A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
*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 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.