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Muriel & me: sparks but no blazing fire

December 23, 2011 19 comments

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. 1961. French titleLes belles années de Miss Brodie.

This is our Book Club’s readalong for December. OK, the title of the review slightly gives away my opinion of the book. Not smart of me to wear it on my sleeve like that, now you’re tempted to discard the review. Tant pis. I have a thing for books about schools, students and teachers. I loved Changing Places by David Lodge, Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, The Secret History by Donna Tart, I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, The Golden Kite by Deszö Kostolanyi, and I forget some others. You’d think book references would pop up when I was reading. Not at all. First paragraphs…

The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. Bu there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

These girls formed the Brodie set. That was what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve.

…and all I could see was Robin Williams and his boys in Dead Poets Society. Unfortunately, I remember this film very well, I’ve seen it with the French teacher in my teens and all the girls would look at Robert Sean Leonard and swoon. Anyway, I had a hard time finding my mental broom to sweep away the images but I managed to push them under a carpet of teenage memories. Now, Miss Brodie and her set…

We’re in the 1930s in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is a mistress in the rich girls school Marcia Blaine and she has the most unconventional teaching methods. She teaches under the trees, disregards traditional material and mostly relates her personal experiences. She writes props on the blackboard, recalls the girls what they need to say should the headmistress grill them about their classes. She doesn’t want students, she wants an audience.

Miss Brodie has a set of five favorite pupils she invites at home for tea or brings along to walks. The six are Jenny Gray who will be an actress, Sandy Stranger who will be a nun and a writer, Monica Douglas, with a head for mathematics, Mary McPherson whose stupidity will lead her to an untimely death in an hotel fire, Rose Stanley, the former tomboy and subsequent sex wanton, Eunice Gardiner, the sportswoman. A sixth one, Joyce Emily Hammond will join the group in their last school year. No spoiler there, that piece of information comes at the beginning of the book as the narrative isn’t chronological but goes back and forth in time. There is no definite narrator; Miss Brodie is dead and the events aren’t told by one of her former pupils either. With a patchwork of scenes and memories, the reader progressively reconstructs Miss Brodie’s picture. Her fiancé died in the trenches; she is a progressive spinster and Muriel Spark reminds us that:

There were legions of her kind in the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowed their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

Her unorthodox teaching methods and her after-school activities will deeply influence the Brodie set, especially Sandy. Miss Brodie’s lessons mostly consist in telling them her love life and her constant fight against the prim and proper headmistress. She exposes her set to adult relationships, struggles for power and love affairs. It’s a drop in the big cold bath of adulthood without teaching them how to swim. Their walks in different neighborhoods of Edinburgh dive the girls into other social environments and wakes up their awareness to poverty and unemployment.

My vision of the book is as deconstructed as Miss Brodie’s classes. Of course it shows how influential teachers can be. They combine authority and knowledge, are the first adults outside of the family circle in their students’ lives and are an educational relay outside home. Miss Brodie always reminds her students that she’s in her prime and that brought the book title. In 1931, the girls are 11 and Miss Jean Brodie is 41, not exactly what you could call “prime” at the time. That single assumption is totally opposite to the idea of old age I pointed out in Fitzgerald’s short story O Russet Witch. It confirms Miss Brodie’s oddity, her modern vision of herself.

It’s also surprising how much this book talks about sex. For once, it shows girls’ curiosity for sex in their teens. It’s very common to describe it for boys but less for girls. Usually, girls have girly talks about romance and knights in shining armors. Is it because the writer is a woman? Is it because she put part of her childhood in that book?

Page after page, we discover the shady sides of Miss Brodie’s personality. She’s manipulative, rather egoistical and slightly ridiculous. Her admiration for Mussolini and Hitler disqualifies her as a good leading model for her set. I wonder how someone so unconventional could be interested in dictators. Aren’t dictatorships synonyms to freedom deprivation? Doesn’t she worship and advertise her freedom? If she didn’t assess these regimes for what they were, it throws a doubt on her intelligence.

I also noticed the setting in Scotland and the constant need to mention someone’s “Scottishness” or “Englishness”. I’ve read the novel in English and Muriel Spark insists on Jenny’s mother being English or on accents and differences in pronunciation. It’s an us-versus-them atmosphere, something very strange for a native of a centralized country; the only similar opposition I see in France is Parisians versus the other French. I could feel the weight of history between the lines and old resentment fueled by religious differences. It sounded so rooted that it shocked me.

I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s style, although I’m certain that I didn’t get all the jokes she put in it. I had fun being in Sandy’s imaginative mind and the abrupt switches from reality to her inner world were efficient to make me taste her feeling of being there in body but not quite in mind. Muriel Spark subtly describes the shift between childhood and adulthood in little remarks such as Sandy seeing Miss Brodie as Jean, ie as a woman and no more as Miss Brodie, ie as an institution, a teacher. It’s something Kosztolanyi masterly depicts in The Golden Kite. She goes from blind awe to awareness, that’s the definition of growing up.

PS: As an aside, when I read Edith Wharton I thought I could almost hear the French under her English; I was wondering if it was my imagination. Leaping from Wharton to Spark confirmed my impression of Wharton’s style.

AFTER OUR MEETING
J&C didn’t like the book. Boredom was the word used to describe it. And disappointment too: C expected Miss Brodie to be a positive role model, like the one in Dead Poets Society. Here, neither the teacher nor the girls were likeable characters. Miss Brodie seemed unbalanced and her admiration for Hitler and Mussolini was despicable just as her manipulating the girls.

The construction of the narrative was confusing and it was hard to remember who was who and the girls names.
That a teacher invites students for tea is strange for us. It’s inappropriate here, we supposed it’s a British thing. I wasn’t the only one to notice the antagonism between the Scots and the English.

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