THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE

 

This is an enigmatic little novel written by Muriel Spark in 1961 – Miss Brodie may be primed, but primed to do what?

Miss Jean Brodie teaches in a school in Edinburgh in the 1930’s.  She attracts followers, like queen bees do among young girls.  The novel follows this group’s attachment from their time in junior school, when Miss Brodie taught them, through senior school and to adulthood.  She exercises a power over them that might seem unhealthy to a reader who has brought up girls, and which does seem unhealthy to the headmistress, who is out to get her.  As the girls get older, Miss Brodie has affairs with the art teacher and the music teacher and, dangerously, she contrives to get one of the girls to succeed her as the mistress of one of them.  But it is not sexual licence that brings Miss Brodie undone.  Rather, her favourite informs on her (and denies that her informing is an act of betrayal).  Miss Brodie is a fascist, and not just in the closet – she warmly endorses Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to her charges.  By the end of the decade, that was more than enough to warrant her being fired.  Well, if the alternatives were Joseph Stalin or Neville Chamberlain, was not Miss Brodie’s preference at least understandable?

Dame Muriel Sarah Spark DBE, Clit, FRSE, FRSL, had a very European face.  She had an interesting ancestry – Lithuanian Jewish father and Scots Presbyterian mother.  After a failed marriage, she had a full life spent in Rhodesia, New York and London before, like Jeffrey Smart, going to live in Italy with someone of her own sex.  (The nature of that relationship fascinates most commentators, but it really is none of their bloody business.)  Her correspondence with the one child of the marriage is not good to read, but it is the certain fate of prolific writers of quality to have every aspect of their life combed over by those of second rate.

This novel is probably based on the experience of the author in her own education at Edinburgh.  It is the work of a naturally confident and composed writer.  Here is a discussion early in the novel of the forces attacking the heroine.

‘Who are the gang this time?’ said Rose, who was famous for sex-appeal.

‘We shall discuss tomorrow night the persons who oppose me’, said Miss Brodie.  ‘But rest assured they shall not succeed.’

‘No,’ said everyone.  ‘No, of course they won’t.’

‘Not while I am in my prime,’ she said.  ‘These years are still the years of my prime.  It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that.  Here is my tram-car.  I daresay I’ll not get a seat.  This is nineteen thirty-six.  The age of chivalry is past.

Miss Brodie oozes Calvinism, but she follows Loyola and Freud – get a child young enough and you have them for life.  Here is her plotting.  (Teddy Lloyd is the art teacher.)

It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover; and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair.  It was to this end that Rose and Sandy had been chosen as the crème de la crème.  There was a whiff of sulphur about the idea which fascinated Sandy in her present mind.  After all, it was only an idea.  And there was no pressing hurry in the matter, for Miss Brodie liked to take her leisure over the unfolding of her plans, most of her joy deriving from the preparation, and moreover, even if these plans were as clear to her own mind as they were to Sandy’s, the girls were too young.

Now this coolness can sound cold and sinister in a world ashamed of the abuse of young people by older people in power.  The obituary of the author in The New York Times included the following:

Her work, unlocked from her innermost memories of her experiences before and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954, built a canon of short, sometimes macabre, sometimes humorous novels that sought to pare away the absurdities of human behavior.

Ms. Spark’s first novel was published when she was 39, and after that she supplied a stream of slender novels and enigmatic short stories peopled with such curiosities as narrators from beyond the grave, flying saucers, grandmotherly smugglers with bread bins full of diamond-studded loaves, and individuals of so little substance that they disappear when the door closes.

In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion.  Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch.

It is this lightness, and a contrived detachment toward her characters, that became the target of the harshest criticism of her work…

So, it is not Rose but Sandy who gets into bed with the artist, acts as Judas toward Miss Brodie, and then takes the advice of Hamlet and gets herself to a nunnery.

Muriel Spark was one off and had a fine nose for our dark side – that is somehow reflected by the illustrations in the Folio edition of the book, for the film of which Maggie Smith won an Academy Award.  But the novel is like oysters – some like it more than others.  The author might bring to mind the image on the front cover of The Godfather – a puppeteer who on a bad day might do you some real harm.

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