On this day, February 1, in 1918, Muriel Camberg was born here in Edinburgh. Coming into the world in the final year of the worst international conflict the world had yet seen, the future may not have looked especially good for young Muriel. But Muriel Spark, as she became, is today rightly hailed as one of the UK's greatest literary icons, with her own place in the pantheon of great writers and artists who made Edinburgh their home.
Spark lived in the Bruntsfield area of the city as a child, and today this popular and bustling suburb is still a favourite for locals looking to escape the city centre. She was at school at James Gillespie's, still an active school with its buildings facing almost directly onto the open expanse of Bruntsfield Links. It was here she would meet one of her great inspirations, who would later lead to the creation of one of the most iconic figures in British literature. Gillespie's School, and a teacher named Christina Kay, would later find themselves represented in what is probably Spark's best known and most loved novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Muriel married Sidney Spark, and they moved to Zimbabwe. By 1944, at the height of the conflict, Spark was back in London without Sidney, and spent the rest of the war working for the British government in intelligence.
After the war Spark's writing career developed, with her first novel published in 1957. She would become one of the foremost literary voices of her generation, with stories that defy easy categorisation. Spark's wit and humour shines through stories laden with political interest and social commentary, with a cast of characters that remain vivid today.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in 1961. Set at a girls' school in Edinburgh, the story follows a collection of schoolgirls under the tutelage of their waspish teacher, Jean Brodie. Seeking to give her girls the widest possible education, to encourage them to broaden their minds and their horizons, her fascism-favouring influence takes a dangerous edge as the girls get to grips with love and politics.
The story is set in and around Edinburgh, and the film of the story, released in 1969, with Maggie Smith winning an Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Miss Brodie, features Edinburgh in many of its location scenes. Bruntsfield, the Meadows, the Vennel, and Cramond all featuring in the film, along with Edinburgh Academy, which stood in for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
Spark went on to live in New York and then Rome for a time, and from the 1970s until her death lived in Tuscany. She died in 2006.
Over the course of her career, Spark garnered many awards and recognitions for her work. She was twice nominated for the Booker Prize, was given eight honorary doctorate degrees (including from her alma mater, Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University), was made a dame of the British Empire in 1993, and a Golden PEN award for Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.
On the centenary of her birth, Spark's work remains vivid and startling for its combination of wit and social commentary, and she remains one of the most celebrated British authors of all time. The National Library of Scotland currently has an exhibition in her honour.
Explore the world of Muriel Spark and Miss Jean Brodie with my Edinburgh walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...