- Muriel Spark and the Meaning of Treason
The whine in her voice—“. . .betrayed me, betrayed me”— bored and afflicted Sandy. It is seven years, thought Sandy, since I betrayed this tiresome woman. What does she mean by “betray”?—Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
What are we talking about when we speak of betrayal?—Gabriella Turnaturi, Betrayals
“If you did not betray us it is impossible that you could have been betrayed by us,” Sandy Stranger tells her former teacher in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due” (135–36). One of Miss Brodie’s “set” and an ally in the running battle with the traditionalism of Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls, Sandy Stranger has betrayed her mentor by bringing Miss Brodie’s fascist allegiances to the attention of the headmistress, Miss Mackay. Sandy’s act of treason repays the betrayed in her own currency: Miss Brodie has betrayed the stolidly conservative school of which she is a part and Sandy has betrayed Miss Brodie; in both cases the reader is meant to concede Sandy’s point about the limits of due loyalty. What this essay sets out to do is, first, to suggest that this question of what makes calculated treachery legitimate, a question most explicitly asked in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is the central problem addressed in the first half of Spark’s career, and, second, to argue that the recurrent idea of treason in her novels [End Page 505] offers a way of understanding in both historical and literary-historical terms a writer more usually read in relation to theological than historical inquiries.
The Midcentury Context
Spark shared her preoccupation with disloyalty with another famous midcentury woman writer, Rebecca West, whose studies of Second World War and Cold War traitors, The Meaning of Treason and The New Meaning of Treason (1964), give my essay its title and its guiding assumption that to think about treason is to think less about a moral problem than about the ways in which moral problems acquire their contingently cultural and historical significance: what, after all, does treason mean, and how does it accrue new meanings? Long understood in relation to theological and ethical preoccupations identified with her well-known conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954 and now increasingly theorized in more secular terms, Spark’s writing is seldom read historically and contextually, almost certainly because her narrative experiments seem to operate almost exclusively in the conceptual space where the more abstract preoccupations of Roman Catholic theology overlap with the metafictional and fabulist concerns of postmodernism. Spark’s focus on essentially ontological rather than cultural questions—and the ontological is where religious inquiry and self-conscious textuality meet in her work—makes her writing resistant to being read in relation to those questions of cultural reference more usually identified in Spark’s own time with the turn, after modernism, toward realist forms of fiction.
By this I mean that midcentury British fiction famously demonstrates a sense of division over the formal futures of the novel: the terms by which the era would largely be defined were set by Spark’s more earth-bound contemporaries, writers such as the polemically realist C. P. Snow, John Cowper Powys, and the so-called Angry Young Men, all intent on restoring fiction to a condition of panoramic social documentary that obtained (at least for their polemical purposes) before the generation of Joyce and Woolf transformed the novel as a form. However, this was also the era of the domestic nouveaux romanciers B. S. Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose, keen to extend modernist and modernizing aspirations into the second half of the century. Seen in relation to these starkly divided possibilities, Spark, along with contemporaries like Henry Green and Iris Murdoch, is an amphibious figure. “They say postmodernist, mostly,” Spark told Martin McQuillan in a 1998 interview, “whatever that means” (“The Same” 216); at the same time as Spark acknowledges how poorly she corresponds to the norms of midcentury realism, she slyly registers [End Page 506] her own unease with the dominant alternative of postmodernism—a critical...