- Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, and: Virginia Woolf and London: The Sexual Politics of the City, and: Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
Alan Bold's Muriel Spark includes nine essays that range from quite good to very good, indeed. Perhaps, though, I should change that number to ten and count Bold's own enlightening Introduction, which elaborates on what he means by Spark's "odd capacity for vision" in fiction. He is particularly good at describing the operation of the "poetic muse" in Spark's fiction. Bold's own view of Spark's poetic aesthetic is a favorable one, not so the view in one of his inclusions, Walter Perrie's "Mrs. Spark's Verse." The word verse in the title ought to tip the wary reader to Perrie's stance: he explodes Spark's reputation. For Perrie, "The unfortunate truth seems to be that Mrs. Spark has no clear idea of what she is about and shifts her ground in relation to the promptings of her interlocutors. What she has created is a jungle of aesthetic and philosophical incoherence." Perrie constructs a tight and formidable argument against Spark's "extreme form of epistemological scepticism" and judges her fiction severely limited by that position.
Between the intriguing aesthetic extremes of Bold and Perrie are less engaging but helpful background essays by contributors such as Alan Massie ("Calvinism and Catholicism in Muriel Spark"), Trevor Royle ("Spark and Scotland"), and Tom Hubbard whose "The Liberated Instant: Muriel Spark and the Short Story" gives serious attention to Spark's considerable work in that genre.
But I would like to close this review with a nod to the two best essays in the collection: Valerie Shaw's "Fun and Games with Life-Stories" and Faith Pullin's "Autonomy and Fabulation in the Fiction of Muriel Spark." Shaw makes effective use of Spark's poetry as the basis for her discussion of the "vistas and corners of Kensington" in the later fiction, particularly in Loitering with Intent. Loitering also plays a large part in Pullin's marvelous essay, sharing center stage with The Public Image and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Pullin's primary concern is with the way in which Spark's typical heroines achieve autonomy as authors of their own fates; my only objection to her essay is that it is not longer.
In some ways, I wish Susan Merrill Squier's Virginia Woolf and London had been shorter. The second chapter, "Talland House and Hyde Park Gate," is overdrawn; the reader would have been better served by simply being directed to Woolf's wonderful "A Sketch of the Past." Chapter Five, "The Carnival and Funeral of Mrs. Dalloway's London," also seems overdone, adding little in new insight into that overly scrutinized novel.
What is left of Squier's study, though, makes a worthwhile contribution to Woolf scholarship. Indeed, Squier offers a detailed and convincing answer to Woolf's own question: "Why do I dramatise London perpetually?" That answer involves charting the ways in which "Woolf's dual literary strategies, the acts of assimilation and revision" politicize the cityscape. Particularly effective in Squier's argument is her analysis of an essay series that Woolf contributed to Good Housekeeping in 1931-32 and her careful explications of city imagery in Night and Day, Flush, and The Years. Squier's close readings offer extensive evidence that Woolf's subtle yet radical "reshaping of the city's meaning—both as an actual place and as a [End Page 815] literary image—was central to her development as an artist." Squier's study has an added plus: the book itself is a beautiful object with paper, typeset, and binding that delight.
Place also centers Victoria Glendinning's Vita. Three country estates—Knole, Long Barn...