Home > 1960, 20th Century, British Literature, Novel, Spark Muriel > Muriel & me: sparks but no blazing fire

Muriel & me: sparks but no blazing fire

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. 1961. French titleLes belles années de Miss Brodie.

This is our Book Club’s readalong for December. OK, the title of the review slightly gives away my opinion of the book. Not smart of me to wear it on my sleeve like that, now you’re tempted to discard the review. Tant pis. I have a thing for books about schools, students and teachers. I loved Changing Places by David Lodge, Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, The Secret History by Donna Tart, I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, The Golden Kite by Deszö Kostolanyi, and I forget some others. You’d think book references would pop up when I was reading. Not at all. First paragraphs…

The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. Bu there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

These girls formed the Brodie set. That was what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve.

…and all I could see was Robin Williams and his boys in Dead Poets Society. Unfortunately, I remember this film very well, I’ve seen it with the French teacher in my teens and all the girls would look at Robert Sean Leonard and swoon. Anyway, I had a hard time finding my mental broom to sweep away the images but I managed to push them under a carpet of teenage memories. Now, Miss Brodie and her set…

We’re in the 1930s in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is a mistress in the rich girls school Marcia Blaine and she has the most unconventional teaching methods. She teaches under the trees, disregards traditional material and mostly relates her personal experiences. She writes props on the blackboard, recalls the girls what they need to say should the headmistress grill them about their classes. She doesn’t want students, she wants an audience.

Miss Brodie has a set of five favorite pupils she invites at home for tea or brings along to walks. The six are Jenny Gray who will be an actress, Sandy Stranger who will be a nun and a writer, Monica Douglas, with a head for mathematics, Mary McPherson whose stupidity will lead her to an untimely death in an hotel fire, Rose Stanley, the former tomboy and subsequent sex wanton, Eunice Gardiner, the sportswoman. A sixth one, Joyce Emily Hammond will join the group in their last school year. No spoiler there, that piece of information comes at the beginning of the book as the narrative isn’t chronological but goes back and forth in time. There is no definite narrator; Miss Brodie is dead and the events aren’t told by one of her former pupils either. With a patchwork of scenes and memories, the reader progressively reconstructs Miss Brodie’s picture. Her fiancé died in the trenches; she is a progressive spinster and Muriel Spark reminds us that:

There were legions of her kind in the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowed their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

Her unorthodox teaching methods and her after-school activities will deeply influence the Brodie set, especially Sandy. Miss Brodie’s lessons mostly consist in telling them her love life and her constant fight against the prim and proper headmistress. She exposes her set to adult relationships, struggles for power and love affairs. It’s a drop in the big cold bath of adulthood without teaching them how to swim. Their walks in different neighborhoods of Edinburgh dive the girls into other social environments and wakes up their awareness to poverty and unemployment.

My vision of the book is as deconstructed as Miss Brodie’s classes. Of course it shows how influential teachers can be. They combine authority and knowledge, are the first adults outside of the family circle in their students’ lives and are an educational relay outside home. Miss Brodie always reminds her students that she’s in her prime and that brought the book title. In 1931, the girls are 11 and Miss Jean Brodie is 41, not exactly what you could call “prime” at the time. That single assumption is totally opposite to the idea of old age I pointed out in Fitzgerald’s short story O Russet Witch. It confirms Miss Brodie’s oddity, her modern vision of herself.

It’s also surprising how much this book talks about sex. For once, it shows girls’ curiosity for sex in their teens. It’s very common to describe it for boys but less for girls. Usually, girls have girly talks about romance and knights in shining armors. Is it because the writer is a woman? Is it because she put part of her childhood in that book?

Page after page, we discover the shady sides of Miss Brodie’s personality. She’s manipulative, rather egoistical and slightly ridiculous. Her admiration for Mussolini and Hitler disqualifies her as a good leading model for her set. I wonder how someone so unconventional could be interested in dictators. Aren’t dictatorships synonyms to freedom deprivation? Doesn’t she worship and advertise her freedom? If she didn’t assess these regimes for what they were, it throws a doubt on her intelligence.

I also noticed the setting in Scotland and the constant need to mention someone’s “Scottishness” or “Englishness”. I’ve read the novel in English and Muriel Spark insists on Jenny’s mother being English or on accents and differences in pronunciation. It’s an us-versus-them atmosphere, something very strange for a native of a centralized country; the only similar opposition I see in France is Parisians versus the other French. I could feel the weight of history between the lines and old resentment fueled by religious differences. It sounded so rooted that it shocked me.

I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s style, although I’m certain that I didn’t get all the jokes she put in it. I had fun being in Sandy’s imaginative mind and the abrupt switches from reality to her inner world were efficient to make me taste her feeling of being there in body but not quite in mind. Muriel Spark subtly describes the shift between childhood and adulthood in little remarks such as Sandy seeing Miss Brodie as Jean, ie as a woman and no more as Miss Brodie, ie as an institution, a teacher. It’s something Kosztolanyi masterly depicts in The Golden Kite. She goes from blind awe to awareness, that’s the definition of growing up.

PS: As an aside, when I read Edith Wharton I thought I could almost hear the French under her English; I was wondering if it was my imagination. Leaping from Wharton to Spark confirmed my impression of Wharton’s style.

AFTER OUR MEETING
J&C didn’t like the book. Boredom was the word used to describe it. And disappointment too: C expected Miss Brodie to be a positive role model, like the one in Dead Poets Society. Here, neither the teacher nor the girls were likeable characters. Miss Brodie seemed unbalanced and her admiration for Hitler and Mussolini was despicable just as her manipulating the girls.

The construction of the narrative was confusing and it was hard to remember who was who and the girls names.
That a teacher invites students for tea is strange for us. It’s inappropriate here, we supposed it’s a British thing. I wasn’t the only one to notice the antagonism between the Scots and the English.

  1. December 23, 2011 at 3:34 am

    I read this year’s ago and remember absolutely nothing about it, but I don’t think I was much impressed either. It’s quite well respected in this country generally. – Yes, the Scots and the English don’t really like one another, though it’s hard to tell sometimes whether this animosity is real or if we are just playing roles. – The tea might be a public (sc. private) school thing (my teacher used to give us tea/coffee in the sixth form – 16-18): it leads to a breaking down of barriers, which is perhaps useful for teaching (particularly in an inspirational way). It’s not a general thing though: so I suspect is part of Jean Brodie’s eccentricity.

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    • December 23, 2011 at 9:02 am

      Hi,

      About tea and teachers: it happens in Jane Eyre too.
      I can’t tell how it is in private schools here but generally speaking, there’s a barrier between teachers and students. It would be really frowned upon if a teacher selected some pupils so openly and met them outside the school context. It smells of favouritism and it’s not acceptable.

      Like

  2. December 23, 2011 at 4:11 am

    I’ve read a fair number of Spark’s novels and this one doesn’t come close to being my favourite, yet it seems to be the one most talked about. I was disappointed in it when compared to some of the others of hers I’ve read.

    Like

    • December 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

      That’s good to know.
      What’s her best one according to you?

      Like

  3. December 23, 2011 at 7:10 am

    “It’s an us-versus-them atmosphere, something very strange for a native of a centralized country…”

    You’re assuming that they come from the same country – many people would disagree with you on that…

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    • December 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

      I’m assuming it’s the same country because seen from this side of the Channel, it is. I’d expect animosity in Northern Ireland, of course, but not between Scotland/Wales/England.

      According to Michel Winock (see my reviews of La Belle Epoque), the 3rd Republic built a strong French identity around the concept of the Republic in a country that had always been centralized. (Louis XIV weakened the aristocraty by centralizing them in Versailles, killing any will to revolt against the central power) During the 3rd Republic, school became mandatory, secular and free. The teachers were the army to impose the French language everywhere, teach the same lessons everywhere. (We laugh now when we think that in the colonies, they were teaching the locals “my ancestors the Gaulois”.) The idea of a revenge of the 1870 debacle brought together the French too.

      It doesn’t mean that there aren’t regional particularities. But most people feel French before anything else. (except in Corsica perhaps) When I hear a Marseillais or a Toulousain, I hear an accent. We may make fun of one another but there’s no animosity. Except against the Parisians who, for some of them, look down on the Provinciaux who in return think they have a crazy way of life.

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      • December 23, 2011 at 9:45 am

        And even if it were another country, why should there be that animosity?
        Is it because the book is set during the 1930s? Hatred is a component of the 1930s. Not that the feeling here is that strong, I just mean that the international atmosphere wasn’t peaceful.

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        • December 23, 2011 at 9:54 am

          The Welsh were forcibly dragged into a union with England a good while back (13th/14th C), while the Scots finally had to enter the union at the start of the 18th century. Before this, England and Scotland were two distinct countries – and some would argue that they still are. Scotland now has its own parliament, and as the Scottish National Party has a majority, there is likely to be a referendum on Scottish independence at some point over the next few years.

          As for the hatred, well, I think that a few centuries of bloodshed does that…

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          • December 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

            I know that but even the bloodshed doesn’t explain or justify it.

            Otherwise in my region (Alsace-Moselle), we should hold a grudge against the Germans and we don’t. I used to live not far from three borders and there isn’t such an animosity, the peoples try to get the best of the three countries. (There’s a Saar-Lor-Lux, ie Saar, Lorraine, Luxembourg and Wallonie entity to promote the region.) Maybe it’s cultural, after all, it’s Robert Schuman’s region.
            And of course, that’s how it is now, I can’t tell how it was in the 1930s.

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  4. December 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I found it extremely funny, sarcastic and it made me laugh a lot but all in all I do not remember all that much anymore.
    In any case… I’m dreading your Autumn review… One of my favourite books ever….

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    • December 23, 2011 at 10:35 am

      I didn’t laugh. I thought it was because my English isn’t precise enough but according to my friends it wasn’t funnier in translation.

      I haven’t read much of Autumn. At least now I know that Lizzie Siddal isn’t just a book blogger !!

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  5. December 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I love this novel. Partly as I find it very funny, but partly because of the structural elements. It cuts back and forth in time. It turns on the question of who betrayed Miss Brodie, but the question is ultimately unimportant and for the narrator tiresome. It’s not remotely like Dead Poets. There’s nothing uplifting here. Miss Brodie is a deeply questionable character more concerned with her own specialness (which requires that others not be special, which leads here I think to the temptations of fascism with its heirarchies and shallow elitisms) and so by proxy her girls must be special, but they’re not particularly.

    Miss Brodie’s prime is of course as you note a self-assertion. It’s not clear though that she ever had a prime, or if she did that this is/was it. Her prime becomes a contrast to what follows, the loss of her prime, through the betrayal of girls who owe her far less than the thinks they do.

    I actually think it’s quite a dark novel. At first it seems on familiar ground – the inspiring teacher, the pupils different to those around them and their mutual battle against deadening conformity, but it becomes aparent that none of that is really true. The girls are pretty, but otherwise ordinary. Miss Brodie is another petty fascist of the sort so common to that period (they pop up a lot in Patrick Hamilton’s stories). Her originality is more vanity than a desire to genuinely change the girls, she wants them changed only because of what that says about her, not because of what it could do for them. They however are indifferent to being changed. Everyone is shot through with pettiness. It’s definitely a novel without any likeable primary characters, but that’s not an accident. It’s also very Scottish – the black humour that runs through it is a very Scottish style of comedy.

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    • December 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

      I didn’t see the dark humour apart from here and there. I expected funny but I had no other preconceived idea about the novel. I came to it with a fresh mind and I was disappointed not to find it that funny. I even wondered if it was wise to read it in English. So I guess I really missed the humour. Too bad, I usually enjoy dark humour.

      I agree, the question of who betrayed Miss Brodie isn’t essential and as a reader I didn’t care.

      I also agree about Miss Brodie’s vanity. That’s what I meant when I said she wants an audience more than students. I don’t think she really wants to teach something, she wants to be the queen of her little court. Vanity associated with a love of power is a lethal combination.

      It’s a dark novel. Miss Brodie is manipulative and unhealthy. Her scheme to push Rose into the arms of the Art teacher is disgusting.

      I wondered what she actually brought to her set.
      – She put them out of their cosy homes and confronted them to the reality of poverty and unemployment. Something they wouldn’t have done with their parents.
      – She made them question authority, which is always healthy,
      – At first I thought she would damage their studies, since she was talking about her love life, her trips and her problems with the headmistress instead of teacher math and English. But later, the narrator says they were among the best students in Senior School.

      Ultimately, she was betrayed by a girl who knew how to think by herself and was able to question authority and brave enough to take action to put an end to her unhealthy behaviour. With her twisted ways, she managed quite well.

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  6. December 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Its very interesting to read a review from a French perspective. Now that the Scottish and Welsh have a sort of independence from Britain the gap between the nations is even bigger. We all get on well on a personal level as far as I can tell – one of my best friends is Welsh, but he does tend to annoy me with his obvious opinions about the greatness of Wales and all things Welsh – centring particularly on rugby. The Scots have more animosity to the English than the other way around. I wonder how much is due to the very different way of speaking – We English find it very hard to understand the Glasgow accent for example. I supposed Belgium has the same sort of divide.

    I find time and time again that a book which was highly thought of a few years ago is disappointing when you come to read it twenty years on. Books date very quickly and while the classics can stay timeless, most books just drop into obscurity.

    Thanks for visiting my site over the year and leaving comments – all much appreciated.

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    • December 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for your interesting comment. Can you recommend me a Welsh book for my EU Book Tour?

      I enjoy reading your reviews (I have a backlog, I hope I’ll get to them next week). I wish you a Merry Christmas with your family.

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  7. December 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I do like Muriel Spark, but she’s sharp and, well, a bit bitchy I suppose. She is interested in antagonisms between people and in their darker sides, so I expect she does play up the differences between Scotland and England, and present a teacher who is powerful but not wholly admirable. Many people would agree that teachers and students should not become friends, and it’s considered very wrong for teachers to have ‘favourites’. But Spark wouldn’t be interested in any of that – it’s precisely where people fail and act out of prejudice and weakness that she focuses. But she does it quite elegantly and smoothly – it may well come across as boring or bland, unless you become attuned to the picky niggling satire underneath. If you fancy trying her again, read The Comforters. That’s an interesting novel.

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    • December 26, 2011 at 10:30 am

      I heard the steel under her words. (Main de fer dans un gant de velours, that’s her style)
      Though we don’t know who the narrator is, he/she describes the situation with the eyes of a growing child. Like in What Maisie Knew, the reader understands that Miss Brodie isn’t an admirable teacher before the narrator does and reads him/her progress in his/her discovery of how disputable and even ridiculous Miss Brodie is.
      It’s a good book but it didn’t reach me emotionnally. The style was a bit difficult for me and it didn’t help.
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll add it to my list.

      Like

  1. April 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm
  2. July 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm

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