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

August 31, 2010

What Kind of Woman is Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was the first of Dame Muriel Spark’s work that I had picked up. I did so at the mention of this little novel by Julian. Agatha had given me Spark’s work Symposium (think Plato) a few years back, but I tried to pick it up, did not get it, and put it down again until recently. It, like most of Spark’s novels I have read, is darkly hilarious. I told Agatha recently that I always feel a strange sense of dark satisfaction when I finish a Spark novel. But PRIME is more serious. It has very subtly hysterical moments, but it treats something far more serious – the formation of human souls, life and death and Divine justice. When I first read it, (and I devoured in a day), I did not quite get it. In fact, I had to ask Agatha, who told me “Brodie actually tries to form them (rather than to educate--"from the latin, to draw out") in her image (or the image she's imagined for them). Still, in spite of Brodie's efforts, the girls turn out." Well, that remark required a second read – and a closer one. So I did. All the while, I had to ask myself – who is Jean Brodie? What is the vocation of the teacher? What are we capable of doing to one another?

Miss Jean Brodie is a bit of a mystery. We don’t know much about her. We know that she was a student in Edinburgh who had a silly land lady and that she travels the world to share it with her girls. She had a great love once, a young man who died in the first Great War. She is now a “progressive spinster,” one of the many “legions of her kind during the nineteen thirties” who had lost their loves to the War (p. 43). She is a new feminist of the age, the kind who “talked to men as man-to-man.” (p. 44)

In the traditional Marcia Blaine all girls school of Edinburgh, Miss Brodie is a bit of a brave rebel and not well liked by her co-workers. Indeed, the head mistress Miss Mackay constantly badgers the Brodie set for information she can use to fire Miss Brodie. In this way, the reader must admire Miss Brodie. She is bold, brilliant, and lovely with her “dark Roman profile” who declares that she will never the leave the school – “she would have to be assassinated.” (p. 6) *Spoiler* One of the last scenes in the movie version of Prime portrays Miss Brodie’s dramatic downfall as she screams “Assassin” when Miss Mackay finally obtains information to fire her.

But early on the in novel Spark leaves us with no doubt that all is not aright in the world of Miss Jean Brodie. In one breath, she utters that “Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first,” and in the next breath, she teaches her girls that Mussolini’s fascisti will solve the world’s problems along with Hitler’s Nazis. And Miss Brodie could only admit after the war that “Hitler was rather naughty.” (p.131)

What follows is the tale of Miss Brodie’s romanticism that she can turn her little set of girls – Monica Douglas, famous for her mathematical brain; Rose Stanley, famous for sex simply by virtue of her Venus like demeanor; Eunice Gardiner, famous for athletics; Mary MacGregor, famous for her silence and for being “a nobody whom everybody could blame;” Jenny Gray, famous for her acting skills and best friend to Sandy Stranger, the girl who learns the most from Jean Brodie, famous for her insight – into an image of herself and mold them into whatever she desires – her very own “crème de la crème,” as she conceives herself to be, and in many ways both is and is not.

In my next post, I’ll recap the story of Miss Brodie’s prime and how she tries to form the girls into her own image – and why she fails and why, in my opinion, she ultimately must fail if justice is to be done. For now, enjoy this 30 minute BBC video interview with Muriel Spark that a friend of mine sent to me. I’ve not yet watched it all – but it looks to be promising for those who are interested in learning more about Spark.

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