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.

My Top Shelf – Chapter 5

MY TOP SHELF

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

5

THE DAM BUSTERS

Paul Brickhill (1953)

Folio Society, 2015.  Quarter-bound in cloth with cloth sides, and slip case; blocked with a design by Richard Sweeney, with a Lancaster on the spine.

In the early 1950’s, not long after the war, the parents of my mother Norma lived in what even then looked to me to be an aging weatherboard house in Orlando Street Hampton.  It was a quiet street.  Not a lot happened in it – there was quite a stir when the former Australian cricket captain Lindsay Hassett moved into a ‘cream brick vanilla’ flat, as we were starting to call them, in Hampton Street, overlooking our back fence.

My grandfather, Les, was called an engineer.  I think that meant that he was a tool-maker, or metal-worker.  When Les left Humes after forty years’ service, they gave him a mantel clock that chimed.  It sat on the kind of sideboard that people had back then, when the whole house seemed to chime.  Les had a perfectly kept tool-shed, with designs traced for each tool.  He kept something of wonder there.  It was a shanghai, or ging – not roughed out of eucalypt, and powered by rubber bands, but made out of forged steel, and powered by springs so taut that we could hardly pull them back.  One day a cousin and I screwed up our courage and lifted it from its designated space to give it a test fire from the ti-tree overlooking the bay.  The first shot hit a ti-tree just in front of us and nearly took our heads off; the second took off on a high trajectory in the general direction of Williamstown.  We shot through in mortal fear, and we never touched the ging again.

Les and Liza were frugal.  All those who had survived the depression, a word muttered in a subdued tone, were.  It was, I recall, quite an occasion when they signed up for the Herald-Sun Readers’ Book Club.  I cannot recall seeing books in the house before.  The series may have followed on a six volume encyclopaedia that we later inherited – with some gratitude.  The series proper consisted of novels and memoires.  Many of those were of the war just finished, like Two Eggs on my Plate, Wingless Victory, or Boldness be my Friend.  (Everybody had already read The Cruel Sea.) 

The first book in the series proper was, I think, The Dam Busters.  At any rate, I have a clear recollection of looking at the one in front of me now at the left end of a growing collection – in a red dust-jacket with HS on the spine, an image of a dam wall on the front cover, and on the rear a photo of the author.  As befitted a chap who wrote that kind of book back then, Mr Brickhill was photographed with nonchalantly brushed back hair, a pencil moustache, a hound’s-tooth check jacket, an open-necked shirt – with a cravat, in navy polka dot set in the spacing dictated by Winston Churchill – and with the rather imperious sidelong glance of a man not used to difficulty with skirt.  The first review in the blurb says ‘In all the history of arms there is no finer epic.’

It was therefore a major event when the movie came to Hampton in 1955.  As I recall, the excitement was as great as that which later greeted the start of television or the Olympic Games.  Les took me to a matinee on Saturday arvo at the Hampton Cinema in Hampton Street, about five hundred yards from home.  We got there early, which was just as well, because the place was chockers.  Later events make it hard to recall my first reaction, but I believe that I was entranced from beginning to end.  It was miles better than going to ‘town’ on the train with Liza – she and Les never had a car – and eating donuts at Downyflake.

Two things were beyond magic.  The leader of the raid had my name!  And my initials!  Guy Gibson.  And one Australian when they were practising low flying said, in a flat Australian accent, ‘this is bloody dangerous.’  How shockingly grown-up – the word ‘bloody’ on the screen, and out loud!  It was truly bliss to be alive that day.

I walked back home with Les in a state of exaltation.  He took me to see it again on two more occasions.  Then it came to TV and video and DVD.  I lost count of how many times I have seen it about thirty years ago, but you can proceed on the footing that I watch it about once a year, in varying states of composure or decency.  I only ever saw the dog get killed once.

If you do not know the story, you have a major problem.  In 1943, a squadron formed especially for that purpose, 617 Squadron, attacked the Moehne and Eder dams in Germany using a bouncing bomb especially designed and made for that purpose by an immensely gifted scientist named Barnes Wallis.  Both the book and the film contain two stories of great character and courage – that of Barnes Wallis for the courage of his conviction in his own skill and judgment, and the dedication and courage of the young men who delivered the bombs.  Fifty-six of those young men, whose whole and gifted life still lay before them, did not come back.  Wallis, a man of peace, was distraught.  It took him a long time to recover. The scene of Wallis standing under the hawk-like gaze of Bomber Harris and the blank coldness of Cochrane is still wrenching.

They had to fly as low as possible to beat radar.  Power lines were a real threat, and I think one plane was lost this way.  The bomb had to be delivered from sixty feet, the length of a cricket pitch.  The pilot had to hold the aircraft steady at that altitude in the face of enemy fire.  The only way that they could do that was by using spotlights on the water to illuminate their target.  From time to time, modern crews try to replicate the feat for TV, and they then find out how hard it is.  Among other things, someone might have to pick up a compass and protractor.

The cream of Bomber Command, and therefore the nation, went into 617, and not just from England.  They had all completed full tours.  Apart from Gibson, the pilots included at least three Australians – Mickey Martin, Dave Shannon, and Les Knight.

Martin (played by the late Bill Kerr in the film) commanded ‘P’ Popsie.  He delivered one of the bombs that hit the Moehne.  Although hit on his starboard wing, Martin then accompanied Gibson on the next attacks to draw the flak.  Gibson was later awarded the VC for his part in the raid.  When the Moehne was finally breached, Martin and Gibson accompanied Shannon and Knight to go to the Eder.  They had trouble finding it.  Having sat up there watching all the attacks on the Moehne, Dave Shannon then watched the first attack on the Eder fail – in a blazing explosion.

There were only two bombs left, and they were both to be delivered by Australians.  It was a very tricky target – fatally tricky.  Dave Shannon eventually found a way to deliver his bomb on to the target.  Gibson ordered Knight in with the last bomb.  Brickhill described it this way.

Knight tried once and couldn’t make it.  He tried again.  Failed.  ‘Come in down moon, and dive for the point, Les’, Shannon said.  He gave more advice over the R/T, and Knight listened quietly.  He was a young Australian who did not drink, his idea of a riotous evening being to write letters home and go the pictures.  He dived to try again, made a perfect run and they saw the splash as his bomb dropped in the right spot.  Seconds later the water erupted, and as Gibson slanted down to have a look he saw the wall of the dam burst open and the torrent came crashing out.

Knight, more excited than he had ever been, was yelling over the R/T, and when he stopped he left his transmitter on for a few seconds by mistake; the crew’s remarks on the intercom were broadcast, and they were very spectacular remarks indeed.

Some time after all this, Dave Shannon celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and then married an English lass in the service.  The last of the pilots, Les Munro from New Zealand, died earlier this year (2015).  Mickey Martin never forgave Churchill for allowing Gibson to fly one more mission.  I have made the pilgrimage to the grave in Holland.

The devotion and courage of all those involved, from Wallis and Gibson down, defy belief.  It comes from another time.  They are all real and true heroes.  They are my absolute heroes.  I brought my children up on this story and I look forward to doing the same with their children.  Both the heroes and the children deserve no less.