Muriel Spark’s recently published essays, collected in a volume entitled The Golden Fleece, is a book that will delight fans of her fiction. Reading it one is aware of Spark’s wit, her intelligence, perceptive eye for detail and her retentive ear for other writers’ prose style. She was a convert and in the section, “Religion, politics and philosophy”, I learnt of her love for Newman’s writings. In an essay, “The Sermons of Newman” (written in 1964), she confesses that for twelve years “when I have felt my mind becoming congested from hearing too many voices, including my own” she had turned to his sermons at Oxford. She finds every Life of the cardinal “irresistible” and discovers something new every time she reads his essays, lectures, sermons and letters.
In the chapter “Autobiography and Travel” she writes that it was her reading “of a great writer, Cardinal John Henry Newman, that first attracted me to the Catholic Church” and that “it seemed the most practical and rational of all religions.” She added the interesting remark that she believed “as Cardinal Newman claimed, that it was impossible to write a novel that does not contain evil if one is writing about human beings and their destiny.” Is it this that gives Catholic novelists their edge, their extra dimension?
At the same time I have also been reading Richard Greene’s biography of the poet Edith Sitwell (1887-1964). It is an insightful and sympathetic study of an eccentric and powerful personality, a woman who wrote some fine poems on the themes of “endurance, flight, compassion, courage” as her biographer puts it, but whose life was also dogged by tragedy and pathos. In part this was caused by what Greene describes as “the desolation of her family life”; she was the only daughter of two supremely self-absorbed people, Sir George Sitwell and his wife Lady Ida, who seemed to have neither understanding nor interest in their gifted oldest child.
Sitwell, like Muriel Spark, was a convert but unlike the latter, whose journey into the Church seems in some ways predictable, given her enquiring mind, love of history and instinct for religious belief, I was not sure how serious Sitwell’s commitment to her new faith was. I tended to see her as a person of histrionic gestures, as a grand dame of writers’ salons and as a fierce guardian of her own literary reputation rather than as someone humbly seeking supernatural certainty. So I put it to Richard Greene: what led her into the Church and had it brought her consolation? He pointed out that as early as 1918 (she actually converted in August 1955) she had expressed a strong interest in the Church and that her close friend Helen Rootham with whom she lived for many years, was a devout Catholic “and a constant influence.”
Greene also told me that Sitwell “was a formalist in poetry and was drawn to Catholic theology of the Eucharist because of its sense of form”. In his book he puts it thus: that Sitwell was moving “towards a sacramental sense of art, believing that the change rendered by craft upon the raw material of life is analogous to the change of bread and wine in the Eucharist.” In other words, Edith’s belief in the creative power of poetry helped to make her receptive to the power of sacramental and supernatural grace.
She was received into the Church by Fr Philip Caraman SJ with Evelyn Waugh serving as a godfather; he described her in a letter to Nancy Mitford as looking on the occasion “like a 16th century infanta.” Greene told me that at the time of her conversion Sitwell was suffering physically and mentally. Her new faith did indeed bring her consolation and that she held on to it “right to the end”. He felt certain that “without Catholicism, her decline would, I suspect, have been swifter and more desolate”.
Greene relates in his biography that Spark and Sitwell met each other on one memorable occasion. Spark recalled it in an essay of 1997 entitled “A Drink with Dame Edith”: it was a summer day in 1957 when she was “summoned to meet Edith Sitwell” at the Sesame Club where “[she] held court”. Spark was smarting from an encounter that morning with a condescending literary agent (Paul Scott, later remembered for The Raj Quartet) and wrote that the poet “brought a new dimension to my day. She was impressively grand…but she had no doubt whatsoever of what the artist in literature was about. High priests and priestesses: that’s what we all were.” Spark described Edith’s “loose dramatic robes, her high Plantagenet headdress, her lovely hands…covered with the most beautiful rings I had ever seen…”
Spark, who was also friends with Fr Caraman, wondered who had “converted” Dame Edith to Catholicism and “chose as a possibility an Italian-looking fellow with intelligent eyes.” She told the poet about being snubbed by the literary agent and Dame Edith advised her to buy a pair of lorgnettes, contrive to meet the man again, “focus the glasses on him and sit looking at him through them as if he was an insect. Just look and look.” Then, demonstrating dramatically with her own lorgnettes, she showed the younger author “how it was done”.
Clearly, becoming a Catholic two years earlier had not (yet) removed one of Dame Edith’s very human and endearing flaws – her hauteur; she did not suffer critics lightly. Spark’s is a highly amusing essay, evoking the aura surrounding the poet, the atmosphere of the Sesame Club – and the balance of fun and gravity in Spark’s own writing.