The Stormy Life of Muriel Spark
What do you do when your education, at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, only equips you to teach secondary English or to work in a department store, and yet you’re educated enough to feel the lugubrious weight of Edinburgh skies? If you’re Muriel Camberg, you take the first ticket out of Scotland, even if that means moving to Rhodesia as the wife of Sidney Oswald Spark, who later turns out to be a manic depressive, prone to violent outbursts. Having exchanged dark skies for wild savannah winds, and now the mother of a child, where do you find safety from the storm?
If you’re the woman whose future literary achievements will make you a Dame of the British Empire, you begin to write short stories, poetry, and literary criticism under a name the entire world will come to know, Muriel Spark. This takes you to England, though it leaves you deeply in debt because you gain more critical acclaim than spending money. Writing also leads to an affair with another author, Stanford White. You learn that two artistic temperaments are like high and low pressure fronts, colliding into a perfect storm. Amidst other mental afflictions, you begin to suffer from delusions.
In such a tempest, you might turn to medicine, and Muriel did. According to her biographer, Martin Stannard,
Muriel had begun seeing Dr. Lieber, a general practitioner, in December 1953. During her crisis, he treated her for “anxiety neurosis.” The physiological cause of the hallucinations was straightforward. She was suffering...from drug poisoning. Dexedrine, now known as “speed,” is an “upper.” When she stopped taking it, the delusions slowly evaporated. Malnutrition added to her troubles (153).
Contentment wasn’t found in her marriage; the affairs that followed were a series of tempests; and writing seemed to enervate as much as to settle her. Muriel Spark could easily have borrowed words from Saint Matthew’s gospel. Her life, like a boat, “already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. ” (14:24)
She turned to religion, an unlikely choice for someone raised in a half-Christian, half-Jewish, but thoroughly secular home. She sought out a local Anglican curate and began to frequent his church, but a Catholic friend, the publisher Wilfred Sheed recommended Catholic authors. “[S]he read voraciously: through...thirteen volumes of Newman, in the Gospels (particularly Matthew), and in the Old Testament (particularly Job), in the Apocrypha (The Wisdom of Solomon), and through books requested for review” (144).
One wants to report that her conversion to the Catholic faith ended Muriel Spark’s troubles, but life is never without struggles anymore than weather is without storms. We’re not given to live on earth free of either. The question is how we weather them. Are we simply tossed by waves and wind, or do we seek the shelter that God alone can give? Do we turn to prayer? Do we seek out the sacraments? Do we let the saints console us with their writings?
She would never become an ultramontane Catholic, one looking to the Vatican for every answer, though she would live most of her subsequent life in Rome and Italy, writing novels of spiritual exploration. It would be misleading to suggest that Catholicism offered Muriel Spark every answer she needed, but it certainly raised the questions that she felt had to be posed. As Stannard notes, with her conversion,
the whole focus of Muriel’s life had shifted, enclosed and protected as she now was by the Household of the Faith. Maryvonne Butcher, literary editor of the Tablet, wrote warmly as a co-religionist rather than as a businesswoman. Father Caraman, Evelyn Waugh’s friend and editor of The Month, attended her reception and soon put work her way. “I somehow felt (a friend wrote) that Frank Sheed would be all that was needed to bring you safely Home.” “Home” was the operative word. Muriel had never felt at home with the Jewish community in Edinburgh. She had never felt at home anywhere until she entered the Catholic Church (156).
One can’t stop the storms. The question is where one shelters. We don’t choose our tempests, only our havens.