Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

And there was that day when the enquiring young man came to see Sandy because of her strange book of psychology, "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace," which had brought so many visitors that Sandy clutched the bars of her grille more desperately than ever.

"What were the main influences of your school days, Sister Helena? Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?"

Sandy said: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."

I loved this book, though I never thought I would. I had heard of it years ago, on Time's list of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, and I admit I said at the time "I'll never read that one":

A slender novel but far from flimsy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie enrolls the reader at Edinburgh's fictional Marcia Blaine School for Girls under the tutelage of one Jean Brodie, a magnetic, unconventional instructor whose favorite pupils—"the Brodie set"—are set apart from the rest of the student body by their superior attitudes and their intellectual awareness. The archly, tartly narrated adventures of these young girls and their eccentric, autocratic leader form a delightful group portrait, and something more: an immortal parable of the temptations of charisma and the dangers of power.

Edwardian girls' schools aren't exactly my thing. But I decided I would read it on the recommendation of James Wood, who had a lot of quite glowing things to say about it. In a discourse on character, he uses the titular character as a paragon of what a character can do who is not fleshed out in the most common sense--not bogged down by a thousand details in an effort to seem "round," which is a trope that Wood disdains.

"In the course of the novel we never leave the school to go home with Miss Brodie," Wood writes. "We never see her in private, offstage. Always, she is the performing teacher, keeping a public face." Instead, we come to know Brodie through her pupils, the "Brodie set," whom she has picked to be her special clique in the school. And yet they provide us with much information--we know, in a roundabout way, that Brodie is in love with the art teacher, one-armed Mr. Lloyd, but he is married and so she is having an affair with the music teacher, Mr. Lowther. We know that there is a great deal of sadness and desperation in this situation and in her, but we only come to realize these things through the filter that is the Brodie girls. When, as young girls, two of them invent the details of a long-ago torrid affair between Brodie and a slain soldier, it becomes as much part of her identity as anything else in the novel.

And yet, it is Brodie who has her hands on the marionettes. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel about predetermination. The setting, Scotland, is the epicenter of Calvinism, and it is no coincidence that Brodie is eventually ousted for having fascist sympathies. In one of the most chilling bits, she encourages a girl to leave school and fight for Franco in Spain, where the girl meets her death.

For similar purposes Spark uses a technique that Wood calls "flash-forwards"--though the book is mostly written chronologically, at certain points Spark provides us with information about what happens to the characters. We know early on that the stupidest of them, Mary MacGregor, dies in a fire; we know that Brodie is ousted because of the betrayal of one of her own set. We even know that the traitor is Sandy, who later becomes a nun. Very little mystery is left, as if Spark is telling us that Brodie--as odious as she can be--is essentially successful in determining her girls' path in life, brick by brick, though perhaps in ways she did not anticipate.

Beyond all this, or in the midst of it, is Spark's style, which is economical to the hilt. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie clocks in at a clean 150 pages; not a word is wasted on extraneous description or puffery. Really, everything I've ever read seems like a cluttered mess in comparison. But form, in this case, is function: Perhaps Spark, whose style is so mannered, so well-organized and structured, is asking us if her role as a novelist isn't a little bit like Brodie's role as a teacher, guiding her proteges through every step.

Even still, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has a charming lightness and an slight sense of humor. Jean Brodie is a clown, meant to be laughed at, a series of sayings that become more absurd as they are repeated. How many times and for how many years can you tell people that you are "in your prime" until it becomes demonstrably false? Perhaps we really have free will, perhaps we move along like trains on rails--but what can you do besides smile at it?

Side note: This is the 49th book I've read from the Time list. I am considering going for the whole thing.

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