Vulpes Libris

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Adaptation Week: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

jeanbrodie cover*NB. Yes this does have spoilers, but then so does the book. As this is a modern classic, it is impossible to discuss in detail without giving away the story. So look away now if you don’t want to know what happens…

The loyalty to either book or film, when it comes to adaptations, often depends very much on what order you encounter them. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those books I’ve always intended to read, but somehow never got round to until, that is, I came across the slim Penguin edition at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, a few weeks ago.

The film I have to admit to having a huge affection for and have seen twice – but a while ago – and I was curious to how I’d react to what is by many now considered to be a masterpiece of Scottish literature.

Which is more successful, book or film? Is this even a fair question?

The Story

The story is familiar. Charismatic and unconventional Jean Brodie is a schoolteacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh. The Brodie “set” are her chosen group consisting of Monica (good at Maths), Jenny (the beautiful one), Sandy (of the small eyes), Eunice (sporty), Rose (who, we are continually reminded, is “known for sex”) and Mary McGregor (the scapegoat ).

Miss Brodie is dramatic and eccentric and exciting with unconventional teaching methods. She declares Art to be greater than Science, admires Renaissance painters (Giotto is her favourite), tells them romantic stories about…herself – and has a bit of a penchant for Fascist dictators. Over the course of the book, Miss Brodie’s influence goes from romantic and inspiring to something rather more sinister.

ART

One can’t read Muriel Spark’s “masterpiece” without being aware of its literary reputation. A craftsman of deceptively simple lean elegant prose: Spark’s wit is drier than dust, her observations absorbing, her themes suggestive and her meaning ambiguous. She employs bold devices such as jumping forward in time and revealing the future individual fates of her characters suddenly in the middle of other scenes – yet this is not done for suspence or revelation in story-terms, as is the convention.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has often been cited as a literary character study, yet it is interesting that like so many literary depictions of big characters (such as The Great Gatsby) we never get inside Miss Brodie’s head. Despite her hugeness, her complete dominance of everything and everyone in the book: Miss Brodie herself is strangely absent. Her motivations remain a mystery. Her actions are open to interpretation and, as a reader, you gnaw over the what and why of it all.  It is only through her influence, her effect, that we get any sense of her. (And perhaps it is only through this effect that she has any power or personality at all – as seems to be implied by her sad old age.)  It is interesting that despite the added closeness offered by the literary form, that Spark chooses, not only to stay away from Miss Brodie’s thoughts and feelings, but to view her primarily through the small insightful eyes of her betrayor, Sandy.

The cold, appraising stare of Sandy, and the cold slightly derisive narratorial voice that seems to pervade the text itself, gives the book a more cutting, satirical edge. Indeed, it seems almost angry at times, trying to dismiss a silly women who – nonetheless – it can’t seem to dismiss. Where this succeeds is in getting the reader to stand back and really question this character and what she represents. Where it is less successful and – certainly less successful than the film – is in creating a believable human story when it comes to the love triangle between Miss Brodie, the singing master, Mr Lowther, and the art master, Teddy Lloyd.

LOVE

Spark would have us believe that both the Art Master and the Singing Master are madly in love with Miss Brodie – as seems to be the case with every man who comes within her sphere of intoxicating influence. However, with the narratorial voice so obviously out of love with her, it is quite difficult to really see why.

Here is where the film really excels.

brodiefilmThe character of Miss Brodie, who is, to some extent, a comic character in the book – is definitely a comic character as depicted by Maggie Smith, and yet achieves a certain sympathy by her very human portrayal of a rather silly, misguided woman. Smith seems to capture the snobbery and silliness – and yet give this a much more human face. It is simultaneously a more heightened depiction than the book – and yet offset by a greater sense of a real human being beneath the artifice.

Smith also shows us why this character is so attractive. From her elegant appearance (am I the only one who sees a resemblance to the portrait of Spark herself by Alexander Moffat in the Scottish Portrait Gallery? ) to her quick wit (something less in evidence in the book) to her dramatic posing, we can see why she captures the hearts of her pupils and is a source of fascination for the male teachers. Where Spark is a master of the spare elegant prose, Smith is a master at depicting women who are silly, snobbish and should be derisible – and making us see their  human frailty. She also makes you care about them – no matter how awful they are.

The Miss Brodie of the book is much more opaque. We see the dramatic, the fantasies, the show. We even , later, see her broken. But we never really see the human being.

Maggie Smith’s characterisation makes the love story (if that’s what you call it) more believable, and this achieves greater plausibility by the inclusion of Smith’s own husband of the time – Robert Stephens – as a rather louche and exciting Teddy Lloyd. The screen does fizzle between them – they are different, yet an obvious match for each other and the film achieves a sense of battle between the two . This might be a more conventional way of creating sexual tension but it really works and  allows the viewer to understand the attraction and why it is they are so obsessed with each other. Teddy Lloyd is a large charismatic character in the film: yet in the book he seems sketchy, small and unexplained.

The Teddy Lloyd of the book is a rather more pathetic character and, indeed, it is hard to read any sexual tension between himself and Miss Brodie. When Sandy exclaims that all his portraits have Miss Brodie’s face, it seems almost to have a melodramatic tinge – impossible to believe: a device used by Spark to make a point, rather than evidence of a real human relationship or even an unreal human obsession. In the film, the sparkle between Smith and Stephens, and the confidant loucheness of Stephens’ performance in relation to the girls themselves, makes the this far more believable.

However, you could also argue that the film does solve some of the difficulties of the book by reducing things to the more conventional interpretation. Sandy memorably seduces Teddy Lloyd in the film by sudden becoming as beautiful as a sixties model and posing for him naked. Her sexual flowering seems to provide an answer to, and a symbol of, her growing independence from Miss Brodie and her ideas. In the book, things don’t seem that straightforward. Teddy Lloyd is a pawn rather than a prize and Sandy ends up as a nun.

There are occasional hints of lesbian overtones in the book that are absent in the film and perhaps if this had been stronger, it could have made more (and better) sense of the sexual game-playing that takes place. Sandy and Jenny talk about a policewoman who obviously excites them with her short hair and her uniform. Similarly, they all are very taken with Miss Lockhart the science teacher .

“Sometimes the girls would put a little spot of ink on a sleeve of their tussore silk blouses so that they might be sent to the science room in the Senior school. There a thrilling teacher, a Miss Lockhart, wearing a white overall, with her grey short hair set back in waves from a tanned and weathered golfers face, would pour small drop of white liquid from a large jar on to a piece of cotton wool…

…Sandy and Jenny got ink on their blouses at discreet intervals of four weeks so that they could go and have their arms held by Miss Lockhart who seemed to carry six inches of pure air around her person wherever she went in that strange-smelling room”.

To me, this interest both has slight sexual overtones, but – perhaps more importantly – real excitement at images of women who are the opposite of Miss Brodie: strong, independent, professional, rational. Not swooning romantic heroines manipulating men and gaining power through sexual mystique, flirting or empty drama.

This aspect – something that must have been quite powerful in the thirties when there were few images of different ways to be a woman open to girls – is missing in the film. The book almost suggests that Sandy’s affair with Teddy Lloyd is about her obsession with understanding Miss Brodie, rather than an obsession with Mr Lloyd.

And even, perhaps, that Sandy’s final betrayal of Miss Brodie is a final rejection of that kind of femininity.

BETRAYAL

Throughout the book, the dying Miss Brodie wants to know – who is it that betrayed her?

The whine in her voice – “betrayed me, betrayed me” bored and afflicted Sandy.

This remained for me the greatest mysterious and frustration of the book. Why does Sandy betray Miss Brodie? There are obvious candidates for possible motivations. Jealousy maybe. Over Teddy Lloyd. Anger. Over the manipulation of her and the rest of the “set”. Rebellion. To escape the box into which Miss Brodie has placed her. Noble right-mindedness. In a determination to rid the school of Miss Brodie’s pernicious Fascist sympathies?

It is tempting – because of Miss Brodie’s fondness for Fascist dictators and because of the hugeness of such a subject cropping up – to see this as the central point of the book… It is a fashionable and easy interpretation of what Miss Brodie’s dangerous power amounts to and when reading around the – very few – online interpretations I could find, this seemed to be a favourite and trotted-out theory. However, the Fascist angle is one of many in the book and even, to an extent, downplayed – in motivation terms at least. Sandy tells the headmistress that this is how she can get Miss Brodie. Yet it is unclear that this is the main motivation for Sandy’s betrayal.

There seems to be something intangible and subtle about Sandy defection. Here the book slips happily into ambiguity – where it seems to feel at home. It feels as though it has something to do with religion. And something to do with authority. The fact that Miss Brodie drifts dilettante-like from church to church – without being too fussy about the fine details – seems to offend the narratorial voice. (Spark herself? We cannot know.) The fact that she acts as though she is favoured by God despite this lack of concentration, of dedication, of discipline, seems to be the centre of Sandy’s motivation. Sandy herself is revealed in the future to be a Catholic nun and we are left slightly wondering whether was true to her character or evidence of even greater and more lasting influence of Miss Brodie herself.

Miss Brodie’s attachment to Mussolini seems to fit in with all her attachments to romance over reality: fantasy and lies over truth. Her dangerous attachment to charismatic glamourous  leaders is – to some extent – in keeping with many people of that time and certainly there seems to be a comic connection between the idea of glamourous Miss Brodie with her marching girls and Mussolini with his marching troups. The repellent feeling that begins to surround Miss Brodie later in the book is like a hedonism – her self- indulgence in terms of sexual manipulation, egotistical pontificating about her own trivial romances, and her “political ideas” driven by admiration for “glamourous” leaders and smart appearances: surface over substance: self-indulgence divorced from real thought, from real experience, from human suffering.

Miss Brodie’s impervious attitude to human suffering comes in again in the book’s vivid descriptions of thirties Scotland as the Brodie set take outings to see the slums of Edinburgh. Sandy’s uneasiness about the poor and their very existence crops up in the book a few times – and is not much explored in the film. Perhaps that is because the book never really tells us what that uneasiness is: whether it is a growing realisation that Miss Brodie’s world view is limited. Or whether it is to do with Miss Brodie’s arrogant assumption of her own salvation in the midst of such degradation. Or whether it is merely to point up the fantasy world in which Miss Brodie is happy to reside – a world full of stories of historic heroism and romance,  where true human suffering becomes just a backdrop in her own great drama.

All these questions and more are raised and never quite answered by the book – seeming to slip from reach just as you try to pin them down. But it is in these areas where Spark’s writing is at its most powerful – and simultaneously most frustrating.

Where the book suggests, the film makes explicit.

BOOK OR FILM?

There are many other aspects I could have explored, and many differences between the book and the film in terms of plot and emphasis. But I have taken just a few to explore here. But which – ultimately – works better?

For me, the film is the more colourful and comic – and thoroughly enjoyable – version. It excels in its depiction of character, and brings more understanding to the human dynamics. It is funnier and less frustrating – making intelligent choices and giving us understanding of motivations and of themes and meaning sometimes left hanging in the book. Perhaps it also inspires more affection.

The book is less funny, drier and more ambiguous. Despite some people’s claims that it is a character study, the towering figure of Miss Brodie remains strangely unexplained. However, it has bugged me since I read it and the experience of reading it was riveting and powerful – without my being able to explain fully why. It is perhaps not a book of which you can feel so fond.

But, the book has the greater mystery at its core and that is where its power lies. The film asks questions and answers them; the book asks questions and those questions remain.

—-

To find out more about Vulpes’ writer, RosyB,  click here.

15 comments on “Adaptation Week: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

  1. annebrooke
    July 21, 2009

    Fascinating stuff – I must go and reread …

    Axxx

  2. Moira
    July 21, 2009

    Yes. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is one of those rare occasions – for me anyway – where the film was actually an improvement on the book. (I’d nominate “Gone With the Wind” as another example …).

    I admired the book, but I didn’t like it and I found it very heavy going. I enjoyed the film very much indeed – the crackle between Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens was almost audible.

    And you’re right about the curious absence in the book of any sense of who Jean Brodie is and what makes her tick, which is probably why I couldn’t really get to grips with it. There’s a void where a person should be.

  3. Jackie
    July 21, 2009

    I’ve read other Spark’s books, but can’t recall if I’ve read this one or not. If I did, it obviously didn’t make much of an impression. I haven’t seen the film & now I’m curious about it.
    Perhaps Sandy didn’t have a specific reason to betray Miss Brodie? Maybe she was a silly, flighty girl who wasn’t thinking of the consequences of her actions? She doesn’t sound likable in any case.
    Interesting so far in Adaption Week that we prefer the movies to the books. If as book lovers we feel this way, what does it say about us?

  4. Lisa
    July 22, 2009

    “The film asks questions and answers them; the book asks questions and those questions remain.”

    I haven’t read the book or seen the film of TPOMJB. From your descriptions, the book – with its riveting power – appeals more to me. Also, I’m not sure I like all questions answered. Books and films that linger longest with me generally don’t have very neatly tied-up and fully explained resolutions.

    I thought this was a really excellent and well-written piece, Rosy.

  5. rosyb
    July 22, 2009

    I have to admit that I was totally engrossed in the book and so – in that sense – I didn’t find it hard-going. I didn’t want to put it down (which as you all know, I often do with books!). But I did find it quite frustrating. I don’t necessarily like neatly tied-up resolutions myself but sometimes you start to wonder whether there is REALLY something powerful and important there or not. Or whether sometimes there can be a deliberate kind of ambiguity – an artifice – that creates that feeling…which on closer examination can dissolve.

    Spark is such a conscious sort of writer and writes so stylishly that my suspicions could not help be raised. But I DO think there is something powerful and unexplained lying behind the book that is very genuine. And I feel that not all the cards are being shown to us. Particularly perhaps when it comes to certain issues such as religion. Or what Miss Brodie represents as a woman, as an object of fascination and as a set of beliefs to Sandy in particular. Sandy claims not to understand anyone else’s interest in Miss Brodie and seems almost vindictive when it comes to Miss Brodie’s complicated lovelife – but it is Sandy’s obsession with her that we are never really given enough on or lead to understand. Perhaps this is because Sandy’s pov and the rather cool narratorial voice seem to merge so we always seem to look at Miss Brodie through cold, appraising eyes and never really see what her power is.

    I also think the film works so well – and Miss Brodie works so well both as a comic character and an object of fascination – because the character is given a certain wit. Whereas in the book that seems to be absent. I wonder if perhaps some of the book’s own wit ends up being given to Miss Brodie herself.

    Moira, I’m totally with you on the “like” thing. I find it extremely hard to put my finger on it.

    I think, whatever else, Spark chanced on a powerful universal story which is rare. And that has spawned plays and films and tv and all sorts from this one – rather strange- little tale.

  6. Poppy
    July 22, 2009

    It’s such a long time since i saw the film, or read the book, they get confused in my mind – but didn’t Miss Brodie tell Sandie she was plain, and would never be attractive to men? So Sandie went ahead and showed her otherwise, wth Miss B’s own lover. I think it’s partly a young bull/old bull thing (only female), and the irritation felt by a younger person when they realize their former idol is deeply, deeply flawed. In the end, S – so much more intelligent than Miss B – blows her out of the water.

    Dunno. Must re-read

  7. rosyb
    July 22, 2009

    Hi Poppy

    I don’t think that’s quite right for either book or film. Sandy does sleep with Teddy L but in the film he continues to moon around over Miss B and in the book it is not at all clear why S is doing that only that she becomes less interested in him than in the mind that is obsessed by Miss B…so not at all clear that the old bull loses to the young…Not in the getting people obsessed with her stakes anyway. I think the film makes all these stuff a bit simpler in turning it into more of a coming of age story – but the book doesn’t really explain Sandy’s motivations fully and touches on many things – of which Teddy Lloyd would seem to be well down the list.

  8. Eva
    July 24, 2009

    “The loyalty to either book or film, when it comes to adaptations, often depends very much on what order you encounter them”

    Very wise words!!

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  10. Vaughan
    July 31, 2009

    One of the keys to Jean Brodie’s personality which is hinted at in the book and unexplored by the film is her age. Clues in the book indicate she was born in 1890, so the action of the book mostly takes place during her early- and mid-forties.

    Many women of this generation either lost their lovers, or lost the opportunity to become lovers, thanks to the carnage of World War One. Whether Jean Brodie’s “Hugh” ever existed we can never really know. He may be an idealised image of a real person, or a wholly-imagined might-have-been. Whatever the truth of this, it seems to me Jean Brodie is investing her emotional energy into her girls (so she can relive her youth through them) and politics.

    Her talk of being in her “prime” is just whistling in the dark, to disguise the fact she is on the verge of middle-age and the tide of time is starting to run against her. Her manipulation of people and events, whether setting up a love-affair or sending a girl to fight in Spain, is a desperate attempt to prove to herself that her life matters and has not been wasted.

  11. rosyb
    August 4, 2009

    Hi Eva and Vaughan and thanks so much for commenting on this piece.

    Vaughan – really interesting and I found myself nodding away. I too thought she was in her forties. But then I thought she hadn’t missed her opportunity to be a lover – because in the book she is a lover, with the singing master. Obviously it’s not quite as romantic as she might wish but…And then she loses out to another woman who marries him and there is a sense of – is it regret? Why will she not marry him herself? Is she really in love with Teddy Lloyd? I don’t particularly get the sense that it is. Is it because she’d lose her independence? Or her ability to dream and create romantic fantasies, however ridiculous they are? It’s all deeply mysterious which is part of the power of the book, I suppose. But I get the impression that she doesn’t quite know how not to be this creation – Miss Jean Brodie – and that creation takes it toll. There is a line that struck me about looking beautiful in a tragic heroine sort of way and the feeling that she turned down her lovers because even she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it up for very long.

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  13. Paul
    December 30, 2011

    Loved it

    Seen it when I was a boy of 13 – may be 1974 – saw it tonight with my wife and two daughters – 11 and 14 – and they loVed it in the strange way I do. Magie Smith is – well you know truly beautiful, Edinburgh is as Edinburgh should be (if you’ve been there recently . . . ) and though there is something deeply wrong, deeply sad – there’s also something right, something proper – Mary Magregor – well you know the name says everything – but what an actress

    PAUL

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  15. Bruce Martin
    January 13, 2012

    I don’t think you can fully appreciate the book until you listen to the unabridged AUDIO version, read brilliantly by Geraldine McEwan (who also played Jean Brodie in the Scottish Television series in 1978). There is also an abridged version (about 3 hours) which is easier to obtain.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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