Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

August 30, 2010

Muriel Spark + Jean Brodie

Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie

Dear readers, the Magdalene Sisters, are happy to host this week a "book club." Earlier this summer the three of us read (or re-read) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Today I'll introduce the novel, and Spark, and then through the week we'll discuss both it and the 1968 film starring Maggie Smith.

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh of a upper-middle class family. Educated at a fine girls day school, she had the reputation from a young age of being a poet. Her path was, for the most part, set out for her by her love of books, words, literature, and learning. She didn't begin writing fiction till she was in her 30s. Her first novel,The Comforters, published when she was 39, was loved by critics (and Evelyn Waugh). But she didn't make it big in the public eye until 1961, when she published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was adapted into a stage play, and then the highly successful film, which allowed her to live the glamorous literary life she was made for. She continued to write prolifically till her death, on Good Friday in 2006. (I had just discovered Dame Muriel then, which made the date all the more significant.) Graham Greene was a patron of hers in the early days, as he was with many struggling authors.

Before she began writing fiction, she converted to the Roman Catholic faith. I don't mention this because this is a Catholic blog, but because it is actually the key to understanding much of her work. In her auto-biography, Curriculum Vitae, she says very little about the personal side of her conversion. It made sense out of the world, and so she became Catholic, essentially. But she does speak of its import with regards to her writing fiction. It gave her a sense of the whole-ness of life; men are part of a much larger story, controlled by another but still acting freely. The New York Times obit describes her work further:
In her writing, evil is never far away, violence is a regular visitor and death is a constant companion. Her themes were generally serious but nearly always handled with a feather-light touch. ...Some accused her of coolness and even cruelty toward the characters she invented and then sent — sometimes quite merrily — to terrible deaths.

"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."

Her stories play with the rules of narrative. She rarely tells a story chronologically, but rather plays with flashbacks and divination of the future in a detached all-knowing voice. In her 1970 novel The Driver's Seat we learn in the second chapter that the main character is found the next morning with her wrists tied in silk, and her throat cut. With the ending told, Spark had the freedom to explore questions of will, freedom, providence, and psychology, as well as supernatural themes (some of her stories are downright creepy).

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about a magnetic teacher and her "set"--six girls she dotes on and confides in and treats with a barely cloaked favoritism. Told in the third person, the novel centers on the "dependable" member of the set, Sandy, who, perceptive and detached, sees the subtle interplay between Brodie, her girls, and the two male teachers in love with her. We meet these girls when they are in upper form (highschool), still clearly marked from the time when they were twelve, as "Brodie's set". But soon we are in the classroom, wide-eyed and wondrous, as Miss Brodie is describing her philosophy of life:
"Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me."

"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."

"Art is greater than 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."

There is so much to tell about this great novel, and we'll be dedicating our posts this week to it and its intricacies. I also highly recommend the film, which condenses a few of the characters, of course, but is about as good a production one could imagine. The only failing is that it cannot play with narrative they way a narrator/novelist can. Still, I hope you'll find a copy and join in our conversation.

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