Saturday, July 01, 2006

Muriel Spark’s Masterpiece

(Cross-posted from Kate's Book Blog.)

One of the marks of a great book is the extent to which it bears rereading. I was bowled over by Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on first acquaintance many years ago. I’m now on my fourth read, and my admiration for and appreciation of it increase each time.

Having recently spent three weeks in Edinburgh, it’s no surprise that on my latest read through I was particularly struck by the sense of place that Spark evokes in the novel. You don’t have to know Edinburgh to appreciate The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but knowing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly helps one to more fully appreciate Edinburgh. It’s set primarily in the 1930s in the Morningside district which boasts respectable schools full of middle and upper class pupils whose mothers dress not too ostentatiously in tweed and address their daughters as “dear” rather than “darling” in clipped Edinburgh accents. Yet just a short walk across the Meadows, the squalor of the Old Town slums serves as a counter point, so distinct as to offer Sandy Stranger “her first experience of a foreign country, which intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor.”

Miss Jean Brodie, we are told, though an arresting presence at the Marcia Blaine School, is not unusual for her time and place:

There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

These progressive spinsters co-exist with other legions, for example, the unemployed men waiting for the dole that Miss Brodie and her girls encounter on their walk through the Old Town:

A very long queue of men lined this part of the street. They were without collars in shabby suits. They were talking and spitting and smoking little bits of cigarette held between middle finger and thumb.

This trip through the Old Town has an enduring impact on Sandy at least:

And many times throughout her life Sandy knew with a shock, when speaking to people whose childhood had been in Edinburgh, that there were other people’s Edinburghs quite different from hers, and with which she held only the names of districts and streets and monuments in common. Similarly, there were other people’s nineteen-thirties.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t just invoke these multiple Edinburghs of the 1930s; it also situates it in the distant past, the immediate past, the immediate future, and years hence. We get a sense of Scotland’s romantic and dark history (at least the popular version thereof) in Sandy’s references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and also in the kinship that Miss Brodie claims with the infamous Deacon Brodie, a historical figure and also the model for RLS’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This Edinburgh is shaped by the recent experience of the Great War and by the current experience of the depression. It is an Edinburgh tied to Europe (“We are Europeans,” Miss Brodie proclaims) where the rise of fascism is evident. We also get a peek at a future Edinburgh from which the Old Town “slums have been cleared.”

This brings me to the second aspect of Spark’s writing on which I want to focus here. There was an interesting discussion recently on Dorothy W.’s blog about what qualifies as experimental writing. I don’t know whether Spark is lauded in the critical literature as an experimental writer; if she isn’t, she ought to be. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first published in 1961, Spark breaks many of the conventions of the novel to brilliant effect.

I’ve already hinted at the way Spark plays with time. In 1963, Frank O’Connor wrote: “[T]he element of Time is [the novelist’s] greatest asset; the chronological development of character or incident is essential form as we see it in life, and the novelist flouts it at his own peril.” Spark flouts it in dramatic fashion in this novel. The girls of the Brodie set are sixteen when the novel opens, but soon we move back to age ten when they first encountered Miss Brodie. Their ten-year-old selves are continually illuminated by what comes later (the various things that they are said to be “famous for” at age sixteen). At intervals we move forward again to sixteen, and still further forward into the girls’ adult lives. For example, as early as page 15, we learn how the entire life of poor Mary Macgregor (“whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame”) unfolds. There are various moments when suspense seems to be building (for example as to the identity of Miss Brodie’s eventual betrayer), then the ending is abruptly given away. Spark swoops back and forth through time at will and it works.

Spark similarly plays with perspective. The third person narration moves in and out like a camera with a zoom lens. The novel begins with wide-angle shot (simply boys and girls talking outside the Marcia Blaine school), zooms in a little closer (the girls in question are revealed to be the Brodie set), then closer still (to deal in turn with the individual girls by name). This is not an uncommon progression at the opening of a novel. But having thus honed in on the individual characters, Spark doesn’t stay there, but continues to move in and out to dazzling effect. To the extent that we get inside any one character’s head, that character is Sandy Stranger. But the novel doesn’t unfold simply from Sandy’s perspective. The effect of the constant shifts is to give us the opportunity to view the characters, foremost among them Miss Brodie, from multiple angles, through the eyes of different characters at different moments in time, as well as from the perspective of a distant omniscient narrator. Consider, for example, these sentences:

This was the first winter of the two years that this class spent with Miss Brodie. It had turned nineteen-thirty-one. Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy, these parents being either too enlightened to complain or too unenlightened, or too awed by their good fortune in getting their girls’ education at endowed rates, or too trusting to question the value of what their daughters were learning at this school of sound reputation.

With each qualification, yet another perspective is opened to us.

Given Spark’s penchant for very short novels, it's tempting to describe her writing as spare or minimalist. Certainly she gets a lot of mileage out of a very few words. But the effect is not one of spareness or minimalism. On the contrary, she manages to accumulate an extraordinary level of detail. One of the ways that she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is through repetition of key words or phrases: “the boys and their bicycles,” what each of the Brodie set is “famous for,” Miss Brodie’s “prime,” the “crème de la crème.” Each time these words and phrases are repeated, they serve to conjure up again all that has gone before and somehow add to it. The repetition gives Spark’s prose a wonderful rhythm, and also gives the novel great depth and richness.

In a 1996 interview, Spark expressed some frustration over the extent to which the success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had overshadowed her other novels. She did not consider it her best work. I won’t venture to rank it against her other novels. But I have no hesitation in describing it as a masterpiece that is entirely worthy of all of the attention it has been accorded.

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