THE young Sandy, though still a schoolgirl, tackles without qualms some of the deepest problems in western culture. This is precisely what she is encouraged to do by her teacher, Miss Jean Brodie.

In Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy is presented with one of those difficult problems, which is also a problem for the whole of Scotland.

We are talking about the thought of John Calvin: “Although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.”

The novel was published in 1961, at a time when models for its hero might possibly still have been found in the capital’s posher suburbs, though now getting towards the end of their days. The author, born Muriel Camberg, was the daughter of Bernard Camberg, a Jewish engineer and the son of Lithuanian immigrant parents. Her mother was English.

All lived in Edinburgh. The Cambergs had their daughter educated at James Gillespie’s School for Girls. Today, even in its imposing classrooms near the Meadows, we would struggle to find a latter-day Miss Jean Brodie.

Yet the type is instantly recognisable to anybody who knows the capital, especially on the distaff side. The book has bequeathed to us an example of Edinburgh’s womanhood that still rings true.

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Spark always described herself as “Scottish by formation”, although she seemed in later life to want little to do with the country of her birth – just as it seemed to want even less to do with her.

While nobody doubted her abilities, the charge was also heard that in her later career she did not serve Scotland with them – did not, in other words, write more Scottish novels. That is, by a common convention, what Scottish novelists do. If not, they are failing in their duty, which makes them worse human beings and probably worse writers.

The taunt never bothered Spark, who died in 2006. She went on to write many novels which, though rich in their range of reference, did not mention Scotland. Insistent Scottish readers could only read about Miss Jean Brodie yet again, and regret what might have been. Why?

Alan Taylor, in his recent memoir of Spark, comments: “For Muriel ... Scotland was too small. Too inward-looking. Too mindful of other people’s business, too mean-spirited, too unreceptive to the wider world.”

To put it another way, Spark wrote from experience, and if we think about that we realise she did not as a matter of fact have much Scottish experience. She left Gillespie’s in 1935 and in 1937 she became engaged to Sydney Spark, a teacher 13 years her senior. She followed him out to the educational system of Southern Rhodesia and they married on September 3, 1937, in Salisbury. They had a son in 1938.

Within months, Muriel discovered her husband was what we would now call bipolar and prone to violent outbursts. She left him in 1940 and returned to Britain in 1944.

She moved in literary circles, for instance, as editor of the Poetry Review. She went to New York in 1965 and in 1968 to Italy, where she remained for the rest of her life.

She had published her first novel in 1957, and four years later the creation of Miss Jean Brodie established her reputation. Its content was clearly Scottish, yet it was not meant to attach her to a Scottish school of literature, as many writers seek today.

She did feel her nation’s literature needed to be fully respected in its own right: “I always welcome any tendency to make Scottish writing realise its own identity. It is at present generally judged by Home Counties’ standards – a regional offshoot.”

Spark had told Taylor of her awareness that Scottish writing has a strong identity but she thought it suffered from being demeaned by those who patronise it.

In any case, she thought she personally had been shaped by a Scottish poetic tradition that informed her work at the deepest level. She remarked: “I was reading the Border ballads so repetitively and attentively that I memorised many of them without my noticing it.

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The steel and bite of the ballads, so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart.”

She always said she thought of herself as a poet, long after she became a successful novelist.

In biographical studies of other writers, Spark habitually attributed to them imaginative characteristics that applied to her own sense of herself as an artist. Being able to admire Robert Burns and draw inspiration from him without trying to write like him was part of her art, too.

Spark did not grow up to be a prude, and had a fascination not simply for the social but also the earthy aspects of Burns’s life: “Burns adored women. Whenever he had sex, which was often, he wrote a song about it. There was a touch of the rooster about him”.

She painted a rosy picture of his roistering: “Burns made love all his adult life, joyfully, and all over the place. Any woman whom he slept with was in his eyes a jewel, a beauty.”

When we think about Spark and Scotland, we should clearly go further than her avoidance of glottal stops in dialogue.