Edinburgh International Book Festival: Muriel Spark, 50 years on

Review by Dima Alzayat | 16 Aug 2013
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A mostly silver-haired audience was in attendance at the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre on Tuesday evening for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Muriel Spark’s novella The Girls of Slender Means. Alan Taylor, Associate Editor of the Sunday Herald and Editor of the Scottish Review of Books, opened the event to a few laughs when he said, ‘I’m terribly sorry Muriel Spark can’t be here herself.’

Following a spirited reading from the novella by actress Maureen Beattie, Taylor led authors Candia McWilliam, Zoe Strachan and Toby Litt in a lively discussion of the book and its author.

Published in 1963, The Girls of Slender Means follows the escapades of a group of young women living in an Edwardian mansion-turned-hostel in London at the close of the Second World War. The book deals heavily with postwar hopes, attitudes towards women, sex and money, and is considered to be a sequel of sorts to Spark’s better known novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Taylor gave a brief summary of Spark’s biography. Born in Edinburgh and educated at the James Gillespie High School for Girls, marriage took Spark to South Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) where she stayed until the end of the war. Following her divorce, she made her way back to Britain and settled in London. According to Taylor, Spark found that Edinburgh had ‘sucked her dry’ and needed a new environment to spur her creativity.

The panel spoke at some length of the poetic virtues of Spark’s prose. Spark’s writing is renowned for its control of rhythm and cadence as well as her use of ritual and motif. ‘Every sentence is a poem,’ McWilliam said. McWilliam wore shiny studded jewelry to the event and pointed out that she had done so in honour of Spark, who was known to purchase a fine piece of jewelry each time she finished a book.

The Girls of Slender Means, like Spark’s other fiction works, is written in the third person and manipulates authorial presence with its use of omniscient third person that is both unreliable and ambiguous at each turn. The panel discussed the various layers of meaning present in the novel and how they have contributed to its timelessness. ‘Even the title is ambiguous,’ said McWilliam.

The conversation turned to the novel’s themes of power and control and its heavy dealings of sex and money. The novel, Strachan said, reveals human propensity for savagery and demonstrates how ‘all of us can lose our humanity.’

The discussion took a lighter turn when Taylor noted Spark’s interest in fashion and fondness of designer labels and drew big laughs from the crowd when he recalled Spark’s donation of designer dresses to a nunnery. He then recounted how this led to Spark’s pet dogs jumping on the nuns if they crossed paths while being walked because they would sense their owner’s dresses beneath the nun’s habits.

The evening’s atmosphere was one of friends gathering to commemorate the life and work of Muriel Spark and the audience enjoyed the personal anecdotes and insights that come with being privy to such an occasion. 


Alan Taylor, Candia McWilliam, Toby Litt, Zoe Strachan, and Maureen Beattie appeared at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/muriel-spark-50-years-on