The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Andy’s impressed by Muriel’s spark of genius

October 21, 2015

Yeah yeah. Dreadful pun. You expect better?

Back in the late ‘80s I remember being quite offended by a review of what at that stage was probably my favourite movie ever, Dead Poets Society. The review suggested John Keating (Robin Williams) was basically just a charismatic fascist. A young Hitler might’ve appreciated some pointers from the teacher, I seem to remember another critic suggesting. Rubbish, I thought. Keating is a liberating character, surely, and fascism/Nazism is all about slavish devotion to an authoritarian state.

Dead Poets Society is still a favourite film, although I hope I watch it with a more nuanced eye today than my 20-year-old self back in the ‘80s. And those fascist accusations take on an interesting facet after reading Muriel Spark’s novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

And yes, before you tell me. I’ve trawled the internet, and I’m aware parallels have been drawn between the two works for years – were probably being drawn within weeks of DPS hitting cinema screens.

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961 – two years after DPS is set. Brodie was later played on the silver screen (stupendously) by Maggie Smith, and she won an Oscar for her efforts. While her performance lingers in my mind it’s years since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember exactly how closely it follows the book – it’s broadly accurate, but the book features flash-forwards that signal the story’s denouement, and I don’t remember the movie featuring those (though it might have). As it happens, Spark would have been pretty much exactly the same age in Depression-era Edinburgh as the young female students who fall under Miss Brodie’s spell.

For its length, Brodie manages to touch on a wide number of subjects. While most of the main characters seem to be from relatively well-off backgrounds, mostly untouched by the Depression, there are fleeting glimpses of Edinburgh’s poor. Scottish pride gets a (rather satirical) nod. More substantially it deals with human sexuality, both its burgeoning presence in the bodies and minds of the young ‘uns and in the dalliances of those swiftly declining into middle age – the “prime” of the novella’s title.

Most importantly, though, it’s about education, and its value or lack thereof. Spark seems to value education, and while she has the sort of affection for Miss Brodie that Middle Age locals reserved for the village idiot she skewers the approach to education that Brodie venerates. Late in the novel the girl who ultimately betrays Brodie (not a spoiler, or not much of one, anyway – I did mention flash-forwards, remember?) refers to her old teacher as stupid. And yet in the novel’s closing line, that same girl – now a vastly transformed woman – refers to Brodie as an important influence in her younger years.

Brodie’s link to DPS’s Keating is mostly about their “irregular” teaching methods. It’s interesting, though, that Keating is regarded by some critics as a sort of benign dictator, given Brodie’s adulation for Mussolini and Hitler, and that adulation’s central role in her downfall (oops – spoiler). And of course they are both betrayed, although in DPS Keating is presented as a Christ-like victim of reluctant, blackmailed traitors while Brodie’s downfall is, though effectively the central element of the story, presented as worthy of wry amusement.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is clever, witty, dry, sarcastic and satirical. As a work of art it is superior to, and in its presentation of the relations between students and their charismatic elders far more complex than, Dead Poets Society, although DPS holds a place in my heart (Ethan Hawke? Robert Sean Leonar? Swoon!) that Brodie can never hope to attain.

Netty, incidentally, thinks Miss Brodie is delusional. This didn’t occur to me as I read the book – I just thought she was a bit daft – although in hindsight “delusional” does make some sense. I’ll let Netty explore that.


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