Sunday, April 25, 2010

Muriel Spark. Let's not kid ourselves.

The New York Times Book Review this morning featured a review of the new biography of Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard. The review is written by Charles McGrath, the former editor of the Book Review. McGrath strikes me as a very straight man.  The kind of man who makes the following assessment: Two sophisticated women who live together and share a life for 30 years are probably not lesbians. "The arrangement sounds pretty sexless," McGrath wrote, asking us to believe his assessment of the nature of a decades-long relationship between two women.

Spark, the creator of Miss Jean Brodie (a character who notoriously enjoyed sex), was rumored to be a lesbian even back in her New York days in the late 1950s when she had a particularly intense relationship with Rachel MacKenzie, her editor at The New Yorker. Spark always "laughingly denied" the rumors of her lesbianism, according to McGrath. But let's not kid ourselves. Muriel Spark was a complicated person, not a sweet old lady who never had sex. She shared her life with Penelope Jardine, an artist she met in Italy, and to whom Spark left her entire estate. Now, it is possible Spark and Jardine experienced "lesbian bed death," the tragic condition that strikes some of our sisters. But that's not in a million years what McGrath was suggesting. And even if it were, suffering from lesbian bed death would not disqualify Spark as a lesbian.

Let's make our own assessment. Spark was a convert to Roman Catholicism who no doubt felt deeply conflicted about her gay-abhorring and perfection-seeking religion in the face of her imperfect human behavior—which included her lifelong estrangement from her son (in her will, she made a point of leaving him nothing). Spark also suffered from "lesbian panic," according to some literary scholars, including Patricia Juliana Smith. In Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction (Columbia University Press), Smith defines "lesbian panic" as: "quite simply, the disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character—or, conceivably, an author—is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire." That sounds about right.

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