Thursday, June 29, 2006

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark

Cross-posted from Bookworm

It was a bit distracting reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie right after reading Muriel Spark's autobiography. Just about every page of the book contains some object, setting, or event that was part of Spark's own schoolgirl experience in 1930's Edinburgh. Certainly they have been transposed, modified, reworked to fit the fiction, but it was hard not to notice them as I went along—the musquash coat, the smashing saucer, the poor of Edinburgh, the charismatic teacher enamoured of art and Mussolini.

I found myself wondering which parts not mentioned in her autobiography were also from her real life and which were invented. Spark calls her school years "the most formative years of my life" and devotes a great deal of space to them in her memoir. It's no wonder that the environment that made such an impression on her has made such an impression on readers, even in its rearranged form.

What is this book about? That is the question I had in my mind after reading it, and I confess I can't come up with a good answer. The explanations in the book, mainly given through Sandy, just seem too easy. Or am I mistaken in thinking that a good book must be difficult? Is it as it appears, a story about the dethroning of a frustrated, fascistic, self-deluded woman who wrought havoc among men and girls during her "prime"?

After reading Muriel Spark's autobiography and her descriptions of the various "utterly abnormal" people she had known, it is certainly possible that Spark just wished to create her own species of mental case (inspired by one of her own teachers) and see what would happen when she was unleashed on a variety of vulnerable people. That would be very much like the obsessive observer of human idiosyncracies that Spark was.

Though broader issues—Calvinism, fascism, Catholicism—feature in the story, I am inclined to believe that the book is more about people than ideas, or, at most, what happens when ideas impinge on personalities formed by nature and distorted by experience. Would Miss Brodie have come to admire Mussolini and Hitler had her lover not died in the war? Would Sandy have become a nun and psychologist were it not for Miss Brodie? How is that Rose was able to "[shake] off Miss Brodie's influence as a dog shakes pond-water form its coat" and the others were not?

As you can see, I seem to have more questions than answers, so I think I'd better go read the other Slaves' posts and learn a thing or two about this book. But before I do that, I'd like to announce that the next Slaves of Golconda read will be chosen by Stefanie of So Many Books. Anything but Clarissa, OK Stefanie?

For more Brodie questions, see

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