There’s no flab in Muriel Spark’s prose. Try to find a sentence that doesn’t contribute to the whole. I couldn’t. Not in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae or biography of Mary Shelley: Child of Light. She’s an author with the confidence to write without packing unnecessary details in for the sake of entertainment.
Ready for something meaty, I figured it was time to try her fiction. Why not start with what The Chicago Tribune called “A perfect book”? The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is easily Spark’s most celebrated work. Published in 1969, the story is set during the 1930s in a Scottish school for girls. In Curriculum Vitae, she mentions basing the book’s charismatic namesake on her former teacher Miss Christine Kay. Her affectionate memories of Miss Kay left me expecting Miss Brodie to be the kind of character you wish was real and in the room with you.
My expectations were wrong again.
This is a character story about a teacher in her prime who singles out a set of six girls to dedicate herself to. I use “dedicate” loosely. She sort of pours herself over them, sometimes aiming to bring out what she thinks is the best in them but more often than not using them to better define herself.
To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.
Miss Brodie is a cultured, intelligent woman who lost her fiance in WWI. She turns to teaching Edinburgh’s young girls, taking an nontraditional approach in a rigidly conservative school. She has the girls hold up their text book to give the appearance of a normal class while telling the girls stories of traveling, art, politics and love affairs. Out of class she invites her girls, “The Brodie set”, to tea and takes them to the theater and expects their loyalty.
The girls in turn are fascinated by Miss Brodie and the two male teachers who are clearly in love with her – a married art teacher and music teacher. The student characters are so flat I kept confusing who was who and it didn’t really matter.
The mention of a Brodie set reminded me of Donna Tart’s The Secret History so I half expected some dark plot to unfold. Spark tells us from the beginning one of her girls will betray her. We don’t know how or why and those questions created just enough tension to keep me curious.
This story was first published in The New Yorker. If you like what they publish, you’ll probably enjoy this book. My friends are always dumping their old issues on me to change my mind and so far it hasn’t worked.
Written in the 60’s, the most interesting part was the portrayal of a complex woman and the influence she had on ordinary girls. As much as I enjoy Spark’s use of words like “unbrainfully” and respect the work, I didn’t enjoy reading this book. And as lame as it sounds, I wanted some flab in this story – a scene where things get jiggly, which is silly and the opposite of what Spark does.
I’m glad I finally read this book and still want to read the rest of Spark’s fiction, but the “perfect book” business is absurd. Spark’s exquisite writing kept me at such a distance from the story that reading often felt like watching a scene through binoculars. A clever structure and perfect prose isn’t enough to make a book perfect. Or maybe it is. I’ve always thought perfection is boring.