Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

4 STARS

Muriel Spark, 1961

 ‘Attend to me, girls. One’s prime is the moment one was born for. Now that my prime has begun – Sandy, your attention is wandering. What have I been talking about?’

‘Your prime, Miss Brodie.’

This short novel, set in the Edinburgh of the 1930s, is a brilliantly structured portrayal of the conflict between the powerful desire of youth to imitate a role model and the simultaneous need to ‘come of age’, and so forge an individuality that is separate from this role model.

Miss Brodie is our role model, a god in the eyes of the young girls she selects to impart her every opinion upon. She is utterly convinced of her own superiority, devoid of any kind of external moral or ideological compass except her own ideas, which conveniently allow her to do whatever she likes. She is a god not only to the girls, but to herself.

Miss Brodie had already prompted them as follows: ‘I am not saying anything against the Modern side. Modern and Classical, they are equal, and each provides for a function in life. You must make your free choice. Not everyone is capable of a Classical education. You must make your choice quite freely.’ So the girls were left in no doubt as to Miss Brodie’s contempt for the Modern side.

For me, this book captures something universal in the female experience: the figure of the ‘older woman’ in one’s coming of age, a women unlike one’s parents or ‘the other teachers’, a figure of authority who seems to represent a new type of woman to aspire to be, a woman who puts herself first, with seemingly exotic interests and exciting experiences. This figure captures the female teenage imagination: could I really be like this? Will I really be like Miss Brodie one day?

Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.

The blurb promised comedy, and though the book delivered this, the overall mood is one of unease and tension. These girls are impressionable and vulnerable to the overbearing Brodie. The novel moves back and forward in time; we are told that the girls are irrevocably shaped by their time with Brodie, and so, knowing this, the chronologically ‘earlier’ scenes when the girls are young and seem to resent Brodie’s instruction leave a sour taste in the mouth; Brodie seems a predator to her young prey.

Miss Brodie in the time before Christmas used the sewing period each week to read Jane Eyre to her class who, while they listened, pricked their thumbs as much as was bearable so that interesting little spots of blood might appear on the stuff they were sewing, and it was even possible to make blood-spot designs.

The other strength of the book is the portrayal of the girls’ – particularly one girl’s – changing perception of Miss Brodie, and this too seems part of the universal coming of age: the realisation, with fresh, newly adult eyes, that one’s teenage role models are not the god-like, blemish-free figures they once seemed. As Brodie seems to become increasingly ridiculous throughout the novel, I wished that the girls could escape her influence, as opposed to my earlier desire to see them moulded into comical mini-Brodies.

She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed.

The dominating concept of the Prime – mythic in the first half of the book, ridiculous in the second – is, by its definition, a fleeting period in Brodie’s life. Miss Brodie’s prime must end, just as the girls’ youth must end – and these two fading-outs coincide. Our sustained knowledge that the Prime is only temporary creates a sense of predestination that aligns with the recurrence of Calvinist ideas. Brodie is an allegory for the Calvinist understanding of God, selecting her girls, the ones who she says will succeed in life, seemingly without any selection criteria. However, though she believes these girls are destined to succeed, she, in fact, is the one who is destined to fall.

Writing for The Guardian in 2006, James Wood notes, ‘We surmise that there is something unfulfilled and even desperate about her, but the novelist refuses us access to her interior. Brodie talks a great deal about her prime, but we don’t witness it, and the nasty suspicion falls that perhaps to talk so much about one’s prime is by definition no longer to be in it.’ Is, perhaps, Brodie’s determination to create mini-me’s, and her conviction that these mini-me’s will be ‘the crème de la crème’, indicative of a deeper insecurity, a desire to reassure herself that she, the god in whose image these girls will be made in, is truly powerful, beautiful, enchanting, the paragon of womanhood? Here, too, unease creeps in: if Brodie really is so self-assured, why her obsession with seeing herself reassuringly reflected in these young girls?

‘What did I say was golden?’

Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, ‘The falling leaves.’

‘The falling leaves,’ said Mary.

‘Plainly,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.’

Spark’s depiction of Edinburgh was wonderful; the setting felt relevant to the story rather than merely arbitrary, perhaps because of the autobiographical parallels. Though this story can be felt echoing into every reader’s life, it is also tailored to a specific moment in time, with many carefully detailed moments captured.

It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets.

This novel is really an exquisite character sketch: and whatever may happen in the plot, it is Brodie who lingers in the mind, Brodie whom the novel revolves around, the character who we perceive in every page – every line, almost – of the book, and yet the inside of whose mind we never see, the enigma remaining flickering upon the reader’s imagination, just as the older woman who was so crucial to the girls’ coming of age will remain a part of their consciousness forever.

Mrs Lloyd laughed. ‘Miss Brodie sounds a bit queer, I must say. What age is she?’

‘Jean Brodie,’ said Mr Lloyd, ‘is a magnificent woman in her prime.’

Read 30 June – 2 July 2018

 

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