Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

13. Muriel Spark (1961), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I think it's been the most enjoyable work of fiction I've read so far this year. I don't know if it's because I tend to read books in a broadly fantastical genre, because most of the books I've read recently are by men (a look back over my books read 2008 tag tells me I've only read two books by women so far this year, one of which was non-fiction), or because Muriel Spark is just that good, but the depth of character and psychological insight in this book really leapt out at me. I can't remember the last book I read in which the characters were explored so thoroughly, or the nuances in their dialogue so skilfully revealed.

I'd seen the film (obviously), so knew the basic story, but the genius here is really in the telling. The structure is only partly linear, in that the main line of the story does trace the developing relationship between Miss Brodie and her 'gels' over the course of their school career, but there are regular flash-backs and flash-forwards along the way. The emphasis is not on finding out 'what happened', but on how and why.

One thing I wasn't expecting was the heavy lesbian subtext which revolves partly around Miss Brodie herself, but above all around her young pupil, Sandy. Sandy shares an intense friendship with another pupil, Jenny, which is mainly based on a shared interest in finding out all about sex - heterosexual sex, of course, and from a faintly repulsed theoretical perspective rather than a practical one - but still, emerging sexuality is what binds them together. Meanwhile, in class she gazes at Miss Brodie's chest and deliberately gets ink on her blouse so that she will be sent to the Science Room for 'beautiful' Miss Lockhart to remove it. Later on she develops an enormous crush on the mere idea of a female policewoman who questions Jenny after she has had an experience with a flasher.

In the end, Sandy outgrows Miss Brodie, coming to despise her for her hypocrisy, her manipulations and her air of self-satisfied superiority. Part of the process of breaking away is that Sandy takes an increasing interest in psychology, which enhances the natural 'insight' that Miss Brodie has already identified in her, and gives her the terminology to label Miss Brodie 'an unconscious Lesbian'. At face value, her judgement tells us something about why Miss Brodie has always presented herself as daring, avant-garde and at odds with the establishment, and has tended to conduct her affairs with men so peculiarly dispassionately. But given the way Sandy's own character has been built up, it's also very easy to draw the same conclusion about her - and thus to see her entire relationship with Miss Brodie as one of (initially) direct sexual attraction, later developing into jealousy and rivalry.

Nothing so explicit is ever offered in the text - instead, Sandy rejects both sexuality and the austerity of Miss Brodie's preferred Calvinism altogether, and ends the story as a Roman Catholic nun. But for the reader who wants to see it, it is very much there. And a quick Google into Muriel Spark's biography once I'd finished the book revealed that this isn't so very surprising after all. She was of a generation who kept such things discreet, but her relationship with a sculptor named Penelope Jardine certainly seems to have been one that was 'deeper and warmer than ordinary friendship' (as Wodehouse put it).

Anyway, lesbian subtext or no lesbian subtext (though it's got to be said, it is always a bonus), this was definitely a winner with me. Do feel free to recommend other books in a similar vein (by Muriel Spark or otherwise) in the comments.

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Tags: books, books read 2008, reviews, sexuality

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