Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 5, 2012

Memorable portrayals of teachers as transformative agents are plenty in fiction. Mr.Antolini in “The Catcher In The Rye”, Mr. Hector in Alan Bennett’s “History Boys” and Ricky Braithwaite in ‘To Sir With Love” are some examples that come to my mind. Contrarian views on the role teachers play have been very few. Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a memorable stand-out on the contrarian side. This small novel which brought Muriel Spark widespread recognition is deceptively small, darkly comic, with a fairly involved plot carrying impressive character portrayal, brilliant atmospherics and some striking conversations. Even among these, the character of Miss Brodie whom Spark chisels gradually through the course of the novel is unforgettable. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Miss Brodie is one of the most memorable characters of modern English literature

Miss Brodie is a teacher at Marcia Blaine academy wedded to a set of beliefs and opinions which she makes it her professional duty to inculcate in a select set of her students – the infamous “Brodie set”. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” is the driving belief with which Miss Brodie works. Her peculiarities, value system and beliefs are also an outcome of her mongrel belief in Calvinism and other denominations of Christian Church with a specific exclusion of Roman Catholicism. Very little is known of Miss Brodie’s past to pin the sources of her beliefs, barring a brief glimpse which she herself offers to her students Sandy and Rose:

 “I am a descendant; do not forget, 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. He played much dice and fighting cocks. Eventually he was wanted man for having robbed the Excise Office – not that he needed money, he was a night burglar only for the sake of the danger in it. Of course, he was arrested abroad and was brought back to Tolbooth prison, but it was a mere chance. He dies cheerfully on a gibbet of his own devising in Seventeen seventy eight”

For any normal person a similar background could be a reason for a mild sense of shame but for Miss Brodie this appears to be a source to derive her pride from. It is in this mental makeup to consider what is inappropriate as appropriate lies the clue for her peculiar idiosyncrasies. Miss Brodie is consistently opinionated and there is a haughty absolutism in the way she views various things around her and expresses in her conversations with her students:

“Who is the greatest Italian painter?
“Leonardo Da Vinci, Miss Brodie”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite               …… or

“Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science… Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance”

Especially for a teacher this trait is an anathema. Miss Brodie simply does not realise this. We find such people in many walks of life. There is a self-imposed purpose and commitment of Miss Brodie to uplift the Brodie set culturally and morally above the rest of the students of the academy. In her own words:

“You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King of Arms I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. Form a single file, now, please, and walk with your heads up, up, like Sybil Thorndike, a woman of noble mien

 .. walking like Sybil, wearing hats at a particular angle, interest in music and art are some indicators of this high-culture which Miss Brodie strives to inculcate in her protégés. This single minded focus to elevate students attains a religious intensity which has its basis in her belief in Calvinism and a mélange of other denominations of church. This shapeless pot-pourri of beliefs lead Miss Brodie to reject the love of Teddy Lloyd – her colleague responsible for teaching art to students and embrace Mr. Lowther – the music teacher who is a Roman catholic – a church denomination she abominates. To compensate Teddy Lloyd for her unrequited love, she encourages her student Rose as a substitute lover and tags her other student Sandy to act as a spy to gather information on the progress. Much against Miss Brodie’s intentions, Teddy has a temporary affair with Sandy and Rose moves on to settle down to a married life. Sandy gets fascinated with Lloyd and gradually starts to explore his mind which remains in love with Miss Brodie and reflects Brodie in every single portrait he creates. Much later this leads Sandy to publish a well-received work of psychology and opt to become a nun. Despite their tutoring and preparation for a higher life by Miss Brodie almost all of the other students of Brodie set settle for very ordinary vocations of life

People like Miss Brodie have a natural tendency to generate their detractors. Miss Mackay, Miss Gaunt are a few among them. As a reader one never knows what of Miss Brodie, Miss Mackay dislikes. Yet it is apparent that there is an intense dislike to the extent of throwing Miss Brodie out of Marcia Blaine academy. Here is a brilliant double tongued dance that she does with the Brodie set politely demeaning Miss Brodie:

 “You are very fortunate in Miss Brodie. I could wish your arithmetic papers been better. I am always impressed by Miss Brodie’s girls one way or another. You will have to work hard at ordinary humble subjects for the qualifying examinations. Miss Brodie is giving you an excellent preparation for your Senior school. Culture cannot compensate for lack of hard knowledge. I am happy to see you are devoted to Miss Brodie. Your loyalty is due to the school rather than to any individual”

As the girls grow in their senior school they increasingly start to find Miss Brodie ridiculous and eccentric and this provokes Sandy to betray her by providing proof to Miss Mackay of Miss Brodie’s active support to Fascism. It is on the grounds of these political misdemeanours and not on the grounds of her being out of step with the rest of the academy or the illicit relationship with Mr. Lowther, that Miss Brodie is forced to retire. Despite her pretensions to high culture, refinement, confidence and haughtiness, Miss Brodie is a sad figure. She is a poor assessor of people around her and walks into her sunset years disgraced and betrayed by her own student (a la Jesus being deceived by his disciple)

 Of the many remembrable eccentricities of Miss Brodie is her habit to remind the reader ad nauseam of her being in her “prime”. The reader never gets to understand exact nature of this prime of hers

 “I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to your full”    or

 “That’s what I mean by your insight,” said Miss Brodie. “I ought to know, because my prime has brought me instinct and insight, both”

Miss Brodie’s “prime” appears to be a hazy façade which justifies her views, beliefs, methods and approaches to violate the acceptable code of conduct

The “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a complex piece of fictional narrative and has multiple facets to it – human idiosyncrasies, professional jealousies, religious attitudes, atmosphere of the 1930s in Scotland, adult- adolescent relationships, sex, growing up and coming into one’s own. Yet the single most striking feature of this writing is Muriel Spark’s wonderful ability in character portrayal. Miss Brodie in my view will be up there in the pantheon of memorable characters brought to life by any author in twentieth century English fiction.

A tautly written novel which is a pleasure to read


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