The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will resonate with an Edinburgh locale in ways perhaps different from an international audience.
We are talking here of a city where the marker of your identity is not distilled to the question of where do you come from, but what school did you go to. In Edinburgh the school you went to pierces through your upbringing before it, and anything in life after it, as the major informant of all your life choices. It is a way of bracketing introduction, of laying down the degrees of separation. Since leaving Edinburgh, the question takes me aback all the more whenever I return for the holidays. And no less because, over eight years after leaving school, I am still asked it.
And so it is with the Brodie set. No matter how far each of Miss Brodie’s favourite pupils drifts apart from her or one and other, they are forever known as her set. Of them Miss Brodie has atomised the dreaded school question. Rather than a symbol of defiance against conservative notions of private school puffery, it may be easier to conceive of Miss Jean Brodie as in fact one who defines the very system she sets herself up against.
Who is the greatest Italian painter? asks Miss Brodie. The pupils diligently reply Leonardo da Vinci. “That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.” In a single phrase we are given a glimpse of Miss Brodie’s own orthodoxy: she demands she should be projected on her pupils, but never should the school (and all of its own ideas of value) be projected on her.
But for all her snobbery Miss Brodie is by no means an unlikeable character—if such binary classifications mean anything at all in a book all about the inadequacy of binary classifications. What we find instead is a character who makes us question to what extent we can really own our own identities, and whether such a thing as a prime of life even exists.
Apart from ordinary time
One of Spark’s best abilities as a writer is to create stories that avoid a tidy, smooth lapse of events—she does not settle for an easy path along the terms of theme or morality. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie feels longer than it does because of the way Spark darts back and forth over such a huge stretch of time, and not merely between two or even three points of significance, but decades of them. The result is a set of characters whose lives appear before us as preordained. What will happen has happened, and the blending together so closely of Miss Brodie’s plans for the girls alongside the future that comes to pass creates the dissonance we feel towards her: any desire for comeuppance as her treatment of the girls becomes ever more vicarious is neutered, knowing her downfall is always (or has already) occurred. Any time we find ourselves enjoying the blame being heaped on poor Mary Macgregor, we are reminded of her untimely death in a hotel fire. There is essentially no present in the novel, only a past and future that flow seamlessly into each other.
By extension, Miss Brodie’s prime exists only in the present. We see it emerging, and then it is gone. One moment she is in the years of her prime, and a few pages later it has only “truly begun”. We do not know when Miss Brodie’s prime finally came, or what it actually amounted to, only that it was gone before we could begin to notice it. In any case, the exertions of her prime are short shrift: her set take on careers she does not expect and loyalty is not given its due. By renouncing the notion of life as being composed of little else but a string of particular moments, events—primes—Spark offers us a story in which no clear correlations can be made. Or the few that can as being, in the bigger picture, wholly insignificant. When Miss Brodie is eventually fired from Marcia Blaine the direct reason (for teaching and condoning fascism) is of no importance. Even if her firing is in itself.
Yet, despite it being made so clear how inadequate simple, definable moments of time are in helping us understand a person, we are presented with them relentlessly all the same. Each of the Brodie set is famous for one thing—Mary, for being stupid, Rose, for sex appeal, Sandy, for her small eyes. The art master Teddy Lloyd is incapable of drawing the girls in any likeness other than that of Miss Brodie. No amount of identity building can renounce the fact they are, at least to Teddy Lloyd and the wider school, the culmination of Miss Brodie’s projection. There is an irony in the way the girls are criticised for not showing enough team spirit towards their school house winning the shield, and yet are given constant reminders that they belong to another kind of team that is looked down upon and aspired to in equal measure.
After our prime
To extrapolate from the novel an especially dull platitude—that ‘labels are bad’, or that life is too complex to map out easy cause and effect—would be doing it a disservice. Any number of readings of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie could highlight the ways in which the Brodie set try to maintain the values they are lead by (even in the act of Miss Brodie’s betrayal), while others would show the constant resistance they bring up against them. Spark’s treatment of both the definitive and the fluid are what mark the novel’s supreme absurdity: her characters are disillusioned by the definitions they have come to be known by, and yet they pursue ever more definitions to replace them. Sandy swaps Calvinism for Roman Catholicism, but is never the conventional nun; Teddy Lloyd takes Sandy instead of Rose as his lover, but in the end neither is Miss Brodie. And while Spark’s own fascination with her school years is perhaps quintessential of an Edinburgh upbringing, it is also the perfect arena to explore such shifting conflicts.
School holds a fascination long after we leave it because it is so often the last time many people feel themselves emerging as individuals. By adulthood, the terms of who we are and what we decide to do are expected to be firmly set. It should be no surprise that Miss Brodie’s prime lasts as long as she is able to relive, through the manipulation of her set, those years before definitive expectation.
And so when, in Edinburgh, we are asked: ‘what school did you go to?’ the question perhaps belies a deeper subtext: ‘who were you, before you made the choice?’