The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieI have an extremely clear memory of reading this book, one school summer holiday, sitting on a train and looking out of the window as we passed through Dawlish in Devon, where the train tracks seem almost to run over the sea itself. I remember enjoying the book, feeling a kindred spirit with the six schoolgirls of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’, all madly obsessed with finding out about sex, and under the spell of their teacher, Jean Brodie, who is forever telling them that she is in her prime.

Reading it again, in my thirties, it is a completely different book, and even better than I remembered.

This time round there seems to be a horrible poignancy to Spark’s portrayal of the schoolgirls. The narrative is extremely sophisticated, moving about in time (but she does this easily, not joltingly) so that we get little flashes of what will happen to the girls when they grow up. Mary’s innocent vagueness and clumsiness, we soon learn, will one day get her killed in a hotel fire:

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor – was it you, Mary?’

‘I don’t know, Miss Brodie.’

‘I dare say it was you. I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl. And if you can’t take an interest in what I am saying, please try to look as if you do.’

These were the days that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.

The year is 1936; Miss Brodie tells us: ‘The age of chivalry is dead’. Chivalry is dead, and so are all the young men killed by the First World War, including Miss Brodie’s fiancé. And, of course we know that many more will die in the Second World War, which isn’t far off. But Spark shows us this little glinting corner of life – the six girls of Miss Brodie’s set, at this moment of their unconventional education, before their innocence is extinguished, and in the case of poor Mary Macgregor, her life too.

And yet what exactly does Miss Brodie, in her prime, achieve with her girls?

In her lessons, Miss Brodie tells the girls to hold up their school books, ‘in case of intruders’ before regaling them with stories about her lovers and her holidays, which are usually in Italy:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

I read this last week, pre-Brexit, and kept on trying to reassure myself that good old Miss Jean Brodie would have voted Remain, as she is forever proudly telling her girls that they are Europeans. But whatever comfort this provided was rather undermined as Miss Brodie is also a great admirer of Mussolini, telling her girls that he:

put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets.

Miss Brodie is perenially at odds with the rest of the school, claiming that this is due to her differing ideas about education, which she sees as nurturing individuals rather than forging clone-like teams – though in fact the school’s disapproval of her is largely due to her inappropriate sexual liaisons. Moreover, it becomes clear that in actual fact Miss Brodie is just trying to create clones of herself in her ‘crème de la crème’. She succeeds to some extent, when the art teacher, after kissing her, paints portraits of her girls – all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Miss Brodie.

There is a lovely review of the book on Book Snob’s blog (here), in which she questions why Miss Brodie is so driven to make the girls in her image:

I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ – but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

It’s a nice point and makes the book all the sadder. For this is the clever, weird, slippery thing about this brilliant slim book: I read it and found myself laughing and laughing all the way through – at the brilliant observations, the sharp turn of phrase, Spark’s ingenious wit and skilful brevity – but all the while, it also made me extremely sad.

Miss Brodie, for all the force of being in her prime, achieves very little. Her girls go off in the directions they would have taken anyway, and the one she thinks is the most loyal is the one who eventually betrays her. Her love affairs are unsatisfactory and she remains essentially alone, and all the more so for being so misguided in her fervent political beliefs.

I suppose Spark is asking: what can a woman in her prime do? And when is a woman in her prime? What about poor Mary Macgregor and her all-too-brief life, did she ever reach her prime? It’s a question which is ever relevant – as we battle our way through the exhausting minefield of balancing children and careers, surely we’re thinking: here we are, in our prime, and what on earth are we actually achieving? (Please tell me it’s not just me who is always worrying about this!)

Anyway, thank God, Miss Brodie did achieve something in her prime. Even if it wasn’t especially tangible, she made an unforgettable impression on her students – and on her readers. Sandy speaks for everyone when, in later life, she is asked about her main influence. She says, in the closing sentence of the book:

There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

How I hope that in however many years’ time we won’t be doomed to looking back on the main influence on our lives and reflect, ‘There was a Mr David Cameron, in his prime… ‘ I suppose we just have to hope that the future holds something brighter than that faced by Miss Brodie’s girls in 1936.


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14 Responses to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

  1. Adrian Fingleton Says:

    Great review, beautifully written in the shadow of Brexit. Well done…

  2. Elizabeth Harris Says:

    Thanks for this insightful remembrance of the book. Maybe Miss Brodie insists she is in her prime because she’s afraid she’s past it in some conventional understanding of what that is.

    No, you’re definitely not the only person wondering why we’re here. But maybe what we’re achieving isn’t quite the right question–though I, too, am madly writing another novel and trying to sell the one that’s published and hustling a publisher for the one that’s finished but not published, etc. Maybe what we need do, as E.M. Forster says is, “Only connect!”

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh Elizabeth – wise words! When in doubt, always remember Forster. I think we can all imagine what he would have made of Brexit, and its severance of vital connections. Best of luck with your own writing and hustling.

  3. Bespoke Traveler Says:

    How poignantly this book still rings! Every time I read it the words of Maya Angelou ring in my ears: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  4. Lucy B Says:

    The 1978 series is showing all this week on TRUE ENTERTAINMENT CHANNEL–FREEVIEW 61.
    SEVEN PARTS.Part i and 2 on yesterday and 3 and 4 today.They may repeat it i suppose.

  5. BookerTalk Says:

    this is my favourite Spark novel so far purely because of that contrast you highlight between the sparkle and humour but yet the tinge of discomfort

    • emilybooks Says:

      Yes I quite agree – it’s such a skilful contrast to pull off, and she does it with great aplomb. As a writer, it makes me long for even a shred of her talent!

  6. elizabeth Says:

    So I must re-read Miss Brodie and see what I think. We are very battered ( even in the US!) post-Brexit.
    As to what our legacy will be ……hm…. what we’ve written and our children and grandchildren, and, if we were teachers, our students probably skewed memories of some dim lesson.
    Sadly, too many Miss Brodies out there in teaching – teaching about themselves and their particular views to impressionable youth.
    Yes, EM Forster would be having a fit.
    We are all having fits and terribly sad.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah Elizabeth, I’m sorry to hear that Brexit bleakness has spread even to the States… Do re-read Miss Brodie, I’d love to know what you think.

  7. td_Whittle Says:

    Muriel Spark is a favourite of mine and I have read nearly everything she’s written or had written about her (including the imperfect but interesting biography of her life written by Martin Stannard). I think it would be very difficult to guess which side of politics MS would come down on, despite her characters’ stated preferences. MS was devoutly Catholic and conservative in her last several decades of life and of course spent most of her elder years in Italy. These things influenced her writing as well as her life, but not so conspicuously that one is able to read her politics retroactively.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks so much, really interesting to know all this. The biography sounds illuminating – thanks for the tip.

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