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Muriel Spark burns bright on Burns Night

Professor Willy Maley outlines how Muriel Spark was influenced by Robert Burns. Originally published Tuesday 23 January 2018

The great men of Scottish literature have had their suppers, their statues, and their scholarly societies. Only now are we beginning to see a similar appreciation of the great women of Scottish literature, and surely there can be none more deserving than Muriel Spark. In the year of Spark’s centenary it is vital she gets the attention she deserves.

But few, if any, Scottish women writers achieved the level of acclaim of their male counterparts during Spark’s early life, so it is not surprising that her main influences from her native land were men, not women, of letters, specifically men such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. She won a school poetry competition in 1932 to mark the centenary year of Sir Walter Scott, and in 1934 claimed first place in both the Scott and Burns Club prizes.

It is curious, though, that the impact of Scottish literature on Spark’s writing has been generally underplayed. Martin Stannard, Spark’s biographer, is rather dismissive of her native influences, implying that she grew out of them. Of her early successes in winning prizes commemorating Burns and Scott, Stannard remarks: “But it was all very ‘Scottish”. At sixteen she was already sensing the limitations of her horizons”. Robert Burns is only briefly mentioned in Stannard’s book, and doesn’t even merit a mention in the index.

Alan Taylor, in his recent memoir of Spark, comments: “For Muriel […] Scotland was too small, too inward-looking, too mindful of other people’s business, too mean-spirited, too unreceptive to the wider world”. But these are his words, not Spark’s. Spark felt that Scottish literature needed to be fully respected in its own right, as is clear when Taylor cites Spark’s own words: “I always welcome any tendency to make Scottish writing realise its own identity. It is at present generally judged by Home Counties’ standards – a ‘regional’ offshoot”. She is fully aware that Scottish writing has a strong identity, but it suffers from being demeaned by those who patronise it.

Spark was shaped by a Scottish poetic tradition that informed her work at the deepest level. In her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992), she remarks: “I was reading the Border ballads so repetitively and attentively that I memorized many of them without my noticing it. The steel and bite of the ballads, so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart”. So much so, that she always said she thought of herself as a poet, long after she became a highly successful novelist.

References to the ballads feature in Spark’s fiction in a variety of ways, from the title of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) to allusions scattered throughout Symposium (1990). In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), it seems that the biography of Burns has been raided for the character of Miss Brodie’s “felled fiancé” – “He was poor. He came from Ayrshire, a countryman, but a hard-working and clever scholar”. Brodie later quotes from “My Nanie’s Awa”: “Come autumn sae pensive, in yellow and gray, And soothe me wi’ tidings o’ nature’s decay”. Another novel, Territorial Rights(1979), features a character’s memories of an Ayrshire grandmother singing Burns’ songs like “There’s a Youth in This City” and “The Highland Lassie” which provide a refrain for the action and art of the novel as a whole. And in Loitering with Intent (1981) Fleur Talbot stands in the street in the wee small hours singing “Auld Lang Syne” in order to wake her friend Dottie.

Spark understood the distinction between poetry and song in terms of social impact and communal performance: “Like Sir Walter Scott after him, Burns collected old Scottish airs to which he set his verses, preserving a vocal cottage cultural tradition. One realises on hearing these songs, the difference between the merely adequate poetry of the printed versions and their loveliness when set to their music”. She might seem here to be dismissing the quality of the written verses, but she is observing that Burns had an understanding of how simple lyrics worked better when set to music, so he adjusted his verses to suit.

Spark’s absorption of Burns’ work meant that she could detect his influence in writers she admired. Spark saw in Emily Brontë another “example of genius flourishing in isolation”, and she discerned Burns’ influence in Brontë in a manner quite distinct from slavish homage: “Like Burns […] she is a poet in whom the tradition is manifest in an invincible, because in so effortless, a way”. Burns entered Brontë’s bloodstream, just as he would later enter Spark’s.

In her biographical studies of other writers, Spark habitually attributed to them imaginative characteristics that applied to her own sense of herself as an artist. Being able to admire Burns and draw inspiration from him without trying to write like him was part of her art too. Her own work was marked by Burns in ways that are seldom fully appreciated, and not simply in terms of versification and language, but in her embracing of his character, his dislike of snobbery and the “unco’ guid”, her commitment to representing class inequality and the underdog.

Writing on the bicentenary of Burns’ death, Spark observed: “You can admire Robert Burns or not as a poet, but there is really something compelling about his life”. Spark was no prude, and she had a fascination not simply for the social but also the more earthy aspects of his life: “Burns adored women. Whenever he had sex, which was often, he wrote a song about it. There was a touch of the rooster about him”. Her choice of language suggests admiration, and she paints a rosy picture of his roistering: “Burns made love all his adult life, joyfully, and all over the place. Any woman whom he slept with was in his eyes a jewel, a beauty”. She characterises Burns in a sympathetic manner, devoid of moral judgment: “He fornicated freely all his life, never failing in tender feelings towards the resultant pregnant girls and illegitimate children”. And she observes that, unusually for the time, “Some of his most successful love songs present the girl’s point of view”. For example, citing the bawdy verse “Wha’ll mow me now”, she comments drily: “If this is difficult to decipher, a little imagination will serve the purpose”.

There is clearly a Scottish no-nonsense “steel and bite” in Spark’s writing that arises from her profound engagement with the ballads and bards of her youth, a spirit that stayed with her throughout her long – and in terms of legacy – ongoing prime. For that reason, on Burns night I propose a toast to a lassie who shared what she celebrated as “Burns’ free, anarchical soul”.

Tae Muriel!