Thursday, June 29, 2006

Loitering With Miss Jean Brodie

If not for the Slaves of Golconda, your Bibliothecary most likely would never have picked up a book by Muriel Spark. Now, in the past two months, we have read two: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Loitering With Intent. The second was not the book we had proposed to read for extra credit, but it was at hand, and the other wasn't. So, having read two novels by an author we were aware of but had never been interested in, we thank Sylvia for her choice.

We were surprised to learn Muriel Spark just died two months ago. In 1993 she became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her services to literature. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Ms. Spark's sixth novel, originally published 1961. Time magazine recently listed it among their 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. In her autobiography, Ms. Spark identified Miss Christina Kay and the James Gillespie School in Edinburgh as the models for Brodie and the Marcia Blaine Junior School where she teaches. Loitering With Intent is Ms. Spark's sixteenth novel, published in 1981.

Let us dispense with the second book first.

Loitering With Intent

The narrator, a novelist called Fleur Talbot, is enlisted by a wealthy old man called Sir Quentin to help ghost-write the autobiographies of his circle of friends. She finds their stories boring, and so proceeds to embellish them. The more she comes to know the members of the Autobiographical Association, the more they remind her of characters in the novel she has been writing, until she begins to suspect she has been hired merely to mine her fiction. When Sir Quentin accuses her of misusing him and his friends as models for her novel, she must quickly figure out who is on her side and who is not in order to prevent Sir Quentin from destroying the manuscript.

Fleur seems to be a good woman, befriending the elderly mother of Sir Quentin when everyone else tries to shut her away. She maintains a casual relationship with the wife of her former lover, even after she discovers the woman has betrayed her. She completes her novels, she perseveres, she is not a victim. She learns from her experience, which she marks as the end of her poverty and her youth. Still, she is just one of a strange lot of people who seem to deserve one another. None of the Autobiographical Association seem to have a purpose in life, and perhaps it is thus they are so easily lured in by Sir Quentin.

This is a novel that contains a bit of mystery, a hint of suspense, and much reference to the writing life. It was easy to fall into, quick to read, and confusing only if we tried to keep accurate track of time--Fleur is in the present, beginning her story in the near past, from where she flashes back to the distant past, and then freely refers back to the present now and again.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

There is near the end of the novel a paragraph that succinctly describes Jean Brodie:
She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end. And Sandy thought, too, the woman is an unconscious Lesbian. And many theories from the books of psychology categorised Miss Brodie, but failed to obliterate her image from the canvases of one-armed Teddy Lloyd.
Though Miss Brodie teaches her students many things outside the standard school curriculum, she does not reveal everything. The girls begin to fill in the spaces in their instruction with their own imaginings, much like the other teachers do in their knowledge of Miss Brodie. Two of the girls fabricate a series of love letters between Miss Brodie and Gordon Lowther, the music teacher. The last letter of the series is the only one presented, and provides a moment of great humor. Ms. Spark does a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts of pre-teen girls on the edge of obsession about sex. They have Miss Brodie recall a moment of passion with Lowther, and then go on to say:
"I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime."
And the closing:
"Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing."
We have a soft place for unorthodox school teachers. To a great extent, modern public education in America has devolved into mere skills training so that students will become productive members of the economy. Anyone who teaches critical thinking to students, as Miss Brodie clearly does, gets a gold star beside their name on our classroom poster. We had the privilege of a teacher who would take class outdoors on fine days; a teacher who taught algebra in advance of the curriculum; and a political science teacher who showed murder/mystery films in class, and who would discuss anything. What joy to have John Keating for a teacher.

Unfortunately, it feels as if Miss Brodie goes a little too far. We had an uneasy feeling when she would speak of her personal life with her grade-school girls. And she seemed to prefer the company of these girls, who she so easily influenced, and over whom she held a position of authority, to the company of her peers, by whom she felt mainly threatened. She does engage in a love affair, yet it does not strike us as genuine, and she suggests with determination that one of her girls become the lover, in her place, of her true love interest, Teddy Lloyd. While Miss Brodie is dismissed in the end because of politics alone, and she regularly champions her strong morals, her influence over the children borders uncomfortably on exploitation.

Lurking hidden by her prime, hypocrisy clouds much of Miss Brodie's thoughts and teachings. Why does she believe it would be unseemly for her to become the lover of a married man, but it would be fine for one of her students? Why does she urge her students to be individualists, but try to keep them together under her wing--the Brodie set--and sing the praises of the fascisti?

Several things struck us about both novels. First, they are brief in length. They might be called novellas--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published first in a magazine--and yet they feel to us more like an expanded slice-of-life short story, or maybe even a whole pie of life. They do not create a world, though, as most of the best novels do.

Second, Miss Brodie and Sir Quentin are both characters who aspire to gather others around them and manipulate, if not control, them. In these two cases, the end result is not in their favor. According to the Literary Encyclopedia, these are both personifications of a control figure that Ms. Spark uses frequently in her fiction.

Third, Ms. Spark's narratives moved back and forth in time. Though we began The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the mildest of confusion, the shifts were done extremely well. Within the space of a few sentences, even within the same paragraph, the reader would move from past to future and then back to present. For aspiring writers who desire to do the same, Ms. Spark provides a fine example of how to accomplish it smoothly, clearly, and without disruption to the story. Time is so fluid in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, it would require careful study to plot the events in chronological order and determine whether or not the skips are purposeful to the novel, or merely an omniscient style with which Ms. Spark is comfortable, and proficient.

Finally, Ms. Spark writes in a style in both books that to us is reminiscent of John Gardner. Both writers seem completely in control of their stories. Their books read pleasantly, with a careful workmanship flavor. The language is correct and exact. Despite all these qualities, their books stir little emotion. There are no characters we identify with or root for. We would probably not recommend them for enjoyment, yet we wouldn't offer them up at the next book burning. We struggled to find much to say beyond a synopsis of both Ms. Spark's books. Though Julie enjoyed Loitering With Intent, Suzanne commented that she had read the book but had no recollection of it at all. That is how it seems to us to be with Ms. Spark: we read her books, and then we move on to the next book in the TBR pile.


Rebecca H. said...

I love the letter Sandy and Jenny write that you quote from -- Spark gets perfectly how young girls would try to write a love letter -- it turns out to be quite comic!

Anonymous said...

Those letters were great, weren't they! I couldn't decide whether I could say--yes, I loved these books or not. I read them in a different way than I normally do--I was trying to be a conscientious reader and take careful note of everything that happened, and then read some additional criticism. But it makes you feel differently than if you just read for pleasure alone. Her books are very worthy reads and I hope to read more, but I might not pick up one just on the spur of the moment for entertainment purposes alone. You can learn a lot from her though.