The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I liked this book well enough to read it twice (as I considered doing in this post), one time right after the other. It was well worth the re-read.

The story is about the “Brodie set,” six girls whom Miss Jean Brodie, a schoolteacher, takes under her wing, nurturing them and teaching them her version of culture – and sometimes the regular school lessons too. Spark sums up each of the girls in a few phrases which she repeats throughout the book. There is Monica Douglas, “famous mostly for mathematics which she could do in her brain, and for her anger which, when it was lively enough, drove her to slap out to right and left.” There is Rose Stanley, “famous for sex,” Eunice Gardiner, “small, neat and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamourous swimming,” Jenny Gray, who will become an actress and is “the prettiest and most graceful girl of the set,” and Mary Macgregor “whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” Most importantly, though, there is Sandy Stranger, whom the book will follow most closely. She is famous for her squinty, disconcerting eyes.

Brodie is an unconventional teacher; she spends much class time telling stories, some of which are about her love life, and while she tells stories she sometimes asks students to hold up their books so that if the headmistress walks into the classroom they will look like they are working. She doesn’t balk at instilling her particular eccentric opinions and biases, and while she claims the sciences have their place, she makes it clear that art is what really matters.

Most importantly, she forms her “set,” the girls she cultivates particular relationships with, and who remain loyal to her even once they have passed through her classroom and moved on to higher grades. Her unconventional teaching and the loyalty of this set upset the other teachers and the headmistress, who spend the book scheming to get rid of Miss Brodie. This forms part of the tension of the novel: will she lose her job? Will the girls remain loyal to her? Who is it who finally betrayed her?

The nature of Brodie’s relationship with the girls is what’s really at the center of the novel, and this relationship changes – at first they admire her and follow her almost unthinkingly, and as the novel progresses, the girls grow up, and begin to question her, Sandy especially. And Brodie herself changes, from an idealistic, independent role model, dedicating the “prime of her life” to the girls, to something much more sinister. Sandy must separate herself from Brodie in order to figure out who she is and to become an adult. Sandy struggles with the feeling that she is too-closely identified with Brodie quite early on; in one scene when Sandy is tempted to be nice to Mary, a girl to whom almost no one is nice, she stops when she realizes Brodie is nearby:

The sound of Miss Brodie’s presence, just when it was on the tip of Sandy’s tongue to be nice to Mary Macgregor, arrested the urge. Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making.

And, ominously, Brodie admires Mussolini and the fascists. The novel is set in the 1930s, and we as readers understand just what it means to admire Mussolini. And here are Sandy’s thoughts, shortly after the passage quoted above:

It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching alone. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it. Sandy thought she might see about joining the Brownies. Then the group-fright seized her again, and it was necessary to put the idea aside, because she loved Miss Brodie.

So Sandy’s struggle with Brodie – her love for her, her admiration for her, her suspicion of her, and eventually her feeling of suffocation because of her – becomes a way of thinking about the larger cultural lure of and struggle with fascism.

The girls’ curiosity about sex is a part of the story too; they try to imagine Brodie with her lovers and figure out the mechanics of sex, and then they observe in fascination as she begins an affair with one instructor, Mr. Lowther, and falls in love with another, Mr. Lloyd. They are both thrilled and horrified. But Brodie crosses a line when she starts scheming to turn the now late-adolescent Rose into Mr. Lloyd’s lover, as a proxy for herself. Sandy is fully aware of what is going on, and reacts in her own, completely unexpected way. Near the end of the novel, she tries to come to terms with what is happening:

She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed.

It is when Sandy realizes that Brodie “thinks she is Providence … she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end” that she is able to separate herself fully. Sandy is a mysterious character; I’m intrigued by her decision to become a nun, and I’m not sure I fully understand it, except that she has a longing for order, inspired in part by Brodie:

All the time they were under her influence she and her actions were outside the context of right and wrong. It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects …

Sandy seems to shuttle back and forth between longing for order and feeling stifled by an order too powerfully imposed on her. It takes her a long time, and perhaps it also takes the experience of being a nun, to learn to value a fruitful disorder. But this is something that as an adolescent she is not prepared to deal with.

The writing style is spare and economical, and Spark uses repetition – of the girls’ defining characteristics, of the phrase “the prime of life,” – which creates a sense of an incantation, as though she can conjure up a sense of her characters, not through the accretion of detail, but by dwelling on the most telling details over and over again. And she moves around in time, skipping back and forth while the story slowly reveals itself. It’s as though she’s circling around the main point, approaching it from many angles, giving us the story in a disjointed way that over time begins to come together.

I found Sandy’s artistic interests intriguing; here Spark dwells on the way the artist seeks out patterns and creates patterns out of life. Sandy realizes after a while that Brodie embellishes her stories and changes them to suit her moods. In this example, the girls are thinking about Brodie’s retelling of the story of her love affair with Hugh, an event that predates the novel:

This was the first time the girls had heard of Hugh’s artistic leanings. Sandy puzzled over this and took counsel with Jenny, and it came to them both that Miss Brodie was making her new story fit the old. Thereafter the two girls listened with double ears, and the rest of the class with single.

Sandy is fascinated by this method of making patterns with facts, and is divided between her admiration for the technique and the pressing need to prove Miss Brodie guilty of misconduct.

This is the same conflict we saw in Sandy’s response to Brodie’s “group-think,” the lure of Brodie’s cult of personality and the fear of chaos she evokes. Sandy is attracted and repelled by Brodie’s disorder, the willingness to play with facts if this makes a better story, the impulse to shape the world to meet the demands of art.

Spark’s own shaping of the raw materials of life is obvious in the novel; she draws attention through the repetition and the shifts in time to the fact that the novel is a constructed, made thing. She is not straightforwardly “realistic.” Her characters have life and interest, but she is more concerned with locating the patterns of their lives and interactions than with accumulating detail about them, in the way most novels do. Spark does brilliant things with her short form; using just a few details, she creates the sense of real, complete human beings, but her economy of detail also allows the underlying lines and patterns to shine through.

For my thoughts on another Spark novel, Aiding and Abetting, see this post.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Fiction

One response to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

  1. Pingback: Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) « Smithereens

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