Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie looked so innocent, enjoyable and short, and like light reading. It turned out not to be, for me, for a few reasons. It took some reflection for me to figure out what irritated me so about this book, but here’s what.
1) Miss Brodie’s brand of charismatic leadership that fosters a fanatic devotion on the part of ‘her’ girls. Miss Brodie is as mesmerizing to the girls as she is full of herself, and she is deeply intolerant to ideas that differ from her own. Especially to her chosen, she’s a sort of “benevolent” dictator. She has a crush on Mussolini’s and (later) Hitler’s “fascisti,” and is as cruel as the other teachers in calling individual students (such as Mary) “stupid” in front of their classmates.
2) The use of children as (sexual) objects. Children become two types of objects here: children shapeless or corrupted material that must be refined (but only in cases where there may still be hope, which results in the status of the Brodie bunch as ‘the elect’) and children as objects of sexual desire.
The latter, again, happens in two ways: Children themselves as objects of sexual desire (the repeated mention of male teachers playing with the girls’ hair, and also the unwanted kiss), and children as proxies for sexual desire (such as painting Rose in a sensuous setting and pose and adding Miss Brodie’s features to her face). Yes, after the forced kiss the girl (who had the kiss forced on her) is mocked and rejected by the kisser, but this action, too, is highly sexually charged.
3) The school setting. It might be enjoyable to many readers, but it just isn’t to me, personally, and reading is about as personal as things get. The book was difficult to enjoy because it brought up memories of the abusive teachers I had when I was that age (well, for 9 years). One teacher was verbally sexually abusive in the classroom, and also played with female students’ hair. Another teacher routinely called students (including myself) out as stupid, proclaiming at least weekly, for years, that I had “a head like a sieve.” And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Over all, I’d say Spark captures the mood and atmosphere of early 1930s Scotland well, and illustrates the dynamics between the different teachers at this Edinburgh school convincingly and with humor. It’s an intelligently written book, and the issues I have with it are not because it’s no good — it is good. But I didn’t enjoy it. There, I said it.
In the end, Miss Brodie, too, is an abusive teacher. She may have lofty ideals, she may have high hopes for some of the girls, but in the end it is all about herself. She may teach that “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first,” but she does not practice as she preaches. Reading this book as inspirational and uplifting is misreading it. The story may start out somewhat like Dead Poets Society — the trope of the unconventional teacher who opens students’ minds — but Miss Brodie reveals her problematic nature very quickly.
Next book on my list: T. S. Eliot’s “Selected Poems.”