Following the advise of a good friend −and very well read one− I took advantage of a brief stay in Madrid to get The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie of Muriel Spark. Thanks to Google I found a bookshop specialized in foreign languages. That’s a polite way of putting it; a more accurate one would be: I found the bookshop where all non-Spanish readers living in Madrid are systematically ripped off… In any case, every euro I paid was worth it. The book is one of those you just can’t leave aside, and that created no little difficulties as I was attending a course in Spain where I was supposed to study Latin besides other topics, which did not include reading novels, of course. After some very brief negotiations I arranged a truce with my conscience: I would finish the book quickly and then move on to the Latin with no further distraction. Thanks God I have a very un-Kantian conscience that is easily persuaded.
My friend recommended the book saying it was the best novel he had ever read… I don’t know if I would say the same, but certainly its is one of those books that makes you breath deeply when you finish them. It’s beautifully written with a master use of narrative time −the way she makes use of prolepses and analepses (flash-forwards and flashbacks) is just incredible−, though I will leave that for another post and focus on Miss Brodie, the center of the story.
An article I found on the New York Times calls her one of the funniest and most sinister characters in modern fiction. I don’t see anything funny in Jean Brodie: sinister yes! So terrible sinister that she frightened me. A teacher who manipulates her pupils in the way she does is terrible frightening. What is truly terrifying is that this is not science fiction, it could happen…and I’m sure it does. It raises many questions specially for those who are teachers or dedicate themselves to education somehow. The friend who recommended the book to me is a teacher in a law school and he admitted how nicely it feels to have “a set”: a group of some students who follow you, who admire you or what you say. Then you can make a difference in their education. I guess thats fine and understandable −everybody likes to be admired−; every teacher wants to exert some influence on his students, to make a difference and to help them become something else. Without this desire you cannot be a good educator. The question Spark poses is deeper and points to the motives that drive the teacher, the real engine of his zeal; and it is in this point where Jean Brodie fails to pass the examination.
Her drive is totally selfish, she educates “her set” so they become the “Brodie set”: a bunch of mini Brodie replicas lacking any trace of their own individuality. The ways Spark suggest this transformation through the paintings of Teddy −the art teacher− is wonderful: all the girls he paints resemble Jean Brodie. He just paints little Brodies because he is obsessed with the school teacher, but also because there is a certain resemblance in them. The teacher has succeeded in transforming the impressionable girls in such a way that they follow her orders as if she were the Divine Providence: they have to become what Miss Broodie wants them to be. In addition, a sense of duty towards the group is exalted and a blind obedience to the leader is asked from its members. The group takes over the individual (very similar to our XX century totalitarianism, don’t you think?). Only Sandy −maybe out of jealousy− realizes the deceit in this program and is able to say after she’s accused of betraying Miss Brodie: “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”.
Miss Brodie more than a fascist is a tyrant, a petty tyrant if you want, but a real one. She shows the narcissism and will of power we all have inside us: an ugly side of human beings.