The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short, comic, laconic tale set in a 1930s Edinburgh girls school by Muriel Spark. It takes us into the heart of the metaphysics of betrayal, sin, redemption, eternal damnation, guilt and fall from grace in a light, crisp, epigrammatic style.
Miss Brodie is a dazzling, radiant teacher in her Prime. Academically trained she is the controlling and guiding spirit of her set of eleven year old pupils. She lectures on the lives of the artists, the magnetism of Italy, the tertiary colours of the pre-Raphaelites (russet and olive green, which is just right for my colouring), the benefits of witch hazel, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the interior decoration of the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, the love life of Charlotte Bronté, the Latin and Greek etymology of words, the benefit of cream for the skin, the Lady of Shallot. What does it matter if her set, Sandy, Jenny, Monica, Rose, Mary and Eunice, are only able to count using their fingers? They are vastly informed on subjects irrelevant to the curriculum.
We are not given, in this narrative, access to Miss Brodie’s interior life – we never see her outside of Sandy’s nasty little pig-like eyes. But we have access to her by hearing her, hearing her intoxicating rhetoric and dazzling non-sequiturs:
- I am putting old heads of your young shoulders and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. I have dedicated myself to you girls in my Prime.
- I am the descendant of Willie Brodie, a man of substance, a cabinet maker and designer of gibbets, a member of the Town Council of Edinburgh and a keeper of two mistresses who bore him five children between them. Blood tells.
- Where there is no vision, the people perish. Eunice, come and do a somersault in order that we may have comic relief.
- These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the year’s of one’s prime, always remember that. Here is my tram car.
- Edinburgh is the city of Hume and Boswell, a European capital.
- You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage from the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms I would decline it
- Art and religion first, then philosophy, then science.
- We shall discuss tomorrow night the persons who oppose me. But rest assured they shall not succeed.
- “Who is the greatest Italian painter?” “Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.” “That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”
- ‘You will end up a Girl guide leader in a suburb’ she said warningly to Eunice.
- Give me girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.
- Anna Pavlova contemplates her swans in order to perfect her swan dance, she studies them. That is true dedication. You must all grow up to be dedicated women as I have dedicated myself to you.
- Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. ‘Hail Ceasar!’ she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. ‘Who opened the window?’ said Miss Brodie dropping her arm. Nobody answered. ‘Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide. Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things.’
- But as this your last year with me you will receive the fruits of my prime. They will remain with you all your days. First, however, I must mark the register for today.
- If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.
- Form a single file, now, please and walk with your heads up, up, like Sybil Thorndyke, a woman of noble mien.
- I have to consult you about a new plot which is afoot to force me to resign. Needless to say, I shall not resign.
- For those who like that sort of thing”, said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “that is the sort of thing that they like.
Miss Brodie is a tragicomic figure, magnificent and preposterous, magnetic and dangerous, glamorous and fascistic, charismatic and egotistical, vital and manipulative, imperious and ridiculous. We as readers, like her girls, fall under her spell never to relinquish our enchantment. With her preposterous certainties and disregard for accuracy Miss Brodie moulds her impressionable pupils: she predicts their fate, and then works to ensure her prediction. Rose will be famous for her sex-appeal; Sandy for her vowels and insight; Eunice for gymnastics; dumpy Mary will alas not be famous for anything (and so it is ordained that she will suffer). Like the Jesuits, Miss Brodie decides children’s futures for them: give me girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. Muriel Spark uses that rare technique in a novel: the flash forward. This shifting of the temporal back and forward from present to past to future occurs sometimes within the same paragraph. We move from 1936 to 1930 and then to 1959 and then back again all within a few pages. This proleptic use of time means the actual fate of the girls is told well in advance. We know early on that Miss Brodie will be betrayed by one of her set, that Mary will die in a hotel fire in Cumberland after the war, that Eunice will marry a doctor, that Sandy will become a nun, that Joyce Emily will die at the Spanish Civil War, that Miss Brodie will be betrayed by her closest confident, Sandy. Miss Brodie may be, with her hubristic desire for control, seeking to manipulate the future of her pupils, but it is Sandy who will decide her fate.
The days passed and the wind blew in from the Forth.
Muriel Spark is not the only one telling a story. Sandy is also a story teller, and we have access to her internal dialogues:
- with Alan Breck from Stevenson’s Kidnapped fondly remembering their breathtaking flight through the heather a year and a day before;
- with Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre with whom she sits in a garden accepting compliments;
- with Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot who places a white hand on Sandy’s shoulder and commiserates with her love worries;
- with Anna Pavlova who pleads with Sandy, and her perfect swan dance, to take over and carry the flame.
If Spark puts us straight into Sandy’s sumptuous imagination, she totally refuses us access to Miss Brodie’s interior life. Held back with an economy of words, we only have access to Miss Brodie through Sandy. But is this eleven year old imaginative fantasist giving us a reliable version of her idol? Is Miss Brodie actually in love with Teddy Lloyd (the art master) and Gordon Lowther (the singing master) or is this all Sandy’s fantasy? Miss Brodie declaims to the girls the tragic and moving story of her fiancé Hugh who fell on Flanders field days before the armistice. Sandy notices when Miss Brodie repeats the story a few terms later, Hugh is now given a lovely singing voice and a keen artistic talent. Is Sandy over-reading all this? Miss Brodie’s love life provides much material for Sandy’s own writing. Sandy constructs, on their behalf, the moving correspondence between Miss Brodie and Mr Lowther. Here is one of the letters (this is Spark as Sandy as Brodie):
My Own Delightful Gordon,
Your letter has moved me deeply as you may imagine. But alas, I must ever decline to be Mrs Lowther. My reasons are two-fold. I am dedicated to my girls as is Madam Pavlova, and there is another in my life whose mutual love reaches out to me beyond the bounds of Time and Space. He is Teddy Lloyd! Intimacy has never taken place with him. He is married to another. One day in the art room we melted into each others’ arms and knew the truth. But I was proud of giving myself to you when you came and took me in the bracken on Arthur’s Seat while the storm raged about us. If I am in a certain condition I shall place the infant in the care of a worthy shepherd and his wife, and we can discuss it calmly as platonic acquaintances. I may permit misconduct to occur from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime. We can also have many a breezy day in the fishing boat at sea.
I wish to inform you that your housekeeper fills me with anxiety like John Knox. I fear she is rather narrow, which arises from an ignorance of culture and the Italian scene. Pray ask her not to say ‘You know the way up’ when I call at your house in Cramond. She should take me up and show me in. Her knees are not stiff. She is only pretending that they are.
I love hearing you singing ‘Hey Johnny Cope’. But were I to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King-of- Arms I would decline it.
Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.
With fondest joy,
Evelyn Waugh, after reading the novel, wrote his own letter of congratulation to Muriel Spark on the comic genius of Sandy’s. Further we get to read an extract of Sandy’s story ‘The Mountain Eyrie – the true love story of Miss Brodie’. Hugh (who has not been killed in the war, that telegram was a mistake) is now holding Sandy captive but Jenny had escaped by night and is attempting to find her way down the mountainside in the dark. Sandy beseeches Hugh to believe that Miss Brodie has not, in the intervening twelve years, loved another. ‘His black eye flashed in the lamplight of the hut. ‘Back girl!’ he cried, and do not bar my way. Well do I know that yon girl Jenny will report my whereabouts to my mocking erstwhile fiancée’.
Miss Brodie is trying to direct the fate of her girls. But one of her girls is trying to re-write Miss Brodie’s story. Who will win out in this tussle for the future: the writer of the story or the character within it? In her autobiography Curriculum Vitae Muriel Spark says she based Miss Jean Brodie on her teacher at the age of ten Christina Kay. Spark calls her ‘a character in search of an author’. ‘I fell into Miss Kay’s hands at the age of eleven. It might be well said that she fell into mine’. A pupil inspired by a teacher’s drama and poetry betrays her by moulding her into that figure of plasticity, a fictional character.
Sandy’s conversion comes outside St Giles’ as she contemplates salvation and the damned. She decides that Miss Brodie has elected herself to grace. She decides Miss Brodie believes herself to be Providence, believes herself to be one of the elect, believes that she is both God and Calvin. Miss Brodie’s excess of hubris is what riles Sandy and leads to the biblical betrayal. Miss MacKay and the Kerr sisters and Miss Gaunt are the Calvinist pleasure-crushers eager for betrayal. They are the obvious enemies of Miss Brodie (all the men and children are in her thrall) and are described as having predestination in their smiles. John Calvin took the view that God planted an enormous sense of joy and salvation in us so that the surprise of eternal damnation on death might be all the nastier. Brodie’s personal drama and poetry overfeeds Sandy’s imagination who mistakes romanic fervour for Calvinism and shuffles down the corridor to Miss MacKay’s office. Miss Brodie loses her job and is forced to retire to a lonely spinsterhood. But, of course, it is, not appreciated by her, Sandy who has elected herself to the place of judgement.
Sandy continues her writing career by completing a thesis on moral psychology before becoming a nun at a convent renamed Sister Helena of the Transfiguration. In the New Testament the transfiguration is a key moment in the life of Jesus, one of the main miracles in the Gospels. Jesus is on the mountain with Moses and Elijah when God speaks from the sky and bathes his son in radiant light. It is the point where human nature meets God, when the temporal meets the eternal. Thomas Aquinas regarded it as the moment when the perfection of life in Heaven is revealed. Transfigured is when a thing is elevated into something more beautiful. It is also the essence of art, the transformation of fact into fiction. Sandy’s thesis is called ‘The transformation of the commonplace’. What better definition can there be of a comic novel? The ordinary made strange and the strange ordinary. Brodie’s letter to Lowther is nothing less that the transfiguration of the commonplace. Spark recognises herself (and all novelists) as a direct rival to God. The nasty, imaginative Sandy is Spark’s own challenge to herself.
Muriel Spark has written that novelists are guilty of the most terrible sin against God because they create human beings who cannot bring about their own salvation. As a novelist she grants herself the powers of a god who can touch the absolute. The flash-forward narrative gives us as readers divine-like omniscience, a preternatural insight. Authors may set themselves up as rivals to God, but at least God allows humans to have free will. When Spark decides ‘get thee to a nunnery, go. Farewell’ she has the power to bring it about. What are the moral dangers for Spark who sits in judgement on Sandy? Who is she to bring about another’s fall from grace? At the end of the novel Sandy is in a cell of her own making, in visitor-less isolation, gripping the bars of her convent.
Not bad for a slight comedy about some provincials at a school. For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like.
The days passed and the wind blew in from the Forth.