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In which Netty goes back to school and meets Miss Jean Brodie, but learns a different lesson …

November 10, 2015

Sometimes I don’t know as much as I think I know.

For example, when Andy suggested at the beginning of the year that we include Scottish writer Muriel Spark in this year’s ANRC, I could only stare blankly across the table.

“Who?” I asked, somewhat dumbly.

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy ...

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy …

Who indeedy. Well, as it turns out, Spark – make that Dame Spark – was the highly decorated author of some 20-odd novels and more than that again of other works, including biographies, short stories and poetry anthologies, written over a near 50-year career. Additionally, she is considered one of the greatest mid-to-late 20th century British writers.

Yeah, maybe I need to get out more often or sumthink like that …

So obviously it was Andy who suggested we read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, one of Spark’s best-known novels and her sixth, published in 1961. It has been widely adapted for both stage and screen (most famously as a 1969 film for which Maggie Smith, in the title role, won the Best Actress Oscar). And no, I didn’t know that, either. Until now, obves.

I suppose I should be pleased I’m still learning new shit at this age. I guess.

I did enjoy Brodie – indeed, muchly so – although that is not necessarily going to translate into me racing down to my local bookstore and boning up on the rest of Dame Spark’s oeuvre any time soon. No reason, really, other than my bedside book pile is already ceiling high at any given time, and it never really goes down, as the pile seems to absorb two or three for every one that is removed.

As Andy notes, the novel – more like a novella, really, at a mere 128 pages long – is unconventionally structured, with its plot spoilers and skipping back and forth throughout its timeline. This does not detract from the novel(la) one iota, merely giving it something of a modern veneer.

Andy compares it to Dead Poet’s Society (you can read more about what he has to say about it right here), which never would have occurred to me, but which made perfect sense when he first advanced his theories. Certainly it’s the story of a highly influential teacher and his/her effect on his/her pupils. But whilst Dead Poets is all chest-beating, teeth-gnashing honour betrayed (admittedly it has been quite some time, maybe 30 years, since I last saw it), Brodie is a slightly different beast. A slyly, decidedly devious and manipulative beast.

Miss Jean Brodie might well be in her prime, but she might not necessarily be in her right mind. I oscillated between thinking she knew exactly what she was doing – a puppeteer expertly pulling her wide-eyed, slavishly devoted pupils’ strings – to wondering if maybe she wasn’t, to use that wonderful Australian vernacular, two sangers short of a barbie. I think delusional was the word I used during a conversation with Andy. Which would certainly marry into Brodie’s forays into, and approval of, European fascism (albeit an early 1930s version, before the shit really hit the fan).

Back to the book, then. Miss Jean Brodie, an unmarried thirtysomething teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school, selects a group of six primary school-aged girls – who become known as the Brodie Set – and goes about “educating” them in what she considers the classical sense, ie, not at all. Brodie stages outdoor classes (away from the prying eyes of the headmistress Miss Mackay, who knows something’s up but can’t quite pin down her suspicions to anything concrete enough that would warrant a dismissal) where she bangs on about love, life, travel, anything that takes her fancy, really – the polar opposite to equipping her students with anything remotely resembling the sort of schooling they will need to do unnecessary things such as pass exams, etc. And clearly overstepping teacher-student boundaries by regularly hosting the girls at her home outside school hours.

Brodie is the object of the attentions and affections of two male teachers at the school – Gordon Lowther, the short-statured singing master, and Teddy Lloyd, the roguish, one-armed arts master. In love with Mr Lloyd, but unable to pursue a married father-of-six, Brodie instead takes up with Mr Lowther. But she also involves the Brodie Set in her imbroglio, revealing through her machinations the extent of her furtive chicanery – something that will ultimately lead to her downfall.

Moving through the grades and separating the students fails to break down the Brodie set, something that is only ultimately accomplished by the girls themselves as they move through their teenage years and start the inevitable questioning of authority, even under the tightly held control Brodie has exerted on them from a young age. Ultimately there is a betrayal (this is not really a spoiler, thanks to the book’s structure – the reader knows from the get-go that the Brodie empire is destined to eventually fall) that is both inevitable and fitting. You know all along that Brodie is going to get her comeuppance – that is just part and parcel of the plot.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (the novel gets its title from Brodie’s oft-repeated assertion that she is in her prime, although that statement becomes increasingly desperate throughout the duration) is a clever and compelling read, with a cast of memorable, if not particularly likeable characters (I warmed to none of them, something which often impedes my enjoyment of a book, but not in this particular case). And I would certainly be intrigued to see the film treatment.

But that’s about the size of that. As I’ve said before, and I’ll undoubtedly say again, so many books, so little time. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with saying so long, it’s been short but sweet. And tomorrow is another day, and another author. So it goes …

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