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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark I don’t know why I went on a bit of a Muriel Spark kick this week. I’ve read this and Memento Mori before; but it seems to be some law of physics that with a few exceptions, if I read it before my son was born, it doesn’t count. If I read it when I was a kid, I probably read it six or seven times. I was an obsessive re-reader. So the Narnia books and A Wrinkle In Time and Jane Eyre and assorted Stephen King books have stayed with me and always will. But anything I picked up once in my adult life, previous to 16 years ago? Gone, baby, gone.

So the only thing I remembered from this strange novel (and “strange” seems to be a required word when describing the works of Muriel Spark) was that the bizarre title character is a teacher at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and she has a small group of students to whom she’s devoted. And vice versa – or so she thinks. But one of them will go on to betray her.

That’s all I remembered. That, and the fact that one of the main characters, Sandy Stranger, was always experiencing what she thought of as her “double life,” walking and conversing in a private world made up of her own imagination.

If either Sandy or Miss Brodie sound benevolent or sweet, I’m telling this wrong.

This passage is the perfect description of Miss Jean Brodie:

She was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master. Just as an excessive sense of guilt can drive people to excessive action, so was Miss Brodie driven to it by an excessive lack of guilt.

And here is teenaged Sandy Stranger, faultlessly answering questions in class while in her imagination she composes a formal dinner invitation to Alan Breck, the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, with whom Sandy has already mentally enjoyed “a breath-taking flight through the heather.” She imagines his surprise at receiving this invitation to “the lonely harbor house on the coast of Fife...of which Sandy had now by devious means become the mistress. Alan Breck would arrive in full Highland dress. Supposing that passion struck upon them in the course of the evening and they were swept away into sexual intercourse?”

Sandy is at once fascinated and repelled by this thought. “She argued with herself, surely people have time to think, they have to stop to think while they are taking their clothes off, and if they stop to think, how can they be swept away?”

A very strange book, indeed, shot through with Spark’s signature dark humor.