Post Road Magazine #13

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Brock Clarke

What is it about the books you love that make you hate the people who don’t? I was in a used bookstore the other day, buying A Muriel Spark Trio (which includes her three late 1950s novels The Comforters,The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and Memento Mori), and was told by the owner (a gentle, bearded, cardiganed man in the fashion of nearly all used bookstore owners) that he didn’t remember the last time someone had bought a Muriel Spark book. I was immediately and totally filled with rage, and demanded the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every one of his cretinous customers who hadn’t had the good fucking sense and taste to buy anything by Spark over the last twenty years.

“I don’t know the names, addresses, and phone of numbers of my cretinous customers,” the used bookstore owner said.

“The hell you don’t,” I said.

“It’s not my fault,” he said. I must have looked as though I were about to hit him (I wasn’t; the last time and only time I tried hit someone, years ago, he ducked and I missed and instead hit the brick wall behind him, breaking my pinky, which is the most demoralizing finger to break and, once you do break it, will make you forswear trying to punch anyone ever again, no matter what book he hasn’t read and how much you might love it), because he put his hands up and insisted, “I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

“Well, of course you did,” I said, mollified just a little. “It’s a great, great novel.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a great, great novel, the kind of novel you wish you’d written, the kind of novel that makes other superficially similar novels seem bloated, lumbering, and besides the point (for instance, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which is somewhat similar to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, seems downright gasbaggy by comparison). Briefly (and it is a brief novel: 137 pages), it is about Miss Jean Brodie, a girls’ school teacher in pre-World War II Edinburgh, Scotland, and her six students, who are referred to as a group as the “Brodie set.” Individually, some of them are characterized like so: “Monica Douglas was. . .famous mostly for mathematics which she could do in her brain”; “Rose Stanley was famous for sex”; Sandy Stranger was “famous for her vowel sounds”; and “Mary Macgregor. . .whose fame rested on her being a silent lump.” This is how this brilliant novel goes about its business: it finds an economical way to introduce its characters, and then continues to use the same terms (as when Brodie says to Sandy, “come and read some stanzas and let us hear your vowel sounds”) throughout the novel. This is especially true of Miss Jean Brodie herself, who constantly talks about being in her “prime,” who says the girls are (or could be) the “crème de la crème,” who reminds them there “needs must be a leaven in the lump,” and, finally, is reduced to repeatedly asking the girls (as adults) which one them of them “betrayed” her (to the point where Sandy, in the middle of the book, confesses to the reader, “It is seven years, thought Sandy, since I betrayed this tiresome woman. What does she mean by betray?”) But rather than becoming repetitive, the novel uses these limited terms to build suspense (why has Sandy betrayed Miss Jean Brodie? How serious are we to take Brodie’s interest in fascism?) to mark character development or the lack of it (Will the girls continue to be famous for sex, vowel sounds, etc., in their adulthood? At what price?), to show us— through the novel’s highly limited terms of engagement—that Donald Barthelme was right when he suggested somewhere that restriction is opportunity.

And I haven’t even talked about the prose yet, which is hilarious, biting, lovely, usually at the same time. How can you not love a character likeSandy whom, when an aged Miss Jean Brodie moans, “I am past my prime,” reassures her that, “It was a good prime”? How could you not love abook in which “The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter boxand there was suddenly a six-o’clock feeling in the house”? How could you not love a novelist who gives her characters only a handful of ways to talk about the world, and have that be more than enough? How could anyone not love such a book? It’s enough to make you hate the people you don’t, enough to make a man forget, momentarily, his broken pinky.

Brock Clarke teaches at the University of Cincinnati. He's the author of three books of fiction, most recently the short story collection Carrying the Torch. His fourth book—a novel called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England—will be published in 2007. His short stories and essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, New England Review, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Missouri Review, Agni, New Stories from the South, and the 2005 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

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