Thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

An unconventional teacher and the life-changing effect she has on her pupils—a subject weighed  over with so much sentimental baggage. Among other things, many other things, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an attack on the myth of the saintly teacher.  The titular character is exceptional, not only in her degree influence but in the ambivalent effects her influence create. An emancipated woman, a consummate teacher who cares deeply about education, Jean Brodie lives out those ideals while simultaneously being a sexual manipulator and a political reactionary, a seducer by proxy and an unrepentant supporter of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

On the subject of Jean Brodie’s Fascism: a key irony in an irony laden book. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is its simple and effective evocation of historical ignorance. Jean Brodie remarks to the students that Mussolini “ has solved unemployment” and posts pictures of Blackshirts on the classroom wall—a tricky maneuver that assumes two rather difficult points: that it was possible for moral people (or moral characters, as it were) to embrace Fascism, and that the inculcation of these ideas can be source of comedy, albeit black comedy. On that count, Spark achieves a difficult victory. Brodie’s reactionary politics are explained without being affirmed.  Sympathetic biographers of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein should take note.

Jean Brodie is justly famous for its use of prolepsis, or use of flash-forward. Conventional narrative thrives on the tension between truth and concealment—not so here. In contemporary terms, Spark spoils the ending again and again. We know from the beginning that Miss Jean Brodie will be betrayed and who will betray her. We know who among her students will thrive and who will die tragically. Yet these devices do not slow the narrative momentum. The effect is more than anticlimactic. By making the future so plain, we experience how it is to be blind to it.

Being swept away by time: in eliciting this sensation, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie resembles another, more or less contemporaneous classic of European literature, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.   The characters and scenarios in both suggest a rather conventional social novel, but what we get is something more radical. The 50s and 60s were a time when modernist techniques were being pushed to their very limit. These two novels must have seemed oddly retrograde alongside Borges, Beckett, Calvino, and the OULIPO.  Yet few of these vanguardists achieved the same level of chronological sophistication. The structural innovations of Spark and Lampedusa, while being widely commented upon, are still underrated.

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