Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means

Ok – here is a long one to start with. This post is actually an amalgamation of two posts written about a year apart. I read Jean Brodie about this time last year (I think) and Girls is one of my recent reads. However, it makes sense to post them both together so here goes!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I read Spark’s novel because she converted to Catholicism and it’s my area of study. Now that that’s out of the way I can say that, while it was an interesting book, I’m not sure I liked it very much. However, I think that was intended. None of the characters are very sympathetic. One might feel for them or understand their way of thinking but they were hard to like.

The story centers around primary school teacher Miss Brodie and six of her pupils from the all-girl school: Monica, Rose, Eunice, Sandy, Jenny and Mary. The scene is Edinburgh in the 1930s, during the rise of fascism throughout Europe, even in Britain. Miss Brodie becomes almost an antagonist for the postwar reader when Spark begins to describe the extent of her fascist convictions. Similarly the girls are all ‘known’ for something but none of them are known for their intelligence or wit or even beauty in a positive way. Monica is know for her genius at maths and for her anger. The aptitude for maths seems to be negated by the tendency to almost irrational rage; this is repeatedly emphasised throughout. Rose is know for sex – an ambiguous description because she is intended to become the lover of a young man but does not. Instead, it is Sandy, known for her ‘small eyes’, who has the affair. Eunice and Jenny, known for gymnastics and being pretty respectively, are comparatively minor characters. Even Mary is a minor character but she is the scapegoat, the stupid, clumsy girl who, it is said in the very first chapter, dies in a fire.

All attributes are repeated and expanded upon in the course of the novel. Its sjuzet-form is interesting because time becomes almost irrelevant. Everything seems to be happening at once, although the story takes place over the course of about 30 years. The other interesting repetition is the word betrayal. One of the girls ‘betrays’ Miss Brodie’s fascist interests to the headmistress, which results in Miss Brodie’s dismissal. Following the incident Miss Brodie becomes almost obsessed with trying to find out who betrayed her.

The book is not complicated. In fact the denouement occurs a few chapters in. However, there is always something more to be found out and then a little more. The whole story plays with the curiosity of the reader. Surely, with another 100 pages to go, there will be something more, another incident. But at the end of the book I was left still restless and curious about the characters.

The Girls of Slender Means

The Girls of Slender Means is a short novella, set between VE Day and VJ Day 1945. The frame story, however, is actually set a couple of years after that when the original protagonists are older – a style very similar to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The novella concerns the May of Teck Club, a sort of hostel for young girls without much money who are living and working in London. These girls feel some affection for each other, but their relationships are tinged with jealousy, egality and more than a little boasting. At the centre of the novel is the Club’s relationship with the young men who come to visit. The men are clearly alien, set apart from the world of the Club, just as the narrator is standing apart – as if reviewing a scene. From a stylistic point of view the novella is very interesting. However, the novella did not grip me – and neither did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Whilst I am interested in Muriel Spark as a Catholic author, I have yet to find a way into her so-called Catholic novels. Unlike the novels of, say, Sara Maitland or Alice Thomas Ellis these two novels do not engage with Catholicism directly. Instead, there are one or two Catholic characters in the text and the distant narrator appears to judge Catholicism as much as the other characters do. In the novella, Nicholas becomes a Catholic priest and is eventually martyred in Haiti; this episode forms the frame story. Yet his conversion is only alluded to and reasons are never given. Similarly in Miss Jean Brody, the title character is betrayed by the girl who later becomes a Catholic nun. Again there is judgement on the side of the narrator – neither for nor against the religion but towards the character and, it appears, the motives for conversion. Having just re-read what I have typed I can see that there is a Catholic element to the novel – the problem of conversion and its motive. Perhaps I will persevere with Muriel Spark, although I have other novels to finish first.

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