Friday, March 14, 2008

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

I was surprised by this novel. I’ll be honest…I was surprised that I liked it. Picking it up, I was thinking of Goodbye Mr. Chips, another short novel about a beloved teacher, and which I had found utterly boring. But TPoMJB wasn’t like that at all.

Let’s begin with the prose: it was elliptical and repetitive - not bad repetitive, but poetic repetitive. The story is not told linearly, but through a jumping forward and backward in time, similar to Catch-22. In the beginning, the reader is presented with the fact that Miss Brodie is going to be betrayed, so you think, “ok, this novel is going to be about figuring out who betrayed Miss Brodie.” But it’s not…that who is revealed in the third chapter. So, it then becomes, why did she betray Miss Brodie? Above all, the prose is restrained. Not as restrained and bare-bones as Cormac McCarthy, but there is a sense of holding things back, and revealing them one by one.

On the surface the plot is fairly simple: six girls comprise the “Brodie Set:” a group of students who had grown very close to their charismatic teacher, Miss Brodie, at a girls’ school in 1930s Scotland. And of course, because of her unconventional style, the higher ups at the school want to find an excuse to get rid of her. Ultimately, one of Miss Brodie’s set “betrays” her (as in, gives the school an excuse to get rid of her), she is forced to retire, and she spends the rest of her days trying to figure out which one of the girls turned her in, never guessing that it was the one she groomed as her confidante, Sandy. This plot line could have made the novel a sermon on the benefits of a progressive education, or a diatribe against the educational establishment which doesn’t allow for alternative teaching methods, but that isn’t the way that the book goes. Miss Brodie isn’t simply an unconventional educator, however: she is as narcissistic as literary characters come, and seeks to establish control over the lives of her students to a dangerous – and deadly, in one case – degree.

I first got this sense when she started to tell her students (who, by the way, begin the book around age 11) of all the advances being made in Italy because of Mussolini. She eventually begins to glow about Hitler as well, whom she describes as “a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini.” Even after the war, when talking to one of her former students, she only admits that Hitler “was a little naughty.” That might be the understatement of the 20th century.

And then we have the situation of her love triangle: Miss Brodie is in love with Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher; he reciprocates her feelings, but is married with six children. The music teacher, Mr. Lowther (a bachelor) is also in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. However, as she feels that it is more appropriate to have an affair with an unmarried man, she starts sleeping with Mr. Lowther. Eventually, this takes on a very strange nature, as she tries to fatten him up and encourages her Set (who come to visit her at Mr. Lowther's house) to talk about Mr. Lloyd - in front of Mr. Lowther. Miss Brodie goes on about how Teddy Lloyd was the love of her life, but she "renounced his love in order to dedicate [her] prime to the young girls in [her] care." I wonder if she didn't pursue an affair with Mr. Lloyd just so that she could say that... it is almost more dramatic that she doesn't carry on with him, than if she did, because she can make a point out of her sacrifice of that love to her girls. As the girls grow close to Mr. Lloyd, they model for some of his paintings... but oddly enough, all of their faces always end up looking like Miss Brodie. In another twist, Miss Brodie becomes obsessed with trying to get Rose (one of the Set) to begin an affair with Mr. Lloyd. Why she wants one of her students to sleep with "the love of her life," I don't understand, but whatever, that's Miss Brodie for you (I know it's probably so that she can live vicariously through her, but it still is weird). Eventually, however, it is Sandy that has the affair with him, and Miss Brodie never seems quite confortable with that, though itdoesn't stop her from wanting to hear all about it. Sandy grows bored with Mr. Lloyd but fascinated by his secret devotion to her former teacher. Eventually, it is suggested, that part of the reason why she betrays Miss Brodie is because no matter how much she tried to understand Miss Brodie's appeal, she "failed to obliterate her image from the canvases of one-armed Teddy Lloyd."

Rereading what I've written here about the plot, I am struck by how Muriel Spark was able to cram so much into such a small book! And there was so much more to it than just what I've written...

Miss Brodie eventually is shown to be someone who thought that she had control, but ultimately didn’t (except over Joyce Emily, who she convinces to run away and fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where she is quickly killed). All of the girls from the set move on quickly, forming separate lives and identities as they cast off any influence Miss Brodie ever had over them (except Sandy). Mr. Lowther gets engaged to the science teacher behind Miss Brodie’s back, and while they're still sleeping with each other. Even her inability to figure out which girl betrayed her, and her obsession with figuring it out, is a testament to her self-absorbed, narcissistic personality. And just as, even after Hitler’s atrocities are well know, she is unable to admit that she might have been wrong about him, she never seemed to consider Sandy as the possible Judas, as to do so would cause her to question her own judgment in choosing Sandy as the confidante. The oddest suggestion in the book, however, is Sandy's assertion at the end that Miss Brodie is a repressed lesbian. I don't see that at all. Though she does seem oddly attracted in some way (not in the conventional sense) to her students, I think that rather than a lesbian, she portrays the signs of an abusive, controlling personality ("Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life"), who perhaps sees her impressionable students as easy prey. She wants followers who will believe in her own vision of herself - like Hitler. And there is Sandy, so many years later in her nunnery, still obsessed with Miss Brodie.

There are many different themes that could be pursued: Miss Brodie as the personficiation of the Cavlinist God, Miss Brodie's behavior and the parallels with fascism, etc. But I'm not going to pursue them here.

This was a really good book, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

1 comment:

Loraine said...

That was a nice review! Here's mine if you don't mind:

Thanks and have a nice day! :D