Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark

Since this month marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, we were keen to investigate whether the famed author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turned to another female writer for support. We instinctively felt that she might have found something in common with fellow grande dame of post-war British literature, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.

A recent memoir by a male friend of Spark confirmed our hunch, but mentioned the friendship only in passing. Other biographies miss out the relationship altogether. Turning instead to the words of Lessing and Spark themselves, we were delighted to find that they mention each other in print. What’s more, we discovered a cache of their unpublished correspondence. The Doris Lessing collection is held in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, and a letter and telegram to her friend are currently on show at the National Library of Scotland, home to the Muriel Spark Archive.

Both diminutive women with immense intellects, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark seem destined to have crossed paths. Born just a year apart into a world ravaged by the First World War, they would each grow into outspoken women who dared to question convention.

Such a destiny could hardly have been predicted when, at nineteen, both girls married older men and immediately fell pregnant. However, while each of these young wives cradled their new-borns with one arm, they attempted to write with the other. Lessing – who grew up in Southern Africa – had already published stories in local magazines, and Edinburgh-born Spark was now winning local prizes for poetry. During this period, unbeknown to each other, these two future literary stars were both living in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

Muriel Spark in 1940. Photo by G H Addecott. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Looking back on this time, they’d each feel that their lives would have been easier if they had met during these inter-war years. The newly married Spark had felt horrified by the casual racism she encountered in Southern Africa, and her husband proved an unstable, violent man, prone to shooting his revolver indoors. The Second World War had broken out by this stage, trapping a frightened, lonely Spark thousands of miles from her Scottish home. ‘How I would have loved to have someone like Doris to talk to’, she later recalled.

By the early 1940s, Lessing, too, had begun to feel disturbed by Rhodesia’s race relations, and disappointed by her marriage. She threw herself into literature and politics, joining a communist book club, ordering novels from London and getting her hands on New Writing magazine, which championed working-class writers alongside their middle-class contemporaries. When Lessing later discovered that Spark had also treasured this wartime publication, she found herself wishing she had known of this other female writer on her doorstep. Long conversations about their shared reading, she felt, could have offered much solace during that difficult time.

But their paths were not fated to cross until they had divorced their husbands and relocated to London. Each woman would remain forever dogged by her choice to forge a new life for herself: Lessing had left her two eldest children with their father in Southern Africa, and Spark had placed her son in a Rhodesian boarding school for a year before he was brought to Scotland to be raised by her parents.

Doris Lessing with her cat, Black Madonna. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

These women, who had so much in common, finally met in the mid-1950s. But, by then, Lessing was known as the celebrated author of The Grass is Singing, which had come out when she was in her early thirties, whereas Spark was a few years off publishing her first novel at the age of thirty-nine. Describing their early years of friendship in an essay, Lessing – who had been part of a cash-strapped crowd of bohemians and communists – recalled her surprise at her new friend’s traditional furniture and tasteful clothes.

Their unpublished correspondence reveals, however, that their similarities far outweighed their differences. During their enduring friendship, the pair reminisced about Rhodesia; celebrated literary successes and commiserated about professional frustrations; and shared the glare of the media spotlight – trained so often throughout their long years of fame on their controversial decisions to leave the upbringing of their children to other relatives.

The surface-level differences in their novels – Spark’s much-praised acerbic wit versus Lessing’s radical politics – bely deeper similarities. Like that of their mutual friend Iris Murdoch, both women’s work was shaped by an interest in philosophy and religion – subjects they discussed. While Spark credited her development as a novelist to her conversion in 1954 to Roman Catholicism, Lessing turned her back on communism and in the mid-1960s immersed herself in Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam. Yet they both remained anti-establishment at heart – two fiercely forthright authors who dared to point out hypocrisy and absurdity whenever and wherever they found it.

We are looking forward to the UK paperback publication on March 1st  of our co-written book, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, which is available for pre-order now.      

 

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