I’ve been trying to read a bit more Scottish fiction in the last year or two, and this is a novel you’ll find on every Scottish list around the Internet. I had heard of Muriel Spark, but to be honest I didn’t know anything about her, not even that she was Scottish, so I picked this up as blind as one could be.
Miss Jean Brodie is an unorthodox teacher for a group of ten-year-old girls in an Edinburgh school in the 30’s. We follow the group as they progress through Junior School, under miss Brodie’s tutelage, and carry on to Senior School. There they are taught by other teachers but are still under Miss Brodie’s wing, meeting with her every week or so for tea or golf.
Miss Brodie would often spend class lecturing on her own life, her trips to Italy and her past love affair, asking the students to hold up their class books to fool anyone who might wander in uninvited. She wants to teach them about life and about themselves, at least her idea of what they should be, and there is a worry that they will not learn the subjects in the official curriculum, but the whole set of them seem to come out of the class as top students in the school. They even seem better adjusted as individuals, in a way, so the early years seem innocent enough. It isn’t until the students are older that we really see how potentially destructive Miss Brodie can be.
I really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s writing. This novel is hilarious at times while also being quite dark in places, and I was genuinely surprised at what was happening in the second half of this. What I found most interesting, though, was how she jumped around in time. That is not, by any stretch, an uncommon device in fiction, but she uses it in a very satisfying way. For each girl in the Brodie Set, she would often hint at what they would be ‘famous’ for in the years to come – Rose being famous for sex, Jenny famous for her beauty, Monica for her mathematics – and at one point, in the middle of a fairly innocuous moment, the story flashes forward twelve years or so to show the death of one of the more unfortunate girls in a scene that was both hilarious and horrific, and which was also cruelly foreshadowed in an event during the next school year. It’s easy to lose the reader hopping about in time like that, but she handled it flawlessly.
Miss Brodie is a character I won’t soon forget. At the beginning of the novel, she seems so in control. She is clever and articulate and charming, with a biting wit and a strong passion for what she does, but as the years pass we begin to see her in a less positive light. She’s manipulative and dangerous, a bit sad really. She could have had a much different life if the war hadn’t taken the love of her youth, but instead she’s been left broken. She tries to regain control by dedicating herself to her girls, keeping them in line with her their dictator.
It’s a strange thing to grow up and suddenly see the flaws of your idols and authority figures, these people who always had the answers and worldly knowledge. This novel captures that feeling brilliantly, as well as the aftermath of trying to relate to those early feelings of childhood reverence as an adult.
We watched the 1969 film adaptation with Maggie Smith last night. She was amazing in it, and it was fun to watch, but everything felt so exaggerated. One thing I really loved about Muriel Spark’s writing is that she didn’t explain every theme and every character intention. The movie, however, did not take that route. Also, Teddy Lloyd wasn’t as rape-y in the book, whereas his portrayal in the movie was just ridiculous. We enjoyed it overall, though.
Miriam Margolyes’s narration of the audiobook was a bit over-the-top, but was otherwise incredible entertaining. Muriel Spark, without a doubt, an author I’ll be returning to in the future.