A lifelong friendship and proof that blood isn’t always thicker than water

By Nina Steele 

Penelope Jardine was 36 when she met acclaimed Scottish novelist Muriel Spark. The year was 1968. Muriel Spark had just relocated from New York City where she lived for a few years, to Rome. At first, Penelope Jardine worked as Muriel Spark’s secretary. Their working relationship turned into a deep friendship when Muriel Spark moved in with Jardine around 1975.

Their home was a converted church, in the Tuscan countryside. As Muriel Spark was estranged from her only son and had no known romantic partner, Penelope Jardine’s friendship was everything she had in terms of close human contact. Penelope Jardine herself never married nor had any children, and so Muriel Spark was also the most important person in her life.

I found their friendship fascinating not only because it lasted as long as it did, but also because of what Muriel Spark’s estrangement from her son would mean for Penelope Jardine financially, later on. Indeed, Muriel Spark’s relationship with her only son broke down so spectacularly that she cut him out of her will and left her entire estate to Penelope Jardine upon her death, in 2006, aged 88.

While she was alive, not only did Muriel Spark remain estranged from her son for most of her life, their mutual dislike for one another played itself out regularly in the media. Each side accusing the other of being the cause of the estrangement. That he was cut out of his mother’s will did not seem to bother her son at all. In fact, it is claimed that she did so, because he rejected several attempts she made to help him, including returning a cheque she sent him.

One would have thought that death would bring closure to their feuding, but it didn’t. Robin Spark, Muriel’s son, did not attend his mother’s funeral. He himself passed away in 2016, aged 78. As for Penelope Jardine, even though she is not related to Muriel Spark by blood, she will go down in history as the only person who can claim to have truly known her.

Inevitably, the women’s closeness set tongues wagging, with many arguing that there was more to their relationship than just friendship. In a recent BBC documentary celebrating Muriel Spark’s life, to coincide with what would have been her 100th birthday, Kirsty Wark went to interview Penelope Jardine in Italy. During the interview, she asked about those rumours. Penelope Jardine denied them. Theirs was just a deep friendship, and nothing else. Unless the doubters can prove otherwise, I don’t see why we should not believe her.

Photograph: Nick Cornish

Muriel Spark and Penelope Jardine

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