Archive for January, 2012

The Creme de la Creme

My Hero

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (henceforth TPOMJB): a slim book which, it turns out, manages to cram in an awful lot of stuff to talk about. Deceptive. Very much like Miss Jean Brodie herself.

I must admit, I chose this book as a purely selfish act. I read it in my teens and absolutely loved it. Looking back, I think I fell slightly in love with Miss Jean Brodie (MJB) and secretly wished I had a special teacher who would lead lessons under cherry trees, telling us about her love of Giotto, Mussolini and her racy love life rather than long division and the agricultural revolution. (As you can imagine, the likelihood of this actually happening in a Sunderland comprehensive was pretty remote, but isn’t it always in the most unlikely of places that romantic dreams flourish?) Unsurprisingly I never got a Miss Jean Brodie: I did however get a lifelong love of eccentric female novelists of the early 20th century (Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Jean Rhys et al) and now, many years on, it seemed like the time to revisit my teenage crush. Though none of you were quite as enamored as her the first time round, you did have  a similar experience; a vivid memory- whether formed by the TV series, the film or the novel- of Jean Brodie to which informed this second reading. An interesting (and I think unique) situation for the book group to be in.

Alas, like green 20/20 and snogging behind Jackie Whites market, some things aren’t quite the same when you try them again. And while TPOMJB was just as compelling and complex as before, Miss Jean Brodie herself was agreed to be a whole lot more disturbing than we remembered. For me, it turned out my crush wasn’t so straightforwardly appealing as I first thought.

As you might expect, much of the book group conversation centred around the characterization or, more accurately, the character of MJB. This is an important distinction as one of the things much commented on was the meagre amount Spark actually tells us about MJB. We never get inside her head, we never see her in “her own space” without the girls, we hear her reflect on her actions, never even hear her say much that isn’t one of her wonderful catchphrases. What does it mean when she says she’s in her prime? Is she? We know virtually nothing. Yet she somehow manages to dominate the story, change the course of the girls lives and create endless speculation. Is she benign, only doing what’s best for the girls, or a malevolent autocrat, a pre-figuration of Hitler? Is she a sad figure whose only power is her power over the girls or is she funny, a kind of brisk, Scottish stereotype? Why is she so seductive? Why does she do the things she does? What influence does she really have on the girls lives? It’s a testament to Spark’s genius (yes, I know, I don’t use the “g” word lightly) that her spare, dense prose rewards the reader with so much to think on.

Boy did we talk and talk, obviously reaching no decisive conclusion but then that’s not the point is it? (Unlike MJB, book group promotes diverse and lateral thinking!) Once I’d gotten over the fact that as a teenager I was in love with a tyrant, I was relieved to find out that one of the books which inspired me most was still as brilliant (and way more unsettling) as ever.

Also discussed:

  • The form of the novel- flash-forwards, flashbacks, repetition, the way that the girls were labelled and their lives were prefigured
  • The necessity of judging MJB’s actions in the context of the time- though now it seems remarkable that a teacher would have the girls to her house etc. perhaps not so odd then?
  • The influence of the war- how their were a generation of women left in “war-bereaved spinsterhood” and how that effects MJB’s life and actions
  • The themes of religion and politics (fascism in particular- does her rule over her set pre-figure the rise of Hitler?)

We also welcomed four new members to the first book group of 2012. Thanks all for coming along and hope you’ll join us on the 9 February to discuss Snowdrops by AD Miller. x

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