Monday, March 8, 2010

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Under Several Covers:

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

As a lover of strange and unique fiction, I’ve sometimes found that the most unusual works take on unassuming and seemingly conventional forms and then slowly reveal their layers of perversity through the most unexpected means. The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow immediately strike the reader as mad works of virtuosic style and ambitious scope, but, for instance, a novel such as Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies takes perhaps half its volume before readers start scratching their head in amused befuddlement. A book that recently took me for such a surprising series of turns—and one that I’ve owned two copies of and that had passed (or not passed) through nearly two decades’ worth of shelves, boxes, and collection-downsizings because of its ho-hum self-description and its thoroughly conventional collection of blurbs—is Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Billing itself as a novel about the effects of an Edinburgh girls’ school teacher upon the lives of her six favorite charges—with one of them ultimately destined to betray her in some undisclosed way—the book doesn’t exactly compel the prospective reader into its world the way that novels such as The Tin Drum or One Hundred Years of Solitude do. Perhaps in the hands of Charlotte Brontë or Gustave Flaubert, this premise might sound promising, but published in 1961, in a period of extremely arrière-garde New Yorker fare, this novel might cause the uninitiated reader to expect its fictional terrain to occupy a place somewhere between slight and trite.

But even though the book opens with a fairly conventional description of the school’s mise-en-scène—which in fact turns out to be both a flashback and a flash-forward—establishing “the Brodie set” and some of the levels of belonging and not-belonging that membership in this chosen group affords its individual girls, Spark’s narrative techniques soon start to seem a bit odd. The Brodie set comprises just six girls from a specific form at a specific time in Miss Brodie’s life who then remain under her aegis for the rest of their school years, and Miss Brodie constantly refers to this somewhat motley group as “the crème de la crème,” even though the only really unique aspects about most of them are their willingness to be chosen and their (and their parents’) unlikelihood of exposing the teacher to her superiors. Miss Brodie has cannily vetted each of them to become her disciples, and when each is introduced (and reintroduced) to the reader, Spark almost always repeats what each girl was “famous for.” At first this makes the novel read a bit like a creepy kids’ book whose author chooses one or two attributes per girl to help the reader remember and distinguish between the characters, but both Brodie’s and Spark’s repetitions soon reveal themselves to be much more sophisticated devices. Even though Classical motifs echo throughout this novel, these aren’t just the mnemonic and metrical epithets of epic poetry (“pious Aeneas,” “wily Odysseus,” “white-armed Hera,” etc.). These are attributes that Miss Brodie has either chosen the girls for in her plan to bind them together, play them off of each other, and ultimately bind them to her, or else that she’s cultivated in them over the years to serve her needs.

At first Miss Brodie comes off as a marvelously eccentric and progressive teacher, exposing her girls to profound worlds of art and thought rather than to the banalities of standard grade-school instruction, but then through Spark’s own marvelously eccentric (but highly controlled) meanderings through these girls’ lives and minds—past, present, and future—the reader watches Miss Brodie’s facets become sickening rather than dazzling, ultimately proving herself to be not an inspired pedagogue but a ludicrous demagogue (and far worse). Miss Brodie visits Italy often, and she immerses the girls in Renaissance art, which certainly heightens their sensitivity, but she also greatly admires Mussolini and extols the ostensible order that he brings to his country. After a year or two her admiration gravitates toward Hitler. Even more dangerous for the girls, however, is Miss Brodie’s manner of entangling them in her love life—past, present, and future. It seems at first that she’s introducing them to the fuller life of true womanhood, but as the girls’ natural enthrallment with romance becomes piqued and then irreversibly engaged, the reader watches in disgusted amazement as they fall into roles that allow Miss Brodie to live out her own sickest fantasies through them, if not exactly in the way that she expects.

Maggie Smith in the 1969 film version of
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Spark’s approaches in revealing Miss Brodie’s grotesque world are widely varied and always surprising, with each glimpse into the lives of her characters—especially Sandy, who takes on shocking roles in Miss Brodie’s machinations, and in the novel as a whole—coming at totally unexpected times and always in the most unusual manner. The reader at first expects this to be a book that moves toward a standard revelation of which character betrays Miss Brodie, but Spark thwarts all normal expectations of both plot and form in this novel. One of the characters’ inner monologues reveals fairly early on who betrays Miss Brodie, and by then the novel’s bizarre maze of fascinations has already led the reader’s imagination and expectations in totally unforeseen directions.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has had a cult following since its publication, and perhaps one of the reasons why its cult hasn’t widened is because—in the same way that its unique contents are belied by the conventional that way it’s been marketed and discussed—the novel’s deep strangeness is somewhat covered by fairly conventional prose. Although always deliberate and precise, Spark’s writing is only occasionally beautiful or moving, which in some ways works in both the book’s favor and disfavor. There’s a strong undercurrent of political allegory in Miss Brodie’s despotism, and just as England didn’t fight Hitler because of his dangerous ideologies but rather because it was obliged to stop him—initially only because of a mutual-defense pact with Poland; there were a shocking number of Hitler-supporters in England, and in the United States, and across the world, but Spark leaves all this significantly unstated—the specific member of the Brodie set who betrays her does so not because Miss Brodie teaches Fascism, which is merely the most “expedient” way to get her fired, but simply because Miss Brodie must be stopped. So even though the myriad sicknesses in this novel aren’t handled with the linguistic magic of, say, Lolita, its inconspicuous language plays nearly innumerable bait-and-switch games, perhaps mirroring Miss Brodie herself in the way that it surreptitiously seduces the unsuspecting reader into a complex world of deep and insidious corruption. In showing the reader not an overtly mad Hitler-figure dashing his way through a wildly horrific novel, but rather a cannily twisted member of our own side’s establishment weaving through a quietly controlled narrative structure, Spark’s subtler approach to exposing tyranny reveals a much more ordinary and thus much more thorny problem to eradicate: our own undiagnosed sickness.

—David Wiley