The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

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