for Textual Practice and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

More articles by Kaiyue He


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