The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The Crème de la Crème?

I’ve finally read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: that’s one more potential “Humiliation” winner gone!

spark

I very much enjoyed reading this novel. And yet I felt as if I understood better what it was about than why it was written as it was. Miss Jean Brodie is a fabulous character, as charismatic as a creation as she is as a teacher. I can’t disagree with Hal Hager’s effusive remarks in my sleek Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition: “Irrepressible, imperious, and irresistible, she has joined the ranks of those fictional characters who, through the sheer power of their lives on the printed page, endure in memory and in the culture from which they spring.” Long before this meeting with Miss Brodie on the page, I felt I knew her, partly from having seen (though years ago) the film with Maggie Smith, and partly also from the general circulation of lines from the novel: “For those who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like”; “You are the crème de la crème”; “I am a woman in my prime.”

The novel’s a fascinating study in the problematic allure of charismatic leadership: Miss Brodie’s fascination with fascism (“She had returned from Germany and Austria which were now magnificently organized”; “the German brown-shirts, she said, were exactly the same as the Italian black, only more reliable”) has a comic aspect but is also frighteningly apt, and reflective of her own power over her “set” — though that power proves more wishful or elusive than the forms of authoritarianism she so admires. Miss Brodie is perhaps the agent of her own undoing as a leader, as she fiercely individualizes her girls and preaches the evils of “team spirit” (“phrases like ‘the team spirit’ are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties”). It’s no wonder that this tension between leading and following eventually causes the set to implode.

The novel is equally preoccupied with the complications of sexual feelings: repression, desire, speculation, displacement. The girls’ prurient fascination with sex, and especially with Miss Brodie’s sex life (real and imagined), shows how entwined these feelings are with charismatic leadership, I thought: teaching, for instance, is always a kind of seduction, an attempt to win over hearts and minds, and Miss Brodie’s allure holds as long as she (knowingly or not) effectively channels her students’ erotic longings. Once they outgrow her — once they have sexual experience and power of their own, for instance — her grip on them begins to weaken.

There’s lot to think about in Spark’s strange, acerbic novel, lots to be amused and appalled at. But I was disoriented by some aspects of its style: I can’t see yet how they help me appreciate the tangle of emotions and politics and personalities the novel brings together. For instance, why does Spark insist so repetitively on characterization by tagline — there’s Rose (“famous for sex”), Mary (dies in the fire), Monica (mental math and fits of anger),  Eunice (does the splits), Sandy (“small, almost nonexistent eyes”). I appreciate that we need to get them all sorted, and that these are shorthand ways of indicating some fundamental things about them, but why reiterate their tags so incessantly? And why does Spark love prolepsis so? The chronology of the novel as a whole is quite an intricate braid of events from 1933 to 1939, but there’s a constant flitting still further ahead to the girls’ futures, as well as to Miss Brodie’s eventual end. Perhaps it is a way to signal that, intense as the school experience is, it is only a short interlude — or, the other way around, to bring out the lasting effects of early influences? I’d be interested in anyone’s ideas about  unities of form and content! My expectations were very high for this novel, and I’m a bit disappointed that at this point it seems more glittery than brilliant.

4 Comments to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The Crème de la Crème?

  1. June 24, 2013 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favorite novels of all time. It seems to me that Spark is playing with ideas of character and how we (as people) and how literary characters are shaped and whether we can ever escape our predestined fate (predestination being a big, Scottish Calvinist topic). Does Sandy ever escape her fate (clutching at the bars at the end) or is she anxious, or guilty because she has? Is Miss Brodie, in the end, trapped by her perception of her own character? She seems to see herself purely in artistic terms (her relationships is a love story, for example). How does facism (as Brodie practices it anyway) with its emphasis on aesthetics and theater craft identity differently from the pragmatic, Scottish utilitarian identity of the school (some critics also bring in the importance of Catholicism and art in discussions of this text). The flashes forwards seem to be part of that oscillation from what they are and what they are capable of becoming. I think if you read it three or four more times, the art of the novel will become more apparent. I have read it at least 20 or 30 times and taught it twice (to great appreciation). Taught with a host of other Scottish books , some of the subtler aspects of the text are more apparent.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    June 24, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    That’s a very illuminating comment – thank you. Calvinism: of course. I should have thought about the emphasis on their fates as a way of signalling predestination. Do you think that lies behind the taglines too — that character too is destiny? Does that make it a mistake to think (as Miss Brodie does) as a character in a story — does retelling and reshaping as different stories just deny the more limited / reductive reality? Is art a means of resisting predestination?

    “that oscillation from what they are and what they are capable of becoming” — beautifully put.

    I doubt I will ever come close to your 20 or 30 readings, but I will certainly read it more than once.

  3. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    June 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Following up: I peered around my office bookshelves (where I have not a lot about 20thC fiction, being a “Victorianist”) — in the Blackwell Companion to the British & Irish Novel 1945-2000 there’s an interesting essay by Bryan Cheyette on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that elaborates on some of the same themes, e.g. “The comic version of Calvinistic determinism can be found in the self-classifications that each of her students promotes . . . ” He also notes that this novel is “the first sustained use of Sparks’s distinctive flash-forward technique,” so I guess I should be prepared to run into it again. It’s good to know it is “distinctive,” though, not just something that for no good reason struck me as unusual.

  4. July 1, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Re the taglines: about halfway through the book, puzzling over their repetition, I gasped. She’s Miss-Brodie-ing me, I thought–that is, Muriel Spark. She’s telling me how to see these girls, how to categorize them. It felt, in that moment, diabolically clever, as if Spark were daring me to form my own opinions, or to question her motives. Every time I had a thought of my own, there she was again, reducing Sandy to small eyes or Rose to sex. It’s a device, but a crafty one, echoing Miss Brodie’s power and influence over the girls. A risky device–but it got under my skin and did shape my understanding of the set, and of the way Miss Brodie deliberately, unabashedly went about planting her ideas and convictions in “her” girls’ minds. It created a kind of tension between me, the reader, and the narrator that I’ve never experienced in another book. That was the moment I stopped simply admiring Spark and fell in love with her.

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