By Scott Ross
When asked to name my favorite novel, I never know how to answer.
Do I choose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its sparkling vernacular, its unerring narrative voice, its rich humor (and equally rich horror) and the masterly fashion in which it confronts, head on, the essential hypocrisy of American racism? Perhaps The Great Gatsby for its crystalline prose and absolute evocation of its era? Or Bleak House, for its panoramic narrative, satirical brilliance and aching humanity? Maybe Ragtime for its astonishing style and sweeping vision? Or Beloved for the stunning poetry of its prose and its unblinking fantasia on the profoundest issue facing a nation willing to build itself on one person’s right to own another? Possibly To Kill a Mockingbird for its unsentimental view of childhood, its unflinching portrait of bigotry, its correspondingly glowing depiction (and defense) of decency and its unique position as the only novel of a born writer? Perhaps The Eighth Day or The Magnificent Ambersons or East of Eden for their respective depictions of American families in flux, their understated irony and their expansiveness of heart? Or, if we stretch the word to embrace a collection of related stories, might I not suggest Goodbye to Berlin for the way its lepidopterist author pins its squirming, restive characters firmly to an irrevocable delineation of time and place?
No. I can’t decide. Ask me instead which novels I’ve read most often. That’s a much easier one. MASH probably heads the list, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since the age of 14, and always with great joy. Still, the pseudonymous Richard Hooker’s episodic collection of dark comic sketches from Korea, whatever its pleasures, pales next to Muriel Spark’s magnificent mainstay The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Know its characters, and its slight, impressionistic plot as well as you might from a previous reading, or from either the play or the famous movie (or indeed the seven-part British miniseries) made from it and this slim, slightly autobiographical tapestry continues to delight from inauspicious beginning to unforgettable end, each successive reading over time revealing more of its perfectly pitched tone, its striking manipulation of the temporal, its ironic (but never bitter) detachment, and the mellifluous, biting (but never savage) dialogue of which Spark was long a past-mistress. Brodie, perhaps appropriately for a novel whose center is not so much eccentricity but sexual jealousy, is in a curious way represented by two sets of women: One literary, the other histrionic.
First of course, Muriel Spark, who bequeathed Miss Brodie to the world (and who based her to a large degree on a certain Miss Kay, her own teacher at, as Jean Brodie would note, “an impressionable age.”) Next, Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the book for the stage and who would later transmogrify her own adaptation into film. The other set consists of the four women who variously brought Miss Brodie to life: Vanessa Redgrave (in London), Zoe Caldwell (Broadway), Maggie Smith (film) and Geraldine McEwan (television.) Not to mention the countless amateur actors who have breathed life and fire into Spark’s unconventional, admirable, maddening, foolish, and ultimately dangerous pedagogue on more stages separately than even the redoubtable Misses Redgrave, Caldwell, Smith and McEwan have together.
I cannot speak for the McEwan series, as I still have not seen it, but for all the acting pyrotechnics and the juicy roles for its cast, Allen’s play (and subsequent screenplay) is, perhaps inevitably, a diminution of the novel. I don’t claim for Brodie the same greatness one confers on the finest prose — it isn’t a patch on, say, Doctorow’s or Morrison’s or Fitzgerald’s — but if it isn’t first-tier, it’s nonetheless an entrancingly high second. Although Allen retained a bit of the book’s framing device (involving a nun reluctantly famous for her surprise best-seller), trenchant dialogue and spicy observations she had, perforce, to jettison Spark’s loose temporal structure in favor of a more linear approach. Had she been a more daring, or in any case a different sort of playwright, Allen might not have matched Spark but she could have at least maintained pace with the novelist theatrically. But as she was essentially a boulevard comedian (or, at best, an adherent of comédie d’intrigue) and not an ironist, Allen built her narrative toward a dramatic show-down where Spark embraced a witty dying fall tinctured with ironic paradox.
In Spark’s Brodie, the self-deluding pedagogic iconoclast has no idea who has “betrayed” her to the authorities for her dangerous — indeed ultimately, if unintentionally murderous — extolling of Fascism, refusing to accept the evidence directly before her in the person of Sandy, the single “Brodie girl” she has most severely, and disastrously, underestimated. Allen climaxes her adaptation with a recriminatory confrontation between the two, which, it must be admitted, ends spectacularly, with Brodie memorably shouting, “Assassin!” at Sandy’s departing back.* I once saw the Brodie movie in tandem with Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel, in a pointed double-bill. My companion noted, afterward, that while the latter was deeply felt, and exceptionally moving, the former was more a showcase for its scenery-chewing star. I suspect it was largely that very concluding encounter that led him to prefer Rachel, itself — despite being one of the most deeply affecting portraits of loneliness ever committed to film — slightly hysterical.
Certainly, in Maggie Smith’s deliciously ravenous hands, Jean Brodie is a veritable acting feast. Although her passions are all too real, her affect more than borders on self-conscious camp; one can easily imagine Charles Busch assaying Brodie and, with very little exaggeration, giving a nearly identical performance. I don’t say that as a criticism; as Allen (and the director, Ronald Neame) imagined her, this Jean Brodie virtually demands a comic technician willing to be as ridiculous yet oddly pitiable as Smith. That she occasionally seems, in 1930s Edinburgh, like a deliberately pretentious modern drag-queen avant la lettre merely adds, in a funny way, to her overall potency. On film Smith has been better (as in Ian McKellan’s Richard III and, especially, the flawed but almost agonizingly effective The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), more quietly plangent (Hot Millions, A Room with a View), wittier (A Private Function) and far funnier (Murder by Death, California Suite.) But she has almost never, aside from Alan Bennett’s magnificent “Talking Heads” television monologue “Bed Among the Lentils,” had a leading movie or television role as plummy as Miss Jean, or one that has called upon her to pull together everything she does so well in a single performance.
More notably Sparkian, in the movie, are Smith’s coevals: Pamela Franklin, blankly astute as Sandy; Gordon Jackson, whose Mr. Lowther somehow makes cowardice seem endearing; and, supremely, Celia Johnson as Brodie’s bête noire Miss Mackay. It’s a vast tribute to Johnson’s gifts that she embodies the head of the conservative Marcia Blaine School with such outward reasonableness — even a certain inflexible charm — never allowing the character’s dogged fixation on Brodie to lapse into simple churlishness or stock villainy. You feel that she is, despite Jean’s underestimation of her, every bit as formidable, and cunning, a foe as Brodie herself, and with far greater (and, inevitably, deadlier) patience. That Mackay is small-minded in her attitudes and, as such, a much greater, because institutionalized, danger to her young charges than Brodie could ever be, does not mitigate her belief in the essential order of things, a tenet as unalterable as Brodie’s more flamboyant devotion to, as an insidious phrase of hers insinuates, molding her girls in her own implacable image.
Surely the sharply observational ironist in Spark, who famously converted to Roman Catholicism, knew what she was about when Brodie says, repeatedly, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Substitute “child” for “girl” and you have the very essence of Catholic (indeed, every religion’s) indoctrinal teaching. Spark is able to see Brodie plain — as a deliberate spellbinder, a foolish monster sacré, and, as Sandy says, “a ridiculous woman” who, in her self-contradictory embrace of Fascism, is directly responsible for sending one such impressionable girl (Joyce Hammond in the novel, Mary McGregor in the play and movie) to her violent death. She may also, as the art teacher Teddy Lloyd (two-armed in Allen where Spark imagined him with one) accuses her in the play and the picture, be afraid of her own impassioned sexuality, all too eager to procure a substitute lover from among her girls. (Rose in the novel, Jenny in Allen’s versions.) Yet she is no phony. Whatever her motives, Brodie’s devotion to teaching, in her own, wildly original fashion, is true enough. And she does manage, for better or worse, to remain in the minds of her students, as all great (or simply unusual) teachers do, long after they have forgotten the mediocre run of the overwhelming mill.
This may be what I mean when I maintain that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in common with those novels we return to again and again at irregular intervals as our lives progress, yields greater pleasures and pithier insights with each new reading. It is easy, as an adolescent, to ridicule Brodie herself, and to see in her only a preening ridiculousness. Later, we may feel that she has indeed been wronged. And, still later, to find we can embrace both her sterling lack of academic orthodoxy (her approach to education, based on the Latin verb educere, is “a leading out”) and Sandy’s self-justification when she maintains, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” Seeing people whole demands of us a rejection of childish side-taking, that very egocentrism of which Jean Brodie is rightly accused yet which gives her such a disarmingly original hold, not merely on those special girls called (often with barely contained jealousy) The Brodie Set, nor even on the reader, but on life itself. Without it, Brodie withers. With it, she soars. Vaingloriously, yes, even recklessly. But Jean Brodie is, however dangerously, alive in a way few fictions ever are.
“For those who like that sort of thing,” Miss Brodie sniffs at a girl whose avocations reveal, to her, a smallness of vision, “that is the sort of thing they like.” It may not be my favorite novel, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the sort of thing I like very much indeed.
*On the DVD commentary, Brodie’s director Ronald Neame avers that Smith wanted to say the word “Assassin” quietly, to herself, but was vetoed by himself and Robert Fryer, the movie’s producer. He adds that, seeing the film again so many years later, he thinks Smith was right and that they were wrong.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross