In Appointment in Arezzo, Scottish journalist Alan Taylor writes about his friendship with Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, during the last decade and a half of her life. Taylor first met Spark in 1990, when he interviewed her in Arezzo, a city near her home in rural Tuscany. The two of them got along well as soon as they met, and soon afterwards Spark invited Taylor, his wife, and their two children to house-sit for her and her longtime companion Penelope Jardine while they traveled to escape the fierce heat of the Italian summer. Taylor includes beautiful descriptions of Spark’s house, which was called San Giovanni, and the countryside around it. Eventually, Taylor started accompanying Spark on her travels, including a trip to New York to celebrate an important anniversary for the New Yorker magazine, where much of Spark’s early work was published, and a visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where, towards the end of her life, Spark gave a reading to a sold-out audience.
This is not a biography of Spark, but a memoir of Taylor’s friendship with her. You do learn many details of her life, though, and Taylor gives the reader an excellent sense of her personality as well as her writing routine. He discusses her complex relationship with her native Scotland. She came to appreciate Scotland only when she was no longer living there. Taylor writes of Spark’s early, and brief, marriage to an abusive husband and her estrangement from her only son, Robin. In a fascinating, and very sad, chapter, he writes of how the hostility between Spark and her son came about. For inexplicable reasons, Spark’s husband was given custody of Robin after their divorce, so he and Spark never knew each other well. Then, late in Spark’s life, Robin, who became Orthodox Jewish, insisted that Spark’s maternal grandmother was Jewish, when in fact she was not. Spark’s father was Jewish, but not her mother. This mattered very much to Robin, because Jewishness is inherited from the mother, not the father. Their correspondence on the subject grew increasingly contentious and led to a complete rupture between them. In the end, Spark left her estate to her companion Penelope Jardine, and not to Robin. Taylor also explores Spark’s relationship with Jardine. They met at a hairdresser’s salon in Rome, and Jardine became a secretary to Spark. Taylor says that, despite rumors to the contrary, they were not lesbian lovers, but very close friends.
This book will delight anyone who enjoys Spark’s writing, or even people who have just read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or seen the movie. We learn that Miss Brodie was inspired by an actual teacher that Spark had at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and that the school in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was closely modeled after the school Spark attended. Also, if you love Italy, you will enjoy this book because of Taylor’s wonderful descriptions of the Italian countryside. For a biography of Spark, there are other choices, even though, from what Taylor says, readers might want to avoid the “official” biography by Martin Stannard. Spark came to regret giving Stannard access to her papers, and she said she did not recognize the person Stannard wrote about in his book. Taylor’s book is, above all, a story of a longtime friendship, and I highly recommend it.
Appointment in Arezzo is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.