Monday, October 31, 2011

436. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Sparks

History: It first saw publication in The New Yorker magazine and was published as a book by Macmillan in 1961. The character of Miss Jean Brodie, brought Spark international fame and brought her into the first rank of contemporary Scottish literature. In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.
Plot: In 1930s Edinburgh, six ten-year-old girls are assigned Miss Jean Brodie, self-described as in her prime, as their teacher: Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice (only the first two of them are major figures). Miss Brodie, intent on their receiving an education in the original sense of the Latin verb educere, "to lead out", gives her students lessons about her personal love life and travels, promoting art history, Classical studies, and fascism. Under her mentorship, these six girls whom Brodie singles out as the elite group among her students—known as the "Brodie set"—begin to stand out from the rest of the school. However, in one of the novel's typical flash-forwards, we learn that one of them will later betray Brodie, causing her to lose her teaching job, but that she never learned which one.
In the Junior School, they meet the singing teacher, the short Mr Gordon Lowther; and the art master, the handsome, one-armed war veteran Mr Teddy Lloyd, a married Roman Catholic man with six children. These two teachers form a love triangle with Miss Brodie, each loving her, while she only loves Mr Lloyd. Brodie never, however, overtly acts on her love for Mr Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica.
During a two week absence from school, Brodie enters into an affair with Mr Lowther on the grounds that a bachelor makes a more respectable paramour: she had renounced Mr Lloyd as he was married. At one point during these two years in the Junior School, Jenny is "accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith". The police investigation of the exposure leads Sandy to imagine herself as part of a fictional police force seeking incriminating evidence in respect of Brodie and Mr Lowther.
Once the girls are promoted to the Senior School (in the seventh year of school, around age twelve) though now dispersed, they hold on to their identity as the Brodie set. Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. All the while, the headmistress Miss Mackay tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Brodie. Miss Mackay, in the novel (but not in the 1969 film) younger than Brodie, had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a 'progressive' school; Brodie declined to move to what she describes as a 'crank' school. When two other teachers at the school, the Kerr sisters, take part-time employment as Mr Lowther's housekeepers, Brodie tries to take over their duties. She sets about fattening him up with extravagant cooking. The girls, now thirteen, visit Miss Brodie in pairs over at Mr Lowther's house, where all Brodie does is ask about Mr Lloyd in Mr Lowther's presence. It is at this point that Mr Lloyd asks Rose, and occasionally the other girls, to pose for him as portrait subjects. Each face he paints ultimately resembles Miss Brodie, as her girls report to her in detail, and she thrills at the telling. One day when Sandy is over visiting Mr Lloyd, he kisses her.
Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose (as the most beautiful of the Brodie set) should have an affair with Mr Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Another student, Joyce Emily, steps briefly into the picture, trying unsuccessfully to join the Brodie set. Miss Brodie takes her under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side, which she does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is travelling in is attacked.
The original Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, begin to go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit before graduating, Mary to become a typist and Jenny to pursue a career in acting. Eunice becomes a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy, with a keen interest in psychology, is fascinated by Mr Lloyd's stubborn love, his painter's mind, and his religion. Sandy and Rose model for Mr Lloyd's paintings with Sandy's knowing that Brodie expects Rose to become sexually involved with Lloyd. Rose, however, is oblivious to the plan crafted for her and so Sandy, for five weeks during the summer, now eighteen and alone with him in his house while his wife and children are on holiday, has an affair with Mr Lloyd herself. Over time, Sandy's interest in the man wanes while her interest in the mind that loves Jean Brodie grows. In the end, Sandy leaves him, adopts his Roman Catholic religion, and becomes a nun. Beforehand, however, she meets with the Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Brodie. She suggests that the headmistress accuse Brodie of encouraging fascism, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment a year after the end of World War II is Brodie able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her. After Brodie's death, however, Sandy, now called Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and author of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, maintains that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due". One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, "Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?" Sandy says: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
Review: Spark unfolds her plots not sequentially, but piece by piece, making extensive use of the narrative technique of prolepsis (flash-forward). For example, the reader is aware early on that Miss Brodie is betrayed, though sequentially this happens at the end of their school years. Gradually Spark reveals the betrayer, and lastly all the details surrounding the event are told. Spark develops her characters in this way, too: Joyce Emily is introduced right away as the girl who is rejected from the Brodie set. With this technique, the narrator of the story is omniscient and timeless, relating the entire plot all at once.
Spark creates deep characterizations which are realistic in their human imperfections. Hal Hager, in his commentary on the novel, writes of Sandy and Miss Brodie: "The complexity of these two characters, especially Jean Brodie, mirrors the complexity of human life. Jean Brodie is genuinely intent on opening up her girls' lives, on heightening their awareness of themselves and their world, and on breaking free of restrictive, conventional ways of thinking, feeling, and being".
Opening Line: “The boys, as they talked to the girls, from Marcia Blaine’s school, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding their handle bars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes and the impression that in any moment the boys were likely to be away.”
Closing Line: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
Quotes: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
Rating: Very Good.

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