This is the second time I’ve read this book, and I’m delighted to be revisiting it for Muriel Spark Reading Week. I read it quickly and perfunctorily before, not really remembering an awful lot apart from the charisma of Miss Brodie and the atmospheric depiction of the windswept, slightly menacing streets of pre-war Edinburgh. This time around, I was amazed at the brilliance and complexity of Spark’s portrayal of an intelligent, passionate woman, robbed of her future by the death of her fiancé during WWI and instead becoming devoted to the cause of educating Edinburgh’s girls. Miss Brodie is unconventional and daring; she gets the girls to hold up their textbooks in case another teacher peers into the classroom during their lessons; instead of teaching them what is inside its pages, she is telling them the story of her doomed fiancé, or of her latest European holiday, or of the rise of Mussolini in Italy. Miss Brodie’s methods of teaching – she doesn’t believe in a curriculum of study – puts her at odds with the rest of the school staff, apart from Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd, the singing and art masters, who are both in love with her. Her charismatic style has inspired the unquestioning devotion of a select group of girls, called the ‘Brodie set’ by the other teachers, who are invited to tea and taken to the theatre, and confided in about Miss Brodie’s love affairs and her problems with the other teachers at school. Even when they have gone up to the senior school and left her classroom for good, the ‘Brodie set’ remain Miss Brodie’s special favourites, and she demands their unswerving loyalty as a result.
We know from the start that one of her ‘set’ will betray Miss Brodie; the narrative is cleverly constructed, with a present, past and future all happening concurrently. The ‘present’ is of the girls in their senior school, no longer taught by Miss Brodie, but there are regular flashbacks to the past, as well as glimpses of the future fates of the ‘set’ and Miss Brodie herself. At first Miss Brodie appears a wonderful teacher; she refuses to teach just the facts and instead focuses on enlightening the girls in her care of the finer side of life; of goodness, truth, and beauty; of art, and travel, and culture. She doesn’t talk down to them; at ten years old she deems them perfectly old enough to discuss complicated issues with, such as sex and the rise of Fascism in Europe, and she always encourages them to be individuals and true to themselves. However, slowly, as the story moves forward, back, forward, back, we see a more detailed and disturbing picture coming into focus. As much as Miss Brodie encourages individuality, she only encourages it if the individual sentiments being expressed tie in with her own. The facts she teaches are her own opinions and tastes; whatever she likes is right and has value and meaning; whatever she doesn’t is wrong and not worth notice. She discourages ‘team spirit’, and doesn’t want the girls joining Girl Scouts or team games at school, not because it will diminish their individuality, as she claims, but because it will take them outside of her control. This is where Miss Brodie’s trips to Europe and her admiration of Hitler and Mussolini become worrying; the photographs of black shirted men all marching in a line that she pins to the noticeboard in her classroom is what Miss Brodie wants to create with her ‘set’. She wants clones of herself, and this is reflected in the art teacher Teddy Lloyd’s slightly creepy portraits of each of the girls; the only true likeness that can be seen in their painted faces is that of Miss Brodie. As time goes on and Miss Brodie starts to use the girls to play games and live out her own fantasies, some of them start to drift off as they resent her control and have begun to see her true colours. Eventually she will be betrayed by one of them, after the consequences of Miss Brodie’s controlling ways claim a life. This betrayal costs Miss Brodie her job, but ultimately so strong was her power that her influence over the lives of her ‘set’ will never truly wane, even after she is dead.
I found this such a fascinating, clever, funny and also somehow moving novel. As disturbing as Miss Brodie’s desire for control was, her passion, creativity, intelligence and independence were inspiring and Spark brings her so vividly to life. I couldn’t help but think of her with compassion when I read of her fiance’s death; like so many others, she was a ‘surplus woman’ after the war, and had to forge an independent life for herself with little hope of the husband, children and home she was brought up to expect. She is the embodiment of a mid century spinster, throwing herself into teaching, hobbies and travel, developing an eccentric and forceful personality; she probably would have been someone entirely different had she married as planned. I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ – but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.
No review of mine could hope to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of this novel, which is a real work of art. I haven’t even touched on the intense religious atmosphere that reigns throughout, and of how Miss Brodie herself is a sort of High Priestess of her own religion; it’s no surprise that one of her set ends up a Nun when you think about the almost religious devotion they had for their teacher in their youth. In fact, the path of unswerving devotion, followed by disillusion and betrayal, and then a reconnection later in life is a fairly typical religious narrative, echoed in many Bible stories, and this turns out to be the story of the most prominent of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’. I found reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a real intellectual challenge; it was stimulating as well as entertaining, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’m looking forward to reading more Spark in future, and am delighted that Simon and Harriet are doing such an excellent job of promoting her brilliance this week. I must also thank the lovely Lija at Penguin for sending me this gorgeous new edition of the novel; it’s part of the Penguin Essentials series and the covers are all very striking; do check them out!