Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What I Read: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I finally got my Stockholm City Library card a couple of weeks ago, so I am back on track when it comes to making headway through the TIME Top 100 Novels list. If I'm going to finish by my projected end date (March 29, 2015) then I'm going to have to buckle down.

I got back in the swing of things with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a slim volume that also happened to be practically the only book left on the list that was available at my particular branch of the library and wasn't checked out. It was one I had been putting off for last, if I am to be totally honest—not because I was dreading reading it, but I somehow just knew I would really like it and on a task like this I'd like to go out on a strong note.

My intuition was right, or mostly right. I did really like it but it was definitely not the kind of book I was expecting, either in structure or story. For some reason I thought it would be a light comedy bildungsroman, something like Lucky Jim or Under the Net. Perhaps something a little more serious but equally straightforward, like Death Comes for the Archbishop. Closer, but not quite.

Miss Brodie teaches at a fictional school for girls in Edinburgh during the 1930s, though is ultimately forced to retire. The story follows the perspective of one of her students, Sandy, and this is how we get to know the titular character. Between this narrative distance and the jumps in time, the novel becomes quite dreamlike and ambiguous. Who is Miss Jean Brodie? Really? That is the question at the center of the novel, one that Sandy seems to have devoted her entire life to answering. She even wrote a book on the topic, but Spark touches on the book—from all indications a best-selling life-changer sort of book—in only the most general of ways. We get little more than the title: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Whatever is in it has prompted at least a few people to come visit Sandy, now a nun in a convent, in person to discuss it.

Miss Brodie talks a lot about wanting to truly educate her pupils, to open their minds and coax out the best from within them, but at all points in the book she seems little more than a petty tyrant, never coaxing out greatness but rather dictating her own truths:
“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”
Are we supposed to detect this hypocrisy in Miss Brodie's character? Does she even detect it herself?

One also questions why, exactly, Miss Brodie finds it necessary to groom some of her young wards into their own private club, "the Brodie set." Some of their activities truly overstep the bounds that are appropriate between a teacher and her pupils: discussing personal details about her love life, conflicts with her coworkers and supervisors, and so forth. Doesn't she have any adult friends she can talk to about these things?

Never mind her penchant for control and manipulation, underscored by her admiration of Mussolini's Fascists and, later, pre-WWII Nazis. During her affair with the music teacher, Miss Brodie takes charge of practically the whole house, ostensibly because his current housekeepers leave meager food portions, while her lover just stands by, browbeaten. After the Brodie set graduates into the Senior school, she still stays involved in their lives and even attempts to manipulate one of them into having an affair with the art teacher.

The portrait I took from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was not of a strong-willed but idealistic and romantic young woman "fighting the good fight," but of someone so emotionally stunted and isolated that she was only capable of relating to her students—people from whom she could essentially demand friendship. A woman who, perhaps after suffering the unthinkable loss of her fiancée, became addicted to control. To power. All in all, someone quite repulsive—perhaps only made repulsive by personal tragedy, but repulsive nonetheless. That so many readers find her sympathetic, charming, even admirable—I just don't get it.

The first comparison I made upon finishing the book (another member of the One-Sit Read club, by the way) was to Aunt Dan and Lemon, which I saw freshman year of college. Both are stories about mentoring, role models, and women obsessed with power. Each woman ultimately comes to different conclusions by the end of their stories: Aunt Dan rejects her realpolitik beliefs wholeheartedly after falling ill; Brodie seems to have given up on her Fascist leanings but is obsessed with controlling her "crème de la crème" students; Lemon remains fully enthralled by dictatorships (the Nazis in particular) and the rule of the powerful.

The ways that Aunt Dan and Miss Jean Brodie connect to their charges—Aunt Dan to young Lemon, Brodie to the Brodie set—are also identical. They are almost pathologically committed to unburdening their life stories on to whatever captive audience they can find. It seems less like friendship or even mentorship and more like free therapy.

 In the end, Aunt Dan and Miss Brodie are betrayed by their wards, ultimately undone by the strength of their character they impressed upon them. Aunt Dan learns to find compassion and selflessness in her later days, a lesson she cannot convey to the Machiavellian Lemon who has taken Aunt Dan's earlier speeches on Kissinger and realpolitik to heart. Miss Brodie loses her job after a student decides Miss Brodie's attempts at control and manipulation are reprehensible and so lets it slip to the headmistress that Miss Brodie is an enthusiastic Fascist.

It's interesting to note that all three women all end up with serious health afflictions: Aunt Dan and Lemon with some nameless, wasting disease, Miss Brodie with cancer (ovarian, if I understood correctly). Is this the corrupting nature of power, and obsession with it? Did the writers just feel the need to make these characters as weak and dependent as possible so they could observe power from the point of view of the powerless? After all, isn't stripping the powerful bad guy (or their lackey) of their power, rendering them weak and powerless, one of the most popular revenge fantasies played out in literature? Is it a weird happenstance?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short read, even a light one, but a thought-provoking one at the end of it all. These kinds of character studies are endlessly fascinating to me, even if I find the character being studied utterly unlikable.

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