Muriel Spark Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Muriel Spark is known primarily for her novels and short fiction, but her body of work also includes works of nonfiction, children’s literature, poetry, film adaptations, and radio plays. She began her career writing news articles as a press agent. Later she expanded her range to include works of poetry and literary criticism, contributing poems, articles, and reviews to magazines and newspapers, occasionally using the pseudonym Evelyn Cavallo. Spark published her first short story in 1951. In 1954, she began writing novels, her best known being The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Muriel Spark’s honors and awards include the Prix Italia (1962) for her radio play adaptation of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960); the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award (1965) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1966), both for The Mandelbaum Gate (1965); Commander, Order of the British Empire (1967); the Booker McConnell Prize nomination (1981) for Loitering with Intent (1981); the Scottish Book of the Year Award (1987) for The Stories of Muriel Spark; Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1988); the Ingersoll T. S. Elliot Award (1992); Dame, Order of the British Empire (1993); and the David Cohen British Literature Prize for Lifetime Achievement (1997).

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her novels, Muriel Spark produced a sizable amount of work in the genres of poetry, the short story, drama, biography, and criticism. Her volumes of poetry include The Fanfarlo, and Other Verse (1952) and Going Up to Sotheby’s, and Other Poems (1982). Her first collection of short stories, The Go-Away Bird, and Other Stories, appeared in 1958; among her several other collections are The Stories of Muriel Spark (1985) and All the Stories (2001). Voices at Play, a collection of short stories and radio plays, appeared in 1961, and her play Doctors of Philosophy was first performed in London in 1962 and published in 1963. Spark’s literary partnership with Derek Stanford resulted in their editing Tribute to Wordsworth (1950), a collection of essays on the centenary of the poet’s death; My Best Mary: The Selected Letters of Mary Shelley (1953); and Letters of John Henry Newman (1957). Spark also edited The Brontë Letters (1954). Among her works of nonfiction, Spark produced a study of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1951, revised as Mary Shelley, 1987), and The Essence of the Brontës: A Compilation of Essays (1993).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Critical opinion about Muriel Spark’s status as a novelist is sharply divided. In general, her work is less highly valued by American critics; Frederick Karl, for example, dismissed her work as being “light to the point of froth” and said that it has “virtually no content.” English critics such as Frank Kermode, Malcolm Bradbury, and David Lodge, on the other hand, consider Spark a major contemporary novelist. Kermode complimented her on being “obsessed” with novelistic form, called The Mandelbaum Gate a work of “profound virtuosity,” and described Spark as a “difficult and important artist.” Bradbury, who regarded Spark as an “interesting, and a very amusing, novelist” from the beginning of her career, later added his assessment that she was also a “very high stylist” whose work in the novella shows a precision and economy of form and style. In a reassessment of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lodge commented on the complex structure of the novel and Spark’s successful experimentation with authorial omniscience.

Spark was known for being able to combine popular success with critical acclaim. In 1951, she received her first literary award, the Observer Story Prize for the Christmas story “The Seraph and the Zambesi.” A radio drama based on The Ballad of Peckham Rye won the Italia Prize in 1962, and in the same year she was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1965, Spark received the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Mandelbaum Gate. Mary Shelley received a Stoker Award in 1987. Spark was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, and in 2001 she received an honorary doctor of literature degree from the University of London. In 2004, she was presented with the Edinburgh International Book Festival Enlightenment Award.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How do Muriel Spark’s novels illustrate the conflict between good and evil?

What “good” characters in Spark’s fiction are not particularly appealing?

What “bad” characters in Spark’s fiction are to some degree sympathetic?

How does Spark differentiate between the ideal Church and the Church as it exists in this world?

What is Spark’s view of death?

Which characters in Spark’s novels lead what she would consider successful lives?

How does Spark use wit and humor to distance herself from the characters in her novels?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bold, Alan. Muriel Spark. London: Methuen, 1986. Bold is concerned with the relationship between Spark’s personal background and the development of her characters, particularly links between Spark’s religious experience and the religious facets of her fiction. He includes biographical information, then discusses Spark’s works in chronological order, specifically the novels. An extensive bibliography is included, listing criticism, articles, essays, interviews, and books related to Spark and her work.

Bold, Alan, ed. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984. Bold has compiled a collection of nine essays from different contributors, regarding various aspects of Spark’s fiction. The volume is organized into two sections. The first four essays explore Spark’s background and the content of her work. The remaining chapters contain critical articles centered on the diverse forms of Spark’s writings, including discussions of her use of satire, her poetry, and an essay by Tom Hubbard that deals exclusively with her short stories.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1990. A critical and historical study of the psychological in Scottish literature. Includes a bibliography and index.

Hynes, Joseph, ed. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. A comprehensive collection of reviews, essays, and excerpts from books on Spark’s fiction, by both her detractors and her admirers. Includes autobiographical essays and a survey and critique of past...

(The entire section is 719 words.)