It is an inspired reprint, although what cannot be replicated is the surprise element that came with Muriel Spark’s choice of subject. Sixty years ago, Mary Shelley had scant reputation and was regarded as little more than a famous poet’s wife. Spark boldly reclaimed her, asserting her role in the marriage to Shelley, affirming the power of her surrealist imagination. It was an act of writerly revisionism that is scarcely possible today, when almost every subject under the sun has been “done”, and to near-death, if they are a member of the Bloomsbury Group.
Similarly, “I dearly love a turn of events”, says the narrator of the 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, when she is confronted with evidence of her lover’s infidelity, and for some reason the deployment of such a phrase fills the reader with joy.
Language used in this way is the outward sign of an illuminating sanity, and this is the quality that draws me repeatedly back to Muriel Spark. For all that she was a practising Catholic, a writer who perceived the metaphysical in earthbound realities, something in her remains fundamentally “practical, staunch, rational and broad-minded”: the words that she used to describe Mary Shelley.
For instance, in the last lines of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), she describes “the Rye for an instant looking like a cloud of green and gold, the people seeming to ride upon it, as you might say there was another world than this”. The infinity of imagination is rendered with a kind of shrewd economy, as only Muriel Spark can do. This blend, or paradox, is enigmatic in the extreme.
At the same time it is reassuring, and somehow liberating. Even when one is not entirely sure what Spark is saying, one always has the sense that she knows exactly what she means, and that she doesn’t much mind if other people do not. The care with which she uses words is matched by a gloriously carefree attitude. It is all part of her sanity, her breezy authorial self-confidence; and because of this I think that reading a blast of her prose every morning is a far more restorative way to start a day than a shot of espresso.
“He gave me a number and I repeated it slowly enough to make out that I was writing it down, which I wasn’t”, from A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), has done me no end of good on a couple of occasions.
There is, of course, a great deal more toMuriel Spark than this. Her ideas are at least as profound as those that she responded to in Frankenstein. But the way in which her complexity is exquisitely blown through, with the airiest of prose, means that Mary Shelley is readable in a way that its subject is not.
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"I have always disliked the sort of biography which states 'X lay on the bed and watched the candle flickering on the roof beams' when there is no evidence X did so," states Muriel Spark in the introduction to her study of Mary Shelley, originally published in 1951 and reissued here in a revised version. Needing no such cheap tricks to plunge the reader into Shelley's overheated world, Spark treats her life and work separately. Sensible and clear-sighted, Spark is a quiet defender of the writer, whether picking apart the emotional and social pressures that weighed on her or taking elegant umbrage at Herbert Read's assault on Shelley's editing of her husband's poems. The book is wreathed with intrigue – "natural" children, simmering erotic tension, not to mention the story of Mary Diana Dods, who turned herself into Walter Sholto Douglas and ran off to France with Shelley's friend Isabel Robinson – yet Spark is never distracted from Shelley or the quest to show her as "the equal of, yet different from, the male of her times."