‘I’m sure Sandy’s mind is not on motor cars, she is paying attention to my conversation like a well-mannered girl.’
And if people take their clothes off in front of each other, thought Sandy…
-Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (35)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perhaps a book that is not widely read anymore. But that is a shame, if it’s true, because it is wonderful. The humor is subtle and tart and the story is captivating in all of its English school girl oddity.
Outwardly she differed from the rest of the teaching staff in that she was still in a state f fluctuating development, whereas they had only too understandably not trusted themselves to change their minds, particular on ethical questions, after the age of twenty. (41)
The way in which Sparks intertwines the past with the present is marvelously crisp. There is a naturalness to the telling of the story with interrupted bits of future events spotting up the tale, further enhanced by the re-imaginings of whatever literature the girls are engaged with in which they cast themselves as the love interests of the heroes. All of which comes together to give a glimpse into the adolescent mind. It’s very well conceived and highly entertaining.
“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.’ (9)
But what’s most wonderful about the story is the irony that while it is ostensibly about sex and the hypocritical efforts to hide or pervert sexual desires not to mention the witch hunts that those desires provoke, particularly for women, Sparks cleverly shows that the situation is worse than that. While everyone is fixated and warping what should be perfectly natural and healthy dispositions of human beings, the really horrible stuff gets free reign. In the end, the downfall of Miss Jean Brodie happens for the right reasons disguised as the wrong. A complex literary device which Sparks masterfully accomplishes.
‘She believes in the slogan “Safety First.” But safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.’ (8)
I watched the film version after, with Maggie Smith, who is, as always, wonderful. Especially aided, as she is, with fabulous costumes. But the film is completely inferior to what makes the book such fun. All of the structure is gone, while the heart of the story, which Sparks created with a real delicacy, is ratcheted up, and ridiculously exaggerated. I spent the entire film with a quizzical look on my face…at any rate it nearly takes as long to read it as watch it, so, might as well read it.
‘For those who like that sort of thing,’ said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, ‘that is the sort of thing they like.’ (29)