In 1993, Muriel Spark read from her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” and her
novel “The Public Image” at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center. Her editor
at The New Yorker, Charles McGrath, delivered the opening remarks, in
which he confessed that “Muriel Spark required no editing.” This
impeccability applied to her public persona, too. Spark—a few weeks
after this appearance, she would become Dame Muriel Spark—was
seventy-two years of age at the time, and it’s apparent merely from the
audio of this event that she was as dauntingly impressive in person as
she was on the page.

Her speaking voice, from the distance of a quarter century, is a
phonological banquet. Your first impression is of a senior member of the
English Royal Family, albeit a weirdly intelligent and funny one. Then,
as you listen some more, you hear a Scottish accent, in particular the
“R”s in “archives,” “of course,” “Portman Square,” “years,” “bores”—all
pronounced with a soft rhotic trill. Finally, you understand that this
voice dates from the epoch in which acquiring skills in elocution,
deportment, and etiquette was necessary for middle-class young women who
aspired, to use the old phrase, to better themselves. The youthful
Muriel Spark was, of course, such a woman.

It feels apt, then, to hear Spark read about her blackly absurd
experiences, in postwar London, as the general secretary of the Poetry
Society. As a young divorcée poet and class upstart who was intent on
publishing modern verse, she found herself the subject of bizarre
accusations and scandalmongering, romantic and professional and social.
Simply to name the dramatis personae—Sir Eugen Millington-Drake;
Brigadier General Sir George Cockerill; William Kean Seymour—is to
populate a piece of Spark fan fiction. Then there’s this passage, which
caused her 92Y audience to roar with laughter:

One enraged reader who joined in the campaign against me was Dr. Marie
Stopes, the famous birth control expert—on that account, much to be
admired. She was resolutely opposed to my idea of poetry. Up to his
death three years earlier she had been living with Lord Alfred
Douglas, the fatal lover of Oscar Wilde, an arrangement which I
imagine would satisfy any woman’s craving for birth control.

The material for “The Public Image,” from which Spark read next, had
been given to her in a dream—the only time, she tells the Y audience,
that this happened to her. The novel concerns a famous actress whose
husband, out of envy and malevolence, destroys her carefully constructed
image with a baroque scheme involving his own suicide; defamatory
suicide notes; and a party, thrown by him, of such disgracefully
debauched dimensions that it will irreparably damage his wife’s brand as
movie star.

It’s curious, on the face of it, that Spark chose to dig out a
twenty-five-year-old novel to complement “Curriculum Vitae.” But the two
books have in common women staking a claim in a pre-feminist workplace,
and the sexual and reputational precariousness of their situation, which
Spark no doubt understood was unending. A woman is never out of the
woods.

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