Monday, 11 March 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I entered into the reading of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the idea that it was going to be a story somewhere along the lines of the Julia Roberts’ film Mona Lisa Smile, in which Roberts plays a teacher in a posh all-girls school in the 1950s. Somewhat unconventional, she tries to get her students to think outside the prim and proper boxes they have been placed in, much to the consternation of all those around her, keen to ensure the girls remain firmly within those boxes. As far as Miss Jean Brodie is concerned, the premise is quite similar, but the outcome - and the feel of the story - is entirely different.

Set in Edinburgh in the early thirties, Jean Brodie is labelled by her colleagues as a “progressive” teacher. Essentially what this means in terms of Miss Brodie’s particular teaching style is that she abandons all lesson plans and curriculum material, preferring instead to engage her students with stories of her own past experiences and love life. In my misconception that she was going to be playing the Julia Roberts role, I was expecting to find her a positive role model, to be a ‘modern’ woman fighting against the confines of a more uptight society. In this, it soon became apparent, I was wrong.

Very wrong. For, whilst being progressive in her way, I did not find Miss Jean Brodie particularly likeable. Are her teaching methods really any better than standard techniques? All that she really teaches her girls are her own opinions on things, forming a little clique of favoured students who quickly become known as the Brodie set. She bestows upon this particular group all of her time and her pearls of wisdom, ensnaring them into her rather pathetic and self-centered personal dramas.

The story is told predominantly from the perspective of the Brodie set (as opposed to Miss Brodie’s point of view), in particular that of Sandy, and it seems to me that the whole thing is rather unreliable. Firstly, Miss Brodie’s stories change over time depending on whatever her current reality is; secondly, the girls, young and impressionable as they are - not to mention socially uneducated in the modern sense - put their own spin on everything they hear, misinterpreting meanings and adding their own wild imaginations to the mix. Who knows where the truth of any of it really lies?

In the end, Miss Jean Brodie is a woman of little influence with only half a foot on life, who chooses to gain power and influence through the manipulation of her students. Her creation of the Brodie set is simply a way of gathering together a group of girls to worship at her feet - the girls are her possessions, much like her lover Mr. Lowther is a possession. When one of her girls eventually sees through her shiney surface and ‘betrays’ her confidences to her arch enemy, I found myself rooting for the betrayal rather than against it.

Muriel Spark has written a book full of nuance and suggestions, and hidden - or not so hidden - agendas. It was fascinating to read, to pick apart and consider all the different subtleties built into her characters, and wonder at what she was really trying to say. For anyone interested in writing this is a must-read because of the layers and intrigues that lie within - all of which are achieved in both a straightforward manner and in under 130 pages. Compelling and unsettling and a wonderful view into the inner workings of one self-centred woman’s slightly unhinged and misbegotten mind.

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