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[518] The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

“Her prime of life. A teacher of mine, she was full of culture. She was an Edinburgh Festival all on her own. She used to give us teas at her flat and tell us about her prime. ” (Ch.2, p.26)

Early 1930s, in Edinburgh, at the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a teacher named Miss Jean Brodie is truly different from the rest of the faculty. SHe is unmistakably and outspokenly in her prime. She has a passion for art and culture, proclaiming that “safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.” (7) She is a preposterous woman who selects her elite group, seizes upon these docile, impressionable 12 year olds (whose parents she trusts will not lodge complaints) and influences them with her over-romanticized worldview. She spins tales about everything irrelevant to the curriculum. Her unorthodox teaching method without doubt raises many eye-brows and sets her at a disadvantage with the headmistress.

There were two exceptions on the staff, who felt neither resentment nor indifference towards Miss Brodie, but were, on the contrary, her supporters on every count. One of these was Mr. Gordon Lowther, the singing master for the whole school, Junior and Senior. The other was Mr. Teddy Lloyd, the Senior girls’ art master. They were the only men on the staff. Both were already a little in love with Miss Brodie . . . (Ch.3, p.49-50)

The six girls Miss Brodie singles out for her special pruning are known as the Brodie set. They are the most remarkable and brightest girls in spite of their aloofness. Under the calculating scheme of the headmistress, who sets her heart in breaking the set with a single stroke, the girls are assigned to different houses when they reach Senior school, for team spirit will cut across their individualism. Although these girls have little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Miss Brodie, later in life they would reflect that the first years with their progressive teacher have been some of the happiest time of their life.

Thus the narrative communicates back and forth in time, in sparing but brief omniscient interruptions, informing readers what will become of the Brodie girls: Mary will die young; Monica becomes a mathematician; Sandy, Miss Brodie’s betrayer, will become a nun; others will marry stolidly.

It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover, and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair. (Ch.5, p.116)

Obviously Spark’s characterization is devoutly starved. Miss Brodie, outlandish and eccentric, is reduced to a collection of aphorisms throughout the novel. She is, in other words, not really known to readers, who are no more than her pupils in terms of knowing her. What they know about her—her attraction to the married art master, whom she renounces, and the affair with the bachelor music teacher, is what the headmistress craves to glean in order to discredit Miss Brodie.

This is a brilliant novel, funny and poignant at the same time. Brodie is a rebel, her influence malign. But the novel leaves the feeling that something unfulfilled and even desperate about her—for she is obviously ahead of her time and her progressiveness renders her alone. In spite of her folly, she has indubitably left her mark in the girls. Her defective sense of self-criticism has not been without its beneficient and enlarging effects.

137 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[496] A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

” My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. ” (Ch.11, p.130)

My first Muriel Spark novel will not be last. I have refrained from perusing her works because I do not know where to begin since she has a long oeuvre of forty some novels. The semi-autobiographical A Far Cry from Kensington merits a double recommendation: a friend with trusted reading taste and an endorsement from The King’s English Bookshop book lists. this jewel of a book is pure delight for a day of reading in the sun.

Mrs. Hawkins is the narrator in retrospection. Now living in Italy, she is a war widow looking back on her life in London thirty years earlier when she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing in 1954. (This really evokes 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff.) Besides her day job as an editor at a small press that, despite its quality serious books, barely survives the austerities of war-time, she dispenses advice to the tenants at the house. Though at a relatively young age of 28, she is of sufficient charm and her personality magnetic enough to attract even her boss, who struggles to keep the publishing firm afloat, to confide in her matters that later used as evidence against his fraudulent activities. (Sadly, he was out of his wit, thinking perhaps he might have a shot at getting back to his first love—books).

In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York’s arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. (Ch. 5, p.53)

Things take a sinister turn at the rooming house when Wanda Podolak, an immigrant Polish dressmaker, receives a mysterious letter accusing her of evading income taxes to some authorities. Petrified that she shall be deported back to her homeland, she only seeks the consul of Mrs. Hawkins, whose investigative effort amounts to nothing. This incident finally takes a preposterous turn for worse when Mrs. Hawkins finds herself being the culprit. From there Wanda has a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile, our upright narrator, whose forthright, no non-sense manner puts her career at stake. When a self-congratulatory hack writer, Hector Bartlett, stalks her to get his drivel published by her press, she sneers at him and tells him in his face that he is a pisseur de copie, the French term for hack writer who urinates books. Unbeknownst to her, and therefore sadly, this hanger-on has an affair with a well-regarded author, Emma Loy, who has a “morbid dependence” on him—and Mrs. Hawkins loses her job.

In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mars. Hawkins’ career as an editor. Balancing her profession is her investigation on the perpetrator who contrives to force ot a tenant in her rooming house. Not only does Spark’s writing hums with creations, she also brings alive the life of London and its skein of diverse residents. Nancy Hawkins will be memorable for her integrity (and her maxim “No life can be carried on unless people are honest.”) and, no offense, her fatness, which she anatomizes convincingly, with a tingle of self-depracating humor. It’s her physical attribute that breaks ice and invites confidence. In a way, her fatness camouflages her spikiness.

189 pp. New Directions Classic. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]