Muriel Spark and the Ethics of Deception: a didactic approach to black propaganda

Beatriz Lopez finds traces of wartime moral dilemmas in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Following the closure of the PWE radio station Soldatensender in April 1945, Director of Special Operations Sefton Delmer retreated to his bathroom and performed a purification ritual to mark the end of black propaganda:

I removed my beard. […] After my razor shaved the soap sodden whiskers from my face I gazed into the mirror with all the horror of Dorian Grey [sic], confronting his tell-tale portrait. There, staring at me, was the pallid, flabby-mouthed face of a crook. Was this, I asked myself, what four years of ‘black’ had done to Denis Sefton Delmer?[1]

Despite his jocose and unsentimental tone when recollecting the harmful pranks played on enemy civilians as part of PWE campaigns, Delmer’s perceived resemblance to the depraved literary character Dorian Gray points to the existence of moral qualms about the nature of his wartime work. By contrast Spark’s account of her ‘wonderfully interesting’[2] intelligence role at the PWE does not present any pangs of conscience. While she notes that ‘[t]he methods of Delmer’s M.B unit horrified a few cabinet ministers’ – possibly referring to Stafford Cripps’s criticism of the occasional use of pornography in PWE propaganda to Germany – Spark acknowledges that her boss was the subject of much admiration (including her own).[3]

The question of whether the PWE’s ethically dubious methods were morally justified was the subject of much debate within the organization, as archival documents demonstrate. In a 1943 PWE lecture entitled ‘Political Warfare’, Col. Sedgwick adopts consequentialism – the belief that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be determined by its intended consequences – in order to morally justify the use of black propaganda:

[A]s far as covert propaganda is concerned I will venture the purely personal opinion that it would be absurd to be squeamish. If by hitting the Germans below the belt we can shorten the war, and perhaps save a million lives I hope we shall be prepared to hit them below the belt every time…[4]

However, not all propagandists were of the same mind. In a 1962 review of Delmer’s Black Boomerang, Richard Crossman described black propaganda as ‘nihilistic in purpose and solely destructive in effect’ and expressed serious misgivings regarding ‘whether this decision to plunge far below the Nazis’ own level of lying, half-lying and news perversion was justified’.[5] This remark stems from Crossman’s belief that black propaganda was of little use when compared with the merits of BBC white propaganda.

Even among those who appreciated its value, there were still disagreements regarding the use of ‘the moral approach’ in PWE broadcasts. Noel Newsome, BBC Director of European Broadcasting, reacted against ‘those of our propagandists who urge us to […] eschew history, philosophy and religion in our broadcasts’ because ‘any propaganda which is not essentially moral must be colourless and empty’.[6] Others, such as PWE propagandist Robert Walsmley, were reluctant to blend the Allied cause with Christian ethics because they felt it ‘would nauseate listeners with our hypocrisy [and] would only produce the impression that we wanted to appear religious’.[7] Delmer eventually created a religious radio station, ‘Christ the King’, in which ‘Father Andreas’ (a pseudonym of genuine Austrian priest Father Elmar Eisenberger) attacked the anti-Christian values and the moral corruption of the Nazi regime.[8] Such involvement of a Catholic priest in black propaganda appears unconventional given the Christian commitment to natural law, which emphasises the duty of unconditional truthfulness.

Muriel Spark arguably found herself in a similar predicament given the discrepancy between her spiritual commitments, particularly in the light of her later conversion to Catholicism, and the consequentialist nature of PWE work. How did she reconcile the Christian view that ‘there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten’ with the wartime need to weight the morality of actions according to their expected results?[9] And how can we reconcile often-proclaimed British values of freedom and democracy with the morally dubious methods of black propaganda?

Crossman’s 1952 address to the Royal United Service Institution (RUSI) offers an attempt to answer this question. Contrary to the traditional distinction between propaganda and education – ‘propaganda tells people what to think whereas education teaches people how to think’[10] – Crossman argues that successful propaganda exhibits a commitment to education:

The job of propaganda is […] to stimulate in people of the country thought for themselves, to make them begin to be, not cogs in a machine or units of a collective organization, but individuals. Individualism is the first act of disloyalty to a totalitarian government, and every individual who begins to feel he has a right to have a view is already committing an act of disloyalty…[11]

Reflecting on his WWII experience, Crossman suggests that totalitarian propaganda and democratic propaganda have divergent aims. While the former attempts to indoctrinate citizens into a set of beliefs, the latter aims to seep through the cracks of such discourse in order to cultivate doubt. Democratic propaganda may therefore fulfil a didactic role insofar as it is capable of eliciting distrust. Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), a novel deeply concerned with the nature of education, illustrates Crossman’s claim. Through the figure of school pupil Sandy Stranger, Spark allows the reader to partake in the structural movement from unwavering loyalty to outright suspicion of Miss Brodie. Sandy’s initial belief that Miss Brodie’s behaviour was ‘outside the context of right and wrong’ is questioned both by her unapologetic encouragement of a student to fight for Franco and her insistence in involving Rose, one of her students, as a proxy for herself in an affair with the art master.[12]

Moreover, Miss Brodie’s imposition of her imaginary fancies onto the girls backfires when Sandy takes Rose’s place in the affair, thus leading Sandy to question her previously taken-for-granted role as ‘the God of Calvin [who] sees the beginning and the end.’[13] Spark’s novelistic method thus resembles that of PWE propagandists, since her introduction of disruptive events leads Sandy to suspect, and ultimately betray, her teacher on the grounds that she is teaching fascism. In doing so, Sandy escapes the authoritarian influence of Miss Brodie and prompts her teacher’s dismissal from the school, but whether Sandy’s betrayal stems from moral duty or personal self-interest remains unclear.

Sandy later embraces Catholicism, a religion ‘in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie’, and becomes Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.[14] At this stage, Sandy shows an apologetic attitude towards Miss Brodie, who she describes as ‘quite an innocent in her way’, and her own representation as ‘clutching the bars of the grille’ insinuates a certain degree of regret about her less than altruistic betrayal of Miss Brodie.[15] Did Sandy betray Miss Brodie out of moral duty or envy? Spark never goes in for motives, but in exposing a lively and charismatic teacher as a source of evil, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie testifies to Spark’s fascination with the ethics of deception.

Follow Beatriz Lopez at @bealoplop


[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 217-8.

[2] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009; originally published 1992), 147.

[3] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 148.

[4]FO 898/99.

[5] R. H. S. Crossman, ‘Black Prima Donna’ (Review of D. Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang), New Statesman, 9 November 1962, 676–7, 677.

[6] FO 898/181.

[7] FO 898/177.

[8] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang, 121-3. Lee Richards, The Black Art: British Clandestine Psychological Warfare against the Third Reich (Peacehaven: Psywar, 2010), 210.

[9] G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33.124 (1958): 1-19, 10.

[10] Philip M. Taylor, Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 14.

[11] Richard Crossman, ‘The Creed of a Modern Propagandist’, in A Psychological Warfare Casebook (ed. William Daugherty) (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958), 35-47, 40.

[12] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 85.

[13] Ibid., 121.

[14] Ibid., 126.

[15] Ibid., 128.

Discarding history for mythology: Muriel Spark’s mythologizers

Beatriz Lopez explores how Muriel Spark’s foremost mythologizers employ WWII myth-making techniques to impose their delusional understandings of the world on reality.

Sefton Delmer’s second volume of autobiography Black Boomerang (1962) begins in a Frankfurt cinema in 1960. Delmer is watching a wartime thriller which shows the German army arduously fighting both the Allies and the Nazi party, implying that most Germans were really against Hitler. This myth of ‘the good upright patriotic Germans of the Wehrmacht being the bitter enemies of the Nazi Party and the Gestapo’, concocted by the PWE during the Second World War, continued to haunt post-war Germany.[1] Originally designed to destroy Hitler, the myth had been ironically transformed into a vindication of German righteousness, showing the perilous ‘boomerang’ effect resulting from plausible narratives becoming naturalized and accepted as absolute truths.

PWE’s Sefton Delmer

Although myth-making is a practice most often associated with totalitarian regimes, Delmer’s cinematic anecdote demonstrates that this was by no means the case. In fact, the PWE was instrumental in the creation of myths to further the Allied cause, some of which became enacted or tested in reality. The PWE’s black radio station Soldatensender Calais, for example, exploited the feelings of those German officers’ corps leaders who were becoming disenchanted with Hitler’s thirst for war and longed for the establishment of peace with the West: ‘We had been seeking to suggest to them that all they had to do was to overthrow Hitler for us to be ready to start peace negotiations’.[2] To Delmer’s surprise, this offer was taken up by the officers in what became known as the ‘Peace Putsch’, an unsuccessful revolt against Hitler which cost them their lives.[3] Otto John, a survivor of the operation who was later employed by Delmer, reported ‘that [their] broadcasts had indeed been heard by the conspirators, and interpreted in precisely the sense [Delmer] had hoped.’[4]

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was part of a generation of post-war novelists who explored the magnetic influence of myth-makers and the ways in which they can lead others to enact dangerous myths in reality. Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter (1956) and John Fowles’ The Magus (1965) exemplify this trend. Yet Spark’s PWE experience informs the myth-making techniques that pervades her oeuvre, particularly in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976).

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, charismatic teacher Miss Brodie embraces an aesthetic understanding of the world, illustrated by her belief that ‘Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first [than Safety]’ and that ‘Art comes first and then science.’[5] Her mythological method of ‘making patterns with facts’[6] resembles that of totalitarian leaders who ‘choose[s] those elements from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of another, entirely fictitious world.’[7] For example, Miss Brodie first introduces her ex-lover as a Robert Burns-like poet before endowing him with the attributes of her new love interests, the art teacher Mr. Lloyd and the music teacher Mr. Lowther: ‘Sometimes Hugh would sing, he had a rich tenor voice. At other times he fell silent and would set up his easel and paint.’[8] Miss Brodie has elected herself to grace as ‘the God of Calvin’ who ‘sees the beginning and the end’[9] and therefore pays no attention to morals when exercising her sense of predestination. Yet Sandy Stranger soon recognizes the failures of her omniscience and the problematic nature of her myth-making.

For instance, Miss Brodie’s plot of Rose sleeping with Mr. Lloyd backfires when Sandy becomes Mr. Lloyd’s lover, leading Sandy to feel ‘more affection for her in her later years […] when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly.’[10] Miss Brodie also imposes dangerous ‘heroic futures’ on her students; trying ‘to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth’, encouraging Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover on her behalf, and, most alarmingly, ‘urging young Joyce Emily to go to Spain to fight for Franco’ with deadly consequences.[11] On realizing that the end result of Miss Brodie’s plotting is the enactment of the imagination upon reality, Sandy ends up reporting Miss Brodie’s fascism to the headmistress, thereby ‘putting a stop to Miss Brodie.’[12]

Another of Spark’s mythologizers, Sister Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe, believes that her destiny is to become Abbess. In her attempts to persuade her fellow nuns to support her claim, she propagandistically discards history for mythology:

Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.[13]

In this mythological realm, truth is no longer subject to referential claims. In order to get elected as Abbess and direct attention away from the scandal of Sister Felicity sleeping with a Jesuit, Abbess Alexandra selects those ‘facts’ which are relevant to her point of view in order to craft plausible narratives to suit the occasion. Like Miss Brodie, Abbess Alexandra is a myth-maker who imposes her imagination on others. For example, she forces Sister Gertrude to cope with the story of her having been sent on a mission by the Abbey because ‘[s]he fits the rhetoric of the occasion’[14] and nastily misrepresents Sister Felicity’s ideas of freedom and love when arguing that Felicity ‘wants an open audit of all the dowries and she advocates indiscreet sex.’[15] In doing so, Abbess Alexandra embraces an aesthetic understanding of faith which clashes with Felicity’s down-to-each approach: ‘Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it visible benefits mankind.’[16] Her inability to face reality eventually leads to her potential excommunication by Rome. As Sister Gertrude warns her, mythological garble may suit the media, but ‘[i]n Rome, they deal with realities.’[17] In a final flight from history, Abbess Alexandra is aesthetically rendered as a tape of her selected transcripts, entitled The Abbess of Crewe. She has become ‘an object of art, the end of which is to give pleasure.’[18]

The Takeover opens with Hubert Mallindaine living in a beautiful house by Lake Nemi, property of wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe. In order to gain prestige and power, Hubert has unproblematically accepted his eccentric aunts’ claim that they are in fact the descendants of Goddess Diana of Nemi. Like Abbess Alexandra, Hubert’s belief in the subjectivity of reality leads him to manufacture it for his benefit. Reacting against the ontological realism of the Jesuit priests he encounters, Hubert claims that absolute truths do not exist and therefore ‘[a]ppearances are reality’.[19] Following this principle, Hubert uses his ancestral claim to create a religious cult of Diana and establish himself as high priest. However, when his secretary Pauline inopportunely unearths ‘evidence that his aunts, infatuated by Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough […] had been in correspondence with the quack genealogist [and] instructed him in the plainest terms to establish their descent from the goddess Diana’, Hubert tenaciously evades this documentary evidence. In doing so, he emphasises the importance of self-confidence in the practice of deception because ‘it frequently over-rides with an orgulous scorn any small blatant contradictory facts which might lead a simple mind to feel a reasonable perplexity and a sharp mind to feel definite suspicion.’[20]

This belief mirrors Hitler’s idea of the ‘big lie’, a falsity so colossal that the masses ‘will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.’[21] Hubert’s mythological lineage is blatantly fake, yet it has such aesthetic power that it enchants not only his neighbours, many of which become members of the flock, but the myth-maker himself:

‘[H]e had got into a habit of false assumptions by the imperceptible encroachment of his new cult; so ardently had he been preaching the efficacy of prayer that he now, without thinking, silently invoked the name of Diana for every desire that passed through his head, wildly believing that her will not only existed but would certainly come to pass.’[22]


[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 11.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 7; 22.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 361-2.

[8] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 71.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 61; 124.

[12] Ibid., 125.

[13] Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 9.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 86.

[18] Ibid., 86.

[19]Muriel Spark, The Takeover (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 90.

[20] Ibid., 131-2.

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf [My Struggle] (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943), 231-2.

[22] Spark, The Takeover, 182-3.

Letters in bottles and leaky U-boats: Ian Fleming’s ideas factory

Document of the month: FO 898/6/64-5

Guy Woodward traces the involvement of the creator of 007 in covert wartime propaganda

This is a memo dated 18 January 1940 – it reports on a recent meeting of the ‘Consultative Committee’ of the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries. This department was part of Electra House, a secret body under the control of the Foreign Office, responsible for clandestine propaganda in the early stages of the war – before the foundation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940 and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in September 1941.

The meeting discussed a number of ‘sibs’ – rumours invented to spread misinformation – but also makes a series of references to Lieutenant Ian Fleming, later creator of James Bond, then serving in the British Naval Intelligence Department (NID).

We read first about a mysterious plan involving a ‘letter from a U-Boat Commander in a bottle’:

It is unclear what the first plan involved – there are no other references in the archive to letters in bottles – but we can speculate that moves were afoot to produce a fake letter from a U-boat commander to be thrown into the sea, which would mislead its intended German recipients (the cross marked beside the proposal suggests that this was never enacted anyway). The second plan is more straightforward, involving the dissemination of propaganda material to Germany via containers dropped at sea. Ian Fleming’s assertion that sailors on naval patrol ‘will like’ doing this is striking however, an expression of adventurousness and derring-do at odds with the cold formality of many of these departmental records – and indicative of the approach he took to his own role.[1]

Indeed, the plans cited here are very much milder than some of the schemes which Fleming hatched in the early stages of the war. In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond (2008) Ben Macintyre writes that ‘Some of Fleming’s ideas were run-of-the-mill, some were fantastical and impractical, and some, in the opinion of his colleagues, were simply mad.’[2] These included:

scuttling cement barges in the Danube at its most narrow point in order to block the waterway for German shipping; forging Reichsmarks to disrupt the German economy; dropping an observer (possibly Fleming himself) on the island of Heligoland to monitor the shipping outside Kiel; luring German secret agents to Monte Carlo and capturing them; and floating a radio ship in the North Sea to broadcast depressing and/or irritating propaganda to the Germans.[3]

Although Fleming would later dismiss such plans as ‘nonsense’ and ‘romantic Red Indian daydreams’, the fact that they were considered indicates the operational leeway afforded naval intelligence, before the foundation of SOE and before the fall of France and consequent Battle of the Atlantic dictated other naval priorities. Through Fleming, NID continued to be involved in the formulation of propaganda, however.

Fleming had been recruited in May 1939 by Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence and widely credited as inspiration for ‘M’ in the James Bond novels. Working from the ‘ideas factory’ – room 39 in the Admiralty – Fleming developed his schemes and liaised officially and unofficially with a wide circle of military personnel, agents and propagandists.[4]

The PWE’s Sefton Delmer had known Fleming as a journalist before the war, and recalls in his memoir Black Boomerang, being introduced by his friend to Godfrey, who was excited by the potential of ‘black’ radio stations as a means of attacking the morale of U-boat crews. Both Godfrey and Fleming proved enthusiastic supporters of Delmer’s methods.

Delmer explains this naval enthusiasm (as opposed to the frequent hostility of the army and RAF to propaganda activities) with reference to the fact that the Royal Navy had been engaged in all-out war from the beginning of the conflict in 1939, when army and air force remained engaged in the phoney war. He notes that the navy were also unique among the services in having direct contact with the enemy from the beginning of the war, as they captured German prisoners at sea. Interrogations of these prisoners provided valuable intelligence material, later used by Delmer’s propagandists in crafting black propaganda such as the Soldatensender Calais radio station, intended to undermine the morale of U-boat crews.[5]

Fleming’s linguistic skills even enabled him to make direct contributions to such outlets, voicing commentaries on special programmes aimed at sailors of the Kriegsmarine broadcast by the BBC German Service and telling a friend ‘You may have heard my austere tones […] telling the Germans that all their U-boats leak.’[6]

Many connections can of course be drawn between Fleming’s wartime activities and his later creation of British secret agent 007 – the ability to conceive a compelling scenario and a predilection for imaginative and unorthodox methods are certainly clear assets in the fields of propaganda and of popular fiction. Delmer, whose name appears in a passing reference in Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever (1956) certainly suggested that his friend had drawn on his involvement with the PWE, writing that:

I sometimes wonder whether he did not pick up something for his thriller writing from our ‘black’ propaganda technique in return. For our first clandestine radio ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins’ and later our counterfeit German soldiers radio ‘Soldatensender Calais’ we used the most meticulous minutiae, taking care to get them exactly right , street numbers, technical terms, nicknames, and what have you, so that the deception itself would gain acceptance through their accuracy.[7]


All archival material is Crown Copyright and is held in The National Archives. Quotations which appear here have been transcribed by members of the project team.

[1] The RAF were notably sceptical about the value of dropping propaganda leaflets from the air and were often reluctant to facilitate drops over enemy territory. See Tim Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message, (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 37 and David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 188.

[2] Ben Macintyre, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 27.

[3] Macintyre, p. 28.

[4] Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 102.

[5] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), p. 70.

[6] Lycett, p. 133.

[7] See