Book Review · Books · Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The first book I’d read by Muriel Spark was The Snobs and, like I confessed in my review of it, I did not care for it very much. I couldn’t understand how people could compare the work of Muriel Spark with Penelope Fitzgerald whose book, The Bookshop, I’d adored. In fact, the primary reason for my decision to read another Muriel Spark book was to explore her writing before I decided to write her off completely. I have to say that I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, far more than I did her book of short stories.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the 1930s in Edinburgh, Scotland. The story is of a Miss Jean Brodie, an unconventional school teacher and her chosen students with whom she can speak freely. These girls, chosen by Miss Brodie, are popularly known as the Brodie Set. And though they are admired for their exclusivity by other girls at the conservative Marcia Blaine School, their mentor isn’t as well accepted by her fellow teachers. In fact, the headmistress tries very hard, throughout the story, to wheedle out some proof of misconduct on Miss Brodie’s part.

Miss Jean Brodie believes that she is in her prime. This is a major asset to her girls, who now have the opportunity to absorb the enlightening things that Miss Brodie is experiencing at this time in her life – so she says to them. The story follows the lives of the Brodie set, the influence that Miss Brodie has on them, their own reflections, discoveries, and personal decisions. Most of the story is told through the perspective of the Brodie Set, although it is written in the third person and is also very objective in certain places.

 

“It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime; or that (since such things are relative) she was in any way off her head. She was alone, merely, in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blaine’s. There were legions of her kind during the nineteen thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war‐bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion. The progressive spinsters of Edinburgh did not teach in schools, especially in schools of traditional character like Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls. It was in this that Miss Brodie was, as the rest of the staff spinsterhood put it, a trifle out of place. But she was not out of place amongst her own kind, the vigorous daughters of dead or enfeebled merchants, of ministers of religion, University professors, doctors, big warehouse owners of the past, or the owners of fisheries who had endowed these daughters with shrewd wits, high‐coloured cheeks, constitutions like horses, logical educations, hearty spirits and private means. They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word “guaranteed” on a jam‐jar really meant. They went to lectures, tried living on honey and nuts, took lessons in German and then went walking in Germany; they bought caravans and went off with them into the hills among the lochs; they played the guitar, they supported all the new little theatre companies; they took lodgings in the slums and, distributing pots of paint, taught their neighbours the arts of simple interior decoration; they preached the inventions of Marie Stopes; they attended the meetings of the Oxford Group and put Spiritualism to their hawk‐eyed test. Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell.” ~ pgs. 34 – 35

 

I realize that the bit I’ve said about the book before the excerpt doesn’t say very much about the plot or the story itself. The truth is I’m not sure I can summarize the story well enough without spoiling it completely for anyone else planning to read this book. In fact, the best part of this book for me was the not knowing what would happen next. I thought it was very unpredictable in an easy going sort of way, unlike in a mystery novel.

I liked reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, mostly because it was excellently written. I know I compared her writing to Roald Dahl’s books for adults in my other review. I still think there are certain features reminiscent of Roald Dahl. In terms of writing style alone, this novel reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s writing. The descriptions are vivid and sharp; the ideas blunt and amusing, and the expressions are unique. The writing voice is slightly stronger than Penelope Fitzgerald’s softer, kinder tone, even though her writing is very ‘matter of fact’ as well. Both Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald write very intriguing stories about brave spinster women stirring up change with individualism. If you’ve read any of these writers do let me know what you think 🙂

Book Review · Fiction · Muriel Spark · Uncategorized

The Snobs by Muriel Spark

The SnobsThe Snobs, besides being the title of the book, is also one of the stories included in this brief collection of short stories by Muriel Spark. The other four are The First Year of My Life, The Fortune-Teller, Christmas Fugue, and the Executor. At ten rupees, I considered this book a steal. Muriel Spark is well known and has won many literary awards for her stories with their twists and plots that have readers intrigued till the end.

This book was my first sample of Muriel Spark’s writing. I have to be honest and say that while the twists in her stories were certainly intriguing, I was not as enchanted as I have been by many other books. Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier, and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald come to mind as examples of books that have held me completely captive. I realize that this is probably a reflection of certain preferences that I have while reading.

I’m not sure if I should offer short descriptions of the stories since they’re tiny tales with plenty happening. It’s difficult to say where I might be spoiling the reading experience for someone else. But if I may try: The first story in this collection, The Snobs, is about an amusing couple who are such frightful snobs.  The First Year of My Life is, again, fairly self-explanatory. It’s the story about the thoughts of a baby, a few months old, who baffles everyone by refusing to smile. The Fortune Teller is a bewitching tale about a girl whose destiny is altered unexpectedly without her being aware of it.

Christmas Fugue is the most difficult to explain: Cynthia believes her life has become ‘empty’ in Australia after her cousin, Moira, leaves. It is interesting to read about the occurrences that reverse it. The fifth story, The Executor is a gripping account of Susan Kyle’s experience as her uncle’s literary executor.

The stories have been told very well. They’re imaginative, descriptive, and unlikely. Muriel Spark’s writing is intelligent and sharp, with a good dose of black humour and elements that add shock. It made me think of a friend I had in college who was disturbingly observant, appeared clairvoyant, and said the most outrageous things. We used to tiptoe around her because we never knew what to expect. And that’s how I imagine I might feel if Muriel Spark were alive and I happened to meet her. I have developed a mild distaste for a style with a caustic edge. I would much prefer to meet Penelope Fitzgerald, whose writing style is gentler and somehow friendlier.

One other thing that I am unable to appreciate anymore is extravagant absurdity.  I felt that the short stories by Muriel Spark reminded me of the short stories for adults written by Roald Dahl. Now I like Roald Dahl’s writing for children. In fact, I adore it along with Quentin Blake’s engaging illustrations. But I do not care for Henry Sugar or any of the other characters invented by Roald Dahl for his adult readers, or the stories that they’re in. I don’t think I enjoy the absurd as much as I used to.

Apart from personal preferences that draw me towards other books and other authors, I liked Muriel Spark’s lucid writing and dead pan way of saying things. There were parts that made me laugh. Her writing, without a doubt, is stylish.

The pilot walked up the aisle towards Cynthia. He sat down beside her.

‘A complete nut. They do cause anxiety on planes. But maybe he’s harmless. He’d better be. Are you feeling lonely?’

Cynthia looked at the officer. He was good-looking, fairly young, young enough. ‘Just a bit,’ she said.

‘First class is empty,’ said the officer. ‘Like to come there?’

‘I don’t want to – ‘

‘Come with me,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Cynthia. What’s yours?’

‘Tom. I’m one of the pilots. There are three of us today so far. Another’s coming on at Bangkok.’

‘That makes me feel safe.’  (pg.38)