Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

No comments

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark book cover
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark is a short novel that follows the story of an Edinburgh teacher and her ‘set’ during the 1930s and beyond. The charismatic Jean Brodie is a spinster who is devoted to her profession as teacher at the Marcia Blaine Academy. Being in the ‘prime’ of her life, Miss Brodie takes an interest in six of her students in particular: Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Mary, Monica, and Eunice. This is her set. Favouring the arts over the sciences, she sets about giving her girls the most enlivening education, setting aside the curriculum in favour of her personal preferences, and cautioning the girls against revealing to anyone quite how unusual their lessons are. As the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time it becomes clear that all is not well with Miss Brodie’s methods and as she involves her girls in her little deceptions, enthuses over her admiration of both Giotto and Mussolini, and reports to them on trysts she has had with fellow teachers, a rather unhealthy bond develops. Eager to please their idol, the girls find their lives shaped by all that Miss Brodie teaches them, for better or worse. Eventually, however, her rein is put to an end when one of her set betrays her: reporting to the headmistress just exactly what Miss Jean Brodie has been filling their heads with. But which of her girls could betray Miss Brodie in this way?

It becomes obvious very quickly that Miss Brodie seeks to control her girls’ lives, from their opinion on art to their romantic pursuits. Indeed, she writes the script for her own set, creating for each girl their own role. Rose, for example, is designated as the sexual member of the group who is to be “famous for sex” and another, Mary, as the scapegoat – a “stupid lump” upon whom ill-fortune is routinely blamed. In this way she creates for each girl an identity and a place in the group. The unusual dynamic of the relationship – of a middle-aged woman choosing to spend so much of her time and energy on a group of young girls – creates a peculiar atmosphere that only grows darker as the girls age and their teacher’s impact upon them becomes more clear.

Particularly unnerving is the way in which Miss Brodie oversees the girls’ sexual maturation. Indeed, one of the novel’s achievements is the spare but realistic way that Spark maps out their sexual awakening. When first her set is devised, the girls are ten years old and on the verge of raising questions about their own sexualities. Through stories about her own love life and her promotion of the sensual, if occluded, delights of art, Miss Brodie subtly awakens impulses within them. But more than that, she represents a form of sexuality for them, which few are familiar with. Indeed, the girls consider her quite different from their own mothers: Miss Brodie is almost above sex, existing on a somewhat higher plane.

There is certainly lightness as well as dark to Jean Brodie, however. By showing a complete disregard for the prescribed curriculum, she demonstrates both the wonderful freedom of a teacher willing and able to enliven their lessons with personal touches, promoting a truly individual education, but also the grave dangers of allowing one mind to control the formative years of young lives. There is a strange paradox at the centre of Brodie’s teaching method, namely that on one hand she demands almost complete deference as she determines for her girls the path their lives should take and the opinions they should hold, while on the other hand much of her own personality and teaching seeming to represent and promote a free-thinking, individual attitude.

Miss Brodie’s fate is one common to many women who, in the aftermath of World War I, found themselves outnumbering the eligible men. Having lost her first love to the war, Miss Brodie displaces her sexual affection and refigures it into an affection for her students, trysts with other teachers, and in her fascisti – all proving attainable substitutes for the conventional domestic romance circumstance has denied her. Indeed, she finds in fascism – her admiration of which is perhaps the main cause of her downfall – a certain exciting romance. Finding conservatism and socialism to be rather dull forms of political ideology, she prefers instead the vibrancy of fascism, which carries, in her mind, a more artistic air, which she of course favours in all things, and represents a more revolutionary, vibrant form of politics. In this way, her insight is clouded as she mixes moral judgements with aesthetic ones.

However, Jean Brodie’s downfall cannot be put down simply to poor judgement or naivety on her part. Her paranoia and secretive behaviour, as well as her delusions and desire to control, paint her as a woman with a narcissist personality disorder, who has more in common with Mussolini than might at first glance be apparent. Indeed, that Spark creates a female character who does not simper after her fascist idols but rather identifies with them is quietly progressive, as is the assimilation of many male bonding techniques that Brodie and her set utilise.

Jean Brodie’s oft repeated lamentations about her betrayal, while vain, suggest an important theme in the book. For it is not only Brodie that is ‘betrayed’ but her ideas too, as her betrayer breaks the narrative pattern that Brodie has written for her set by assuming the role meant for another and daring to challenge, through her actions, Brodie’s own opinions. The betrayal here represents the removal of the girl(s) from Miss Brodie’s control, and their pursuit of their own individual paths. This denotes a shift in the novel’s dynamic from the girls living vicariously through Brodie and her stories, to the teacher living through her former students. But Jean Brodie, too, is betrayed by her own ideas, which lead her to make poor judgements, and in turn betray the innocent trust of her set, who look up to her and in return have fairly dubious ideas poured into their heads.

In all, Jean Brodie is a rather more complex character than might be apparent at first glance. Spark felt that satiric writing was far more valuable in shifting opinion and being genuinely useful in a wider sense than moralising realism. Her refusal to moralise or conform to realist structure here more than bears this out, and the novel is laced throughout with moments of satire, which force the reader to engage with the text.

The structure of the book, which is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, breaks any link with realism, and allows information to be revealed as Spark sees fit (mirroring Miss Brodie’s own manipulation of facts to her own ends) and not in chronological order. This shifts the focus from traditional narrative suspense to a more intimate character study of Miss Brodie and her girls. This technique also allows for certain, character-forming pieces of information to be revealed at opportune moments, rather than as they might have become apparent if the narrative was to follow a traditional chronology. This helps create an ever-moving tension in the novel, which in some ways replaces the need for a traditional plot. It also creates the sense of memories selectively recalled, and personal histories written through a particular lens.

With the narrative jumping around in time frequently, prolepsis is used regularly. Although this gives only a certain amount away it is also quite often repetitious. Despite the purpose of the oft repeated phrases, whose mantra-like reiteration represents Brodie’s need to shape both her own memories and the narrative she writes for the girls, being reasonable, the technique can nevertheless become a little irritating. (How many times can one be told that Rose is famous for sex?) The lack of suspense, too, creates a certain flatness to the book: characters, save for Jean Brodie, don’t leap from the page as they might, and the story never really gathers momentum, despite some large events unfolding.

In all, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a deceptively thoughtful book that gathers together some large themes, from the haze of adolescent years to Catholicism and morality, the (sometimes) sadness and strangeness of spinsterhood to the state of politics. It is a mistake to think that this is simply a character study of a woman in her ‘prime’ but Jean Brodie is certainly what holds the whole thing together. Apparently based, in some respects, on Christina Kay, a teacher of Spark’s, Jean Brodie is a perpetually difficult character: a vibrant, free-thinking woman surrounded by straight-laced conservatism, she cannot help but appear a breath of fresh air. This, however, is juxtaposed against her manipulative behaviour and ill-advised politics, and what results for the reader is a genuinely uncomfortable, thought-provoking piece of characterisation. Unlike her creation, Spark seeks no divine right to pass judgement and so the reader is left to make the moral judgement on Miss Jean Brodie and her betrayal.

If it weren't for Jean Brodie I don't think this would be remembered, but there is a lot more to it. I don't think I had any instant affection for the book, but it is certainly a good and thought-provoking read.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on Amazon (US)

No comments: