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The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Scottish Review of Books


Muriel Spark
POLYGON, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-84697-430-4, PP152
by Alan Taylor

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

February 9, 2018 | by Alan Taylor

In 1960 Muriel Spark gave a talk for BBC radio entitled ‘How I Became a Novelist’. By then, aged forty-two, she was the author of five novels, but she still had difficulty, she confessed, in seeing herself as a novelist. Since childhood, she had known that she wanted to be a writer. She loved to read stories and to tell them and was soon putting pen to paper, ‘and forgetting everything except my subject-matter’.

Her parents, Bernard and Cissy Camberg, allowed her to read whatever took her fancy. She had the run, moreover, of Morningside Public Library, the largest branch library in Edinburgh and for a while the busiest of its kind in Britain. She was a constant visitor, appropriating the cards of her mother and father and older brother Philip to ensure she was never bereft of books. Situated less than a mile from the family flat, it was Spark’s second home and the introduction to countless other worlds, real and imagined.

She read as only a child can; voraciously, serendipitously, indiscriminately, from The Pilgrim’s Progress to bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ magazines which her mother, an unabashed romantic, had acquired second-hand. The reluctant novelist was particularly fond of adventure stories and had a special fondness for the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson, like her a native of Scotland’s precipitous and windy capital. ‘Sometimes,’ she recalled, ‘when I read a particularly impressive book, I used to extend the story in my imagination and make the characters live in my own world of invention.’

The young Spark was a listener as well as a reader. Cissy Camberg was a garrulous, gregarious woman who held court at home and in the street. This, too, was manna to the nascent novelist, who, squirrel-like, stored in her subconscious for future use snippets of conversations and overheard remarks. In the days of her youth – the late 1920s – Edinburgh’s thoroughfares were noisy and noisome. ‘Rags, bottles or bones’ was the mantra of the rag-and-bone man as he pushed his cart. Why, Muriel wondered, did he want to buy bones? ‘What bones? I thought. Whose bones?’ Even as a child she was conscious there was gold in the quotidian, that everyday life was an inextinguishable source of material to be moulded into art – what she would later refer to as ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’, the subject of Sandy Stranger’s book in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

All of which to a degree explains the wellspring of Spark’s fiction. How she became a novelist, though, was more a matter of chance and circumstance. Up until the mid 1950s, she had been forging a career as a writer and editor of books about writers she admired, such as the Brontës and Mary Shelley. She also wrote poetry, as she had at James Gillespie’s School for Girls, where she was known as its ‘Poet and Dreamer’. Indeed, she always saw herself as a poet and invariably had a poem ‘on the go’. It was because of her admiration for John Masefield, then Poet Laureate, and his narrative poems and stories, that she hankered to do likewise. As she described in ‘How I Became a Novelist’: ‘One day I wrote a short story – it was my first – for a competition announced in the Observer. It was a very peculiar kind of story and it puzzled a lot of people, but it won the prize. The story was about an angel that appeared on the Zambesi river. I do not know what gave me the idea for the story, but certainly I believe in angels and I had been up the Zambesi on a boat.’

Spark’s belief that ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’, which was published in the newspaper in 1951, was a one-off is confirmed by papers in her voluminous archive in the National Library of Scotland. Writing to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes, which was claiming part of her prize money, she insisted: ‘I am not a short-story writer. I am a critic and biographer. I doubt I shall ever have another short story published. The only creative writing I do is poetry.’ Who knows whether she actually believed this to be the case. What we do know is that by winning the competition she was now on the radar of publishers, one of whom, Macmillan, had the foresight to commission her to write a novel.

Strapped for cash as she was at the time, it was an offer she could not refuse. She rented a cottage in the English countryside and began to write The Comforters, which seemed to come to her as naturally as breathing. ‘I soon found that novel-writ ing was the easiest thing I had ever done,’ she told her BBC audience, ‘far easier than writing a short story or a poem or a piece of criticism. I found that the novel enabled me to express the comic side of my mind and at the same time work out some serious theme. But because it came so easily I was in some doubt about its value. I still have the decided feeling that anything worthwhile is done with difficulty.’

A tap having been turned on, there was no stopping its flow. Four more novels – Robinson, Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Bachelors – appeared in as many years. By 1960, Spark was a novelist of some renown. But it was her next novel, her sixth, which would make her famous and well off enough to determine where and how she wanted to live, and the books she would write. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is near perfect in its design and execution. It is at once traditional and experimental. Rich in period detail, it is nevertheless as spare and taut as one of Simenon’s thrillers and as light as a soufflé. It is the dialogue in particular that makes it sing; as Spark remarked in ‘How I Became a Novelist’, she hoped to make what her characters say seem authentic. ‘What I like doing is to make the characters in my novels say as nearly as possible what they ought to say, one remark thus provoking another. I enjoy making a foolish character say a very silly thing, and a clever character say something really intelligent.’

When Spark wrote these words she was already thinking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and had made a tentative beginning. To immerse herself in it, however, she knew she had to return to Edinburgh, to reacquaint herself at first-hand with its atmosphere and architecture, to feel the snell wind and smell the yeasty tang from its many breweries, and, most of all, to transport her back three decades to her childhood. In her memory, Edinburgh was a place where the palette was sooty and sombre. It was winter when she visited, cold and wet, perfect con ditions in which to write. She based herself in the family flat where her parents and son Robin – in his twenties – still lived. Because her old bedroom at the rear of the tenement was now occupied by Robin she took the spare room at the front, facing on to the busy street. Beyond was the green expanse of Bruntsfield Links across which she used to walk daily on her way to school.

Physically, she couldn’t have been closer to her subject matter. The novel’s manuscript confirms that she wrote at a lick, in her loop ing, generous hand, with few afterthoughts. It took her little more than four weeks to compose its forty thousand and so words. Edinburgh, Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, with its haars – bone-chilling mists – and air of dis approval is to Spark what Dublin is to Joyce’s Ulysses; the tour Miss Brodie takes her ‘set’ on is a model history lesson and exercise in social commentary. Edinburgh is a series of villages, each entire of itself. In the odiferous Grassmarket, where public executions were once held, Miss Brodie talks of John Knox, the hellfire-and-damnation preacher who from the pulpit in St Giles’ Cathedral dared to denounce Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox, Miss Brodie tells the girls, was an embittered man. ‘He could never be at ease with the gay French Queen. We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans.’

This is one aspect of the city, but there are, as Sandy Stranger, Miss Brodie’s neme sis, recognises, as many Edinburghs as there are Edinburghers. Miss Brodie’s Edinburgh – and Muriel Spark’s for that matter – is at once beautiful and appalling, a clichéd city of contrasts where there is apartheid between rich and poor, and where religion is the numbing opiate of the masses. Miss Brodie is religious in the broadest sense of the word. She believes in God and in His Word, and is happy to let anyone know it. She is an eclectic churchgoer but one who is loyal to no church, which adds another element to her slipperiness, her unknowableness. On Sundays, when everyone else in Edinburgh trooped loyally to services in their local church, Miss Brodie would travel the length and breadth of the somnambulant city to sample what other denominations and sects might have to offer. Only the Church of Rome is beyond the pale, her disapproval of which ‘was based on her assertions that it was a church of superstition, and that only people who did not want to think for them selves were Roman Catholics’.

One can see Spark, as a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism, smiling as she wrote these words. Her irony extended to herself as much as it did the characters she invented. Miss Brodie – ‘an Edinburgh Festival all on her own’ – is the personification of irony. Everything she says and does can be read from an alternative point of view. Writing to Spark some years after the publication of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her school mate Frances Niven said that ‘75%’ of Miss Brodie was surely Miss Christina Kay, the teacher both of them had at Gillespie’s. Hers, noted Niven, were the expression ‘crème de la crème’ and the extra lessons on art and music. ‘She it was who took us both (who were especial favourites of hers –? – part of the as yet unborn Brodie Set) to see Pavlova’s last performance at the Empire Theatre. Who took us for afternoon tea at McVitie’s.’ Like Miss Brodie, Miss Kay had strong views on education and what its purpose was. For her, in contrast to the prevailing attitude, it was a ‘leading out’ of what was already there rather than a ‘putting in’. It was this that governed her attitude to her vocation.

Certainly, few teachers can have had the formative impact on a pupil that Miss Kay had on Spark. The future novelist was eleven years old when she first encountered the colourful and charismatic dominie. Miss Kay was then fifty-one. Muriel Camberg had her as a teacher for two years, during which time she was introduced to subjects that previously had not been part of the syllabus, such as the Italian Renaissance, the symbolism of both the Old and New Testaments, the nineteenth-century novel, and the allure of Mussolini and his black-shirted fascisti. Just as important, though, were Miss Kay’s ‘dazzling non sequiturs’, diverting anecdotes and off-the-cuff aphorisms which became imprinted in the mind of the impressionable student. ‘Why make a wet day more dreary than it is?’ Miss Kay would announce. ‘We should wear bright coats, and carry blue umbrellas or green.’ It was the kind of advice I often heard Muriel herself proffer.

To a nascent writer, buxom Miss Kay – ‘that character in search of an author’, as Spark described her in Curriculum Vitae, her deceptively revealing autobiography – was a heaven-sent gift. Miss Kay would regularly diverge from a prescribed topic to rhapsodise about her foreign holidays (a rare thing in Scotland at the time) or to caution her young charges not to be swayed by the insidious power of crowds. In doing so, she was unconventional, even eccentric. Nevertheless, Spark felt that the lessons she had did not in all probability differ in essence from those of other pupils. But there was something special, perhaps magical, about Miss Kay, something that made her ripe for moulding and metamorphosing into Miss Brodie. Almost immediately, she embedded herself in Spark’s imagination and she began to write about her, embroidering and magnifying her experience. ‘No, Miss Kay was not literally Miss Brodie,’ Spark recalled, ‘but I think Miss Kay had it in her, unrealised, to be the character I invented.’

The real Miss Kay is pictured in class photographs from James Gillespie’s. Researching a memoir of Spark, I was unable to track down any others. In one, she is surrounded by forty or so girls, one of whom, dressed in a white blouse and a dark pinafore and smiling demurely, is Muriel. The teacher, in the middle of the fourth row, is wearing a stylish cloche hat and a checked coat in whose buttonhole is what appears to be a large artificial flower. Later, I came across the same photograph in a new history of Gillespie’s School, with a caption: ‘She resigned in 1942 after sustained complaints from parents about her defiant regard for Mussolini.’ No evidence was given in support of this assertion. The book’s author, John MacLeod, told me that he believed its source to be a former Gillespie’s pupil but he couldn’t be sure.

A more prosaic explanation for her departure may be that Miss Kay was approaching sixty-five when she left. There was no hint in the school’s annual magazine (where many of Spark’s earliest poems appeared) of anything untoward. On the contrary, the tribute to her in the 1943 edition, doubtless included with the approval of the then headmistress, was unqualified in its praise of the long-serving teacher. Service like Miss Kay’s, it was acknowledged, ‘must surely be unique’. A lover of ancient Greece, Miss Kay had sought perfection in all things, ‘for the gods see everywhere’.

In the many conversations I had with Muriel about Miss Kay, she was always at pains to point out that she never thought of her as a fascist. Nor, indeed, did she believe Miss Brodie to be of that persuasion. To anyone tempted towards such a conclusion, Spark said it must be remembered that the novel is set in 1930 when the world was as yet unaware of the horror that was about to be unleashed. ‘Women, particularly single women, adore a strong man, a liberator,’ she told an interviewer in 1979. ‘There were many in those days who admired Hitler. I guess you could say . . . that Mussolini was a big bad man and Hitler a little bad man. But we didn’t know that then.’

What we do know about Miss Kay, apart from what Spark herself tells us, is frustratingly little. She was born in Edinburgh on 11 June 1878, and died in Midhope, West Lothian, where she had relatives, on 23 May 1951. An only child, she spent her early years in the family flat in Grindlay Street in the shadow of the Castle Rock, which, for a girl with a keen sense of history and of a romantic bent, could hardly have been more uplifting. Her father, Alexander, a cabinetmaker, died when she was fifteen. Thereafter, she lived with, and cared for, her mother until the latter’s death in 1913. Hers was a life that would have blended into the shadows, had she not been the woman on whom one of the great characters of modern literature was based.

From the age of five, Miss Kay attended the school where she would later teach. It was a pleasant stroll away, in part across the tussocky links where Spark had freedom to roam decades later. Between 1897 and 1899, Miss Kay completed her teacher training at the Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh where her conduct was deemed ‘exemplary’. It is a sentiment with which many of those who fell under her spell at Gillespie’s would concur. One of its former pupils said that she was rather dowdy in appearance except in one respect – the hats she wore, which she may have made herself. She was a reserved woman who evidently blossomed in the classroom. A performer and storyteller, she was readily diverted from the three Rs and happy to embrace subjects other teachers would never have broached. Once, Miss Kay described in unvarnished detail her mother’s funeral, including the coffin. Italy was her favourite place, as it was Miss Brodie’s. Was she as much of an admirer of Mussolini as Muriel suggested? She was most certainly pro him. ‘The Pontine marshes were drained because of Mussolini’ was one of her many repeated phrases. Muriel speculated that she may have had Italian ancestry on account of her olive complexion, hooded eyes and a whisper of a black moustache. Did she have a sweetheart who had been killed in the First World War? It’s quite possible. Many women of that era faced a lifetime of spinsterhood as a result of the carnage. ‘Until we ourselves grew up,’ Muriel wrote in her autobiography, ‘there was a veritable generation of spinsters. At any rate, Miss Kay told us how wonderful it had been to waltz in those long full skirts. I sensed romance, sex.’

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in the United States where it had previously appeared almost in its entirety in a single issue of the New Yorker. This was unprecedented, and reflected the recognition by the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, of the novel’s classic quality. Of similar length to The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, it was a story that resonated across boundaries and cultures. Its eponymous heroine, like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, is a flawed, pitiable, fascinating and ultimately tragic character whose betrayal by one of her ‘set’ is double-edged and deeply moving. Her admiration, adoration even, of Mussolini, Italian Fascism and Hitler may be foolish, but does she deserve to be stabbed in the back, Caesar-like, by one of her girls, who is ‘notorious’ for her piggy eyes? Spark’s view of Sandy Stranger was unequivocal. She told listeners to a radio programme that she thought she was ‘a little bitch’ and that by betraying, rather than forgiving, her former mentor she had committed an unforgivable sin. Unlike her model Miss Kay, Miss Brodie is forced to retire early on the grounds that she has been teaching Fascism, about which Sandy learns after she has become a nun and ‘entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists . . .’

In common with another now classic novel published in 1961 – Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were mixed. Some reviewers expressed bafflement while others had trouble fathoming what the novel was ‘about’. At least one critic felt that Spark had written too many books too quickly while another, doubtless having read ‘How I Became a Novelist’, reckoned that she ought to feel guilty at having produced something so effortlessly. For his part Anthony Burgess found it thin and humourless which, given he was soon to produce A Clockwork Orange, rather takes the breath away. Evelyn Waugh, ever loyal, led the counter-offensive. In particular he loved the spoof letter, written by two of the Brodie elect, in which they imagined her declining an offer of marriage from fellow teacher Gordon Lowther: ‘But I was proud of giving myself to you when you came and took me in the bracken on Arthur’s Seat while the storm raged about us.’ John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, was similarly enchanted and continued to be so: ‘Muriel Spark is one of the few writers on either side of the Atlantic with enough resources, daring, and stamina to be altering, as well as feeding, the fiction machine.’ Time has shown that the novel’s admirers were more percipient than its detractors. Spark was fêted in New York, to which she moved a year after publication. The subsequent adaptations into a play and a film hugely boosted already impressive sales and added considerably to the author’s coffers. So reliable was her income from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that she gratefully called it her ‘milch cow’. Readers may feel the same for it is a novel that never palls; it pleases and perplexes and produces surprises with every reading, and, like all great books, it is ageless, vindication of why its inspired creator became a novelist.

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