Bloggers may have noticed that Simon and Harriet are organising Muriel Spark week, and I will certainly be joining in. Spark is another of those sharp and economical writers that I appreciate. Although a few years ago, I became interested in her for a different reason entirely, as a woman artist who had abandoned her child for the sake of her work.
She was by no means the only one to do such a thing. Doris Lessing left two children behind her, Colette sent her only daughter to the Normandy coast in the company of a harsh and loveless nanny (of whom she approved: Colette was strong on discipline for children), visiting her once every six months or so. Rebecca West was a half-hearted single mother at best, and Martha Gellhorn was a cold, critical mother who stashed her son in a boarding school, ashamed that he was weakly.
In our era of excessive attachment parenting, such behaviour cries out for harsh judgement. But times have changed significantly. Women are permitted careers nowadays, even if they have to be geniuses of organisation and energy to manage them alongside the demands of motherhood. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, it was hard for a woman to work for a living, and art was understood as requiring a passionate commitment. Furthermore, it was natural for parents of a certain class to send children to boarding school or to leave them with servants or extended family. But the situation was one that provoked my curiosity, because of the desperation and the determination it implied, the willingness of the mother concerned to fly in the face of cultural approbation.
Muriel Spark was hopeless at choosing men, and her first husband, Sidney ‘Ossie’ Spark (she called him SOS) was particularly appalling. They married in haste then set sail for Africa, where he had a teaching job; the marriage was soon in trouble, and when she became pregnant, he begged her to consider an abortion. A son, Robin, was born, but Sidney Spark suffered from mental illness and became violent. Muriel Spark left him and took the child too. She didn’t last long as a single parent. It was the middle of the war and she was desperate to return to England for a career, so she handed her four-year-old son over to some nuns and booked a passage on a warship. A year later, her estranged husband arrived in England with the child, but Spark was in no position, and indeed, no mood, to care for him. She gave him to her parents in Scotland to bring up, whilst she settled herself in London. The rift between the two of them never healed. In fact, after a visit to Scotland, in which she deplored her mother’s drinking, the cold, dirty house and her now grown-up son’s easy belief that she would fund him indefinitely, she moved to America and refused to give her relatives her new address.
I don’t think there is any way we can honestly rehabilitate Muriel Spark as a good mother. She wasn’t; and the way she lived her life, falling out with pretty much anyone and everyone she knew well, shows that she was an awkward, hostile sort of person. But in this arena, women are always judged far more harshly than men. It’s tempting to see Muriel Spark as the villain of this piece, and dismiss her sick, violent husband as if he had no significant responsibility in the matter.
But there are other truths beyond those of personality. There have never been many viable alternatives to a mother who would rather not bring up her child herself. It is extremely difficult for a woman who would be an artist to find the necessary mental and emotional space to create when children are small (Doris Lessing wrote ‘There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very young child’). And what we would countenance in a father, even to the point of admiration – a wholehearted devotion to his work – we condemn in a mother as inexcusable selfishness. Motherhood is the cherished ideal that feminism forgot. No ideological force has yet succeeded in loosening the chains that bind mother to child, or in offering alternative circumstances for child development that are accepted as equally good.
We allow mothers to be artists on the understanding that they will be marvellous, and simply exhaust their own inner resources by working late at night or in brief, interrupted sessions, reverting to their maternal devotions without resentment or regret. Is this fair? Is it even realistic? And what about women like Muriel Spark or Colette or Doris Lessing, who proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were nightmarish mothers, and whose children probably were better off without them. Can we hear their stories and believe their choices were good ones? It is a fascinating issue because we hit such an impasse. Ideals rub up against uncomfortable reality. Must there be no alternative for mothers other than to put their creativity on ice until their children have grown?