It’s a brief and very quirky work, but I think it fits perfectly with my mental picture of Jean Brodie. Set in the 1930s at a conservative school for girls in Edinburgh, the story follows six girls–The Brodie Set–through their final two years of Junior School, where Miss Brodie was their teacher, and then the years after they advance to the Senior School, but during which they stayed in almost constant contact with Miss Brodie.
Miss Brodie reminded me in some ways of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. She’s an unconventional teacher, always at odds with the administration because of her unorthodox teaching methods, but she draws these six girls into her orbit and devotes herself to them, as she tells them repeatedly, so they can have the benefit of her being in her prime.
Right from the beginning, however, we get hints of an impending scandal as Spark uses a series of flash-forwards. Much of the novel for the reader is the process of putting together the fractured chronology and the motivations for the characters’ choices.
I found the narrative voice fascinating. It’s a third-person omniscient narrator, jumping in and out of each character as necessary. Usually with that type of voice, the narrator allows us to understand each character in much greater depth, but Spark resists that and each character is almost reduced to a caricature. We’re told that Rose is the one who will become famous for sex. Mary is the one famous for her stupidity, etc. Even Miss Brodie is boiled down to a collection of sayings.
One of the questions Lia asked me in our discussion of the books was, as a retired teacher, what was my reaction to Miss Brodie’s teaching? This is where I believe much of the complexity in the book lies. Miss Brodie breaks down the word “education” to its Latin roots: e coming from ex, meaning “out from.” And ducere meaning “to lead.” She sees education as drawing out from the students what lies latent inside them. In contrast, she despises Mrs. Mackay (the administrator) for her old-fashioned approach of stuffing information into the students as if they’re empty vessels to be filled. Mrs. Mackay’s approach is the early equivalent of teaching to the test, and all she cares about each year is the girls’ qualifying exams for Senior School. All of that is admirable, I think, on the part of Miss Brodie.
But she crosses all sorts of lines in the process. She shares very personal details about herself, including her love life, with girls who are 10-13 years old. She uses Mary as a scapegoat and regularly belittles her. She’s extremely opinionated and assumes her girls will share her biases. Equally disturbing, her love of order and control has turned her into an advocate of Mussolini and Hitler–a born fascist.
Miss Brodie is what the kids today would call “problematic.” And that’s the beauty of this book. Even to the very end, Miss Brodie never learns who betrays her, and certainly not why. But the reader has been piecing those details together throughout the novel and the situational irony is one of the pleasures of this spare volume.
It may have taken me far too long to read my first Spark novel, but my thanks to Lia for presenting me the occasion. I will definitely dip into more of Spark’s works before too long.