Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

23 April 2008
Chapters 1 and 2…
…out of six. Wonderful. The thing I’m enjoying most isn’t the figure of Miss Brodie herself, although she is a sublime grotesque. It’s the almost incantatory repetitions, particularly of the ‘famous’ attribute each girl in the Brodie set possesses. When these are first mentioned it’s – what? – arch? And then we realise that this is what Miss Brodie does: her limited take on the world (and, Muriel Spark makes it clear, she really is limited) doesn’t allow any subtlety. These are her pigeonholes, and the girls are stuck with them. Or in them.

(How does Spark do this? How does she manage to incorporate the narrowest of visions into her own style, so that we can wince at it, and understand what the author is doing through it, at the same time…? Dunno.)

We meet the Set fully formed, aged 16 – but almost immediately we’re back to when Miss Brodie first got her hands on them. We hear the repeated clichés (in my prime, the crème de la crème) and her yearning for a lost lover who, we can bet, was nothing of the sort. It comes out in sentimental anecdotes and The Lady of Shallott, in cack-handed politics – Spark makes it easy for us when Brodie makes a hero of Mussolini – and in absurd posturing.

The sharp lurch back six years isn’t the only quirky thing Muriel Spark does with time. She leaps forward: the clumsy one dies stupidly in her twenties, the sexy one is a nun – but a nun who has written something unusual – while we find out that Miss Brodie herself will die young, having lost her job…. Time for Chapter 3, I think.

[Later]
Chapter 3
Their second year with Miss Brodie and the year, apparently, of sex. Sandy becomes the central character – in fact, she’s the only one whose point of view we follow. She’s the one who started writing stories, on paper or in her head, in Chapter 2. In Chapter 3 these become more elaborate, and more urgent: they’re understated sexual fantasies, with herself or Miss B at the centre of them. (I got it wrong earlier about the sexy one becoming the nun; it’s Sandy, the one with the piggy eyes – the one who sees.)

Time’s settled down a bit, but not entirely. We flash forward to a meeting, years later and not long before Miss Brodie’s death, in which Sandy muses on the betrayal that brought Miss B’s career to an end. Sandy did it, whatever it was…. And we read the lurid correspondence Sandy invents during their second year as the Set, in which she lives out the affair they can all see Miss Brodie having. She’s a sort of hero for the girls, as in protagonist, and Sandy doesn’t want to miss a line of it. (It’s part of Miss Brodie’s grotesqueness that she presents herself to them in this light. She’s her own hero too, and if the story isn’t interesting enough she’ll change it in subsequent drafts.)

24 April
Chapter 4…
…and the girls move up to the senior school. They are entranced by it, but they don’t leave Miss Brodie behind. She continues to exert as much influence on them as she can: tea at the big house in Cramond where she is now having an affair with the long-bodied, short-legged music teacher. Of course, it’s part of the overblown narrative of her life that she has renounced her true love – the art teacher – because he is married. (Sandy and Jenny have already satirised this in the lurid correspondence they invent between the adult lovers.)

It’s ridiculous stuff. Miss Brodie fattens up her lover like the hag in Hansel and Gretel. While she is giving herself (in the words of the girls’ stories) to the music teacher, she grills them about the art teacher, his family life – the girls are invited to his house and Rose is now posing for him – and his wife. She does this in front of her lover, and he smiles, taking it. She considers herself to be outside normal morality, which was engaging when it was just at the level of her going to a different church every Sunday. But now she isn’t just faintly ludicrous, she’s a monster. Spark has really got it in for her: once Miss Brodie has put some flesh on the short-legged one she’ll be going on a German holiday: she’s heard good things about their new leader. Of course she has.

25 April
Chapters 5 and 6
There’s so much going on in these finaltwo chapters I had to re-read them. Miss B’s presentation of herself as the romantic heroine of an epic narrative has gone as far as it can. As the girls reach maturity – particularly sexual maturity, because if there’s one thing this book is about, it’s sex – she wants to finish off the narrative she’s been drafting for them. In the end, the Set boils down to two people: Sandy the insightful one and Rose, whose strength is her instinct. Or, in the strange operations of Miss B’s mind, sex. So Rose is going to have the affair with the art teacher that Miss Brodie can’t have herself.

Sandy, insightful beyond her years (I’m sure she’s a self-portrait of Spark), is appalled. As it happens, Miss B has got it all wrong: Rose isn’t interested, whereas Sandy is. She has a summer of workmanlike sex with the art teacher, and if this wasn’t a Muriel Spark novel that would be that. But this is Calvinist Edinburgh, Spark is a convert to Catholicism, and religion is everywhere at this end of the book. Through Sandy, her alter-ego, Spark makes it explicit: ‘She thinks she is the God of Calvin.’ The irony, as Sandy also sees, is that Miss Brodie is, in fact, one of those souls who goes through life blithely believing they are of the elect, only to get one of God’s nasty little surprises when they die and find they’re not in heaven after all. Spark has a lot of fun with the sheer small-mindedness of what she presents as the Calvinist world-view… and anyway, we already know that Miss Brodie is doomed.

And guess who brings about her fate like an avenging angel? An avenging, Catholic angel…? And in case it might otherwise seem a bit strong to have Miss Brodie so comprehensively stuffed, Spark offers Sandy a moral get-out: she’s heard that she sent a delinquent but impressionable new student to a ludicrous death, making her way to fight on the wrong side in Spain. For Sandy this is Miss Brodie playing God once too often. And yet… she never forgets the value of such a teacher. Sandy learnt a lot from her, perhaps everything of significance she ever did learn.

Her ambivalence is crystallised in the last lines of the novel. Sandy is asked what her influences were at school: ‘Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?’ And her reply – to all four of these alternatives, I’d say – is: ‘There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.’

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