Friday 14 May 2010

In my prime?

I suggested 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' by Muriel Spark to my book group. Last meeting I was the only person who had managed to get through 'American Pastoral' so we needed something a bit briefer and less demanding. Having said that there are a lot of thing going on in a small package here; ideas, politics, sexual mores and social history.

The film, seen many years ago probably as a teenager, left a very strong impression on me. I loved Miss Brodie and very much admired the character of Sandy, and I was pleased to find that it had captured the atmosphere of the book beautifully. Miss Jean Brodie is a somewhat unconventional teacher in a quite conventional girl's school in 1930's Edinburgh. She is one of the generation of women who were left without husbands because of the devastation of the First World War. She 'adopts' a group of girls from her class who become 'The Brodie Set', with whom she develops an ongoing friendship throughout their school careers and over whom she has an inordinate influence. At least she sees herself as moulding them, but you are not sure. The book is written from an outside point of view, so you do not get inside anyone's head, but the main focus of the story is Sandy and her relationship with Miss Brodie and it's consequences. The story starts when they are eleven, very impressionable, and follows the girls through their adolescence. Muriel Spark uses similar technique to the other two books of hers I have read. She refers back and forth within the story, telling you what is going to happen to people in the future, in particular referring to each of the girls by way of Miss Brodie's definition of their evolving character.

Miss Jean Brodie is such a wonderful character, she dominates the book entirely, very strong and determined, but at the same time you wonder at her hidden insecurities. Towards the end, in conversations with Sandy after the war, she becomes obsessed with who might have 'betrayed' her, resulting in her eventual removal from her teaching post. I like this quote, it sums up many aspects of her character quite neatly; pedantic, eccentric and romantic:

" 'Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,' said Miss Brodie. 'Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the timetable. Get out your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain.' " (p.46)

She is admired by both the only two male members of staff, Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd. You get the impression that they both admire her precisely because all the women are very suspicious of her. It is Mr Lloyd she loves, and who is obsessed with her, but she gives him up because he is married, and instead devotes a considerable amount of energy to Mr Lowther, who wants to marry her, but she refuses him. There is something about her personality that inspires devotion. Her girls are loyal, coming rushing to her support whenever there is some new 'plot' afoot to have her removed (the Headmistress trys to accuse her of sexual impropriety). And as a reader you too are drawn under her spell. She is forthright and exciting, with opinions about everything, and never shies away from expressing them.

Her single status is an interesting aspect of the book. In the situation I assume that being a spinster was not judged so harshly or negatively. It is both a curse and a blessing. It frees her from the controlling aspects of marriage on women's lives. This is alluded to in passing after Mr Lowther marries Miss Lockheart and she is referred to as "now Mrs Lowther, and lost to the school." (p. 116) because she would have been obliged to give up her job, and as such her financial independence, upon marriage. But at the same time her insistence that her 'prime' is devoted to her girls felt tinged with regret. She has a love affair with Mr Lowther, but does not want to commit to him, and then devotes her energy to manipulating a relationship between Rose (almost as her proxy) and Mr LLoyd. Her sexual attitudes are more in keeping with the sixties but living when she did she was confined by social attitudes that she was not quite forthright enough to stand up against.

Her supposed 'progressive' educational approach caused me much annoyance.

"It has been suggested that I should apply for a post at one of the progressive, that is to say, crank schools. I shall not apply for a post at a crank school. I shall remain at this education factory where my duty lies. There needs must be a leaven in the lump. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life." (p.112)

She does not approve of the whole exam system and an imposed curriculum, and all to her credit views education as a means of opening up new ideas and experiences for her girls. This tends to take the form however of them being regaled with stories of her own experiences and her views on everything from art to politics. She can also be very harsh and critical, particularly to Mary MacGregor, who she refers to as 'stupid' on a regular basis. She does not appear to encourage them to ask questions but fires demands at them to ensure that they are hanging on her every word. Not really my definition of 'progressive'.

The writing is beautifully concise and sparse. In spite of it's setting and Miss Brodie's interest in fascism you do not get much feeling of the political situation. It is very intimate, it is a very small world that they live in. She creates a lovely almost cosy atmosphere:

"The evening paper rattle-snaked it's way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six-o'clock feeling in the house." (p.21)

I was left with a very vivid image of a fire-lit front room and tea from one of those brown teapots and a quiet uneventful but contented existence, where people's expectations of life were so different.

The only thing that confused me was how Sandy's life turned out, not what I would have expected for a moment (I'll leave you with that as a little teaser). And I was sorry that the dramatic scene at the end of the film when a disillusioned Sandy confronts and betrays Miss Brodie was not part of the story, it all ended much more quietly. Except that, although with maturity she came to see Miss Brodie with all her faults, she could never escape, nor did she want to, from the important role she played in her life. When asked about her main influences she replies (the closing sentence of the book):

"There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."


  1. lovely review Martine, I want to read it! I loved the film with Maggie Smith - she IS Miss Brodie!

  2. So funny that you've posted this today - my Mum went to the same school as Muriel Spark (though a couple of years behind her I think) and she was always kind of proud to have her school immortalised in that book!

  3. This is one of my favorite books of all time! I've never seen the movie and now I must!


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