If American biographers and autobiographers offend good taste and decorum by publishing works that are too often ponderous in detail and embarrassingly personal, British autobiographers too often frustrate their admirers by producing memoirs that are sketchy in detail and evasive about personal matters. This is certainly the case with Muriel Spark’s Curriculum vitae: Autobiography, which lives up to its title by being a brief overview of the first thirty-nine years of her life. Though another volume is promised, presumably picking up where this one leaves off, many readers will put
down this book with mixed feelings of desire and gratitude: desire for additional personal information, gratitude for the liveliness and charm of what they have been
In a brief introduction, Spark admits that since the 1940’s she has been a fanatical hoarder of documents and acknowledges that this habit—and this book—is calculated to set the record straight. She is appalled, from a personal and scholarly point of view, that much of what passes for fact about her is incorrect and that as a consequence scholars of her work form erroneous conclusions. This is an admirable motive for autobiography, and presumably Spark has fulfilled her intention regarding those parts of her life covered by the present volume. Whenever necessary, she quotes at length from relevant documents to expose error and substitute fact.
It is not until the sixth chapter of this seven-chapter book, however, that the documentary evidence is available. The first five chapters are built of less rigid stuff—memories, often corroborated by friends or relatives. These chapters are, not surprisingly, the warmest, most charming, and most intimate in the book. They are also, and again not surprisingly, the most sketchy, although one suspects that the sketchiness is often deliberate.
The book opens with a succession of brief vignettes with enticing titles: “Bread, Butter, and Florrie Forde,” “Tea,” “Mrs. Rule, Fish Jean, and the Kaiser,” and the like. In these are evoked the life of Edinburgh in the early 1920’s, when Muriel was a young girl. Her father, a Jew, was an engineer; her mother, more embarrassingly, English. They enjoyed a rich home life, with frequent calls from interesting people, such as Professor and Mrs. Rule, an American couple brought there by his theological studies, and Mrs. Kerr, whose daughter Jean was training her voice for a career on the stage. From her earliest years, Muriel was a watcher of people, a child who found that by keeping quiet and listening carefully she could eavesdrop on the mysterious adult world. Such memories are often wonderfully sharp and evocative, recalling a way of life that seems foreign now. Was it really as rich with sights and smells, with dialect expressions and interesting characters, as Ms. Spark remembers? It does not really matter. What does matter is the verisimilitude of the picture she draws, the sense of stability, warmth, and peace that pervades those early memories. Hers was a rich and privileged childhood, not in material possessions but in liveliness and security.
Chapter 2 begins the account of the most formative years of the writer’s life. Thanks to the foresight of successful Scots, Edinburgh afforded talented girls of modest means such as Muriel the opportunity for a first-class education. James Gillespie’s High School for Girls was Muriel’s school for twelve years, from 1923 onward. Scholarships relieved her parents of school fees for the last six years of her stay there. It was there, at age eleven, that she met Christina Kay, the model for her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie. In the most extended commentary this book gives on her own writing, Spark compares the real and fictional characters in some detail, providing a rare glimpse into the creative process. The tone of this chapter is warm and tactful; teachers are remembered more for their good qualities than for their failings, and Spark’s own memories are reinforced or corrected by the recollections of her classmates. With characteristic ironic detachment, she tells of being awarded a poetry prize and crowned “Queen of Poetry” at a ceremony commemorating Sir Walter Scott.
James Gillespie’s school was not a boarding...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)