Monday, August 22, 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

If it were possible to be a fan of reviews of things in general, I would say that I am a fan of Emily Hale's reviews of things--books, lectures, battle re-enactments (as the case may be). I usually lack the requisite interest in the particular genre of mid-century women writers who convert to Catholicism to seek out the books she reviews, but in a universe of infinite time, I might read them based on these reviews. But recently, she reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and it was clear from her description--Calvinism! teacher-student relations!--that this was a book I needed to read, pretty much as soon as possible. So I did. And it was, as I expected, completely mesmerizing. You can read Emily Hale's summary of the book so I don't have to repeat it here. "Teacher-student relations" is a politic way of getting at what the book is about, which is something more like the erotic nature of teaching, and its limits in forming people. Everything about this book is, as teh catz would say, relevant to my interests, which are soon to become my dissertation. (After the completion of which, I might have no further interests.)

Emily Hale thinks Miss Brodie's failing "is that she attempts to make her students into her own image." This is true in that she seems to have a narrow sense of what is acceptable for the best women to become--not "team spirited" believers in popular platitudes, not unthinking young wives, not technical experts like the upper school teachers, and so on. Basically, not anyone else they encounter in school except herself. But it's not clear that her criticism of the narrowing tendencies of conventional schooling is entirely misplaced. She tells her girls, "Miss Mackay [the headmistress] retains [a poster of a former Prime Minister] on the wall because she believes in the slogan 'Safety First.' But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first." Is that not an accurate summation of the imperatives of schooling vs. the imperatives of living? And Miss Brodie is additionally right to resist various efforts to send her to "the more progressive schools," sensing that the education she offers can only be effective against the backdrop of tradition, not in the absence of it. But I think the main problem is not that she wants to make her girls into herself as that she wants to make to make them all Anna Pavlovas (her ideal of passionate dedication) of whatever vocation she discovers in them. But she is first more fallible than she assumes in her ability to identify the girls' vocations. And the Calvinist idea of secular vocation can't bear the weight of her demands (even before she extricates it from its original relation to an omnipotent God). It turns out that "vocation" can't be secularized at all, that in the world it can only lead to disappointment because it's incommensurate with the smallness of human lives, which can rarely be as single-minded and committed as vocation demands.

Miss Brodie wants to instill passion in her girls in order to "lead them out" (her translation of education--"ex duco") so that they may discover themselves in the world, which is to say, so that they may take up their vocations. But vocation demands that individuals become exceptional in some way simply by taking their rightful places in the world, and this doesn't account for our relative smallness and the world's galling bigness. All of Miss Brodie's girls go on to respectable but unremarkable things--one becomes a typist, another a nurse, a third a scientist. Spark tells us all this right away, just as she introduces the girls, so that there is no suspense about what will become of them or what effect the tutelage of Miss Brodie will have. She even emphasizes the smallness of each girl's youthful talents--"what she was famous for," as she describes it. One girl is famous for doing somersaults, another for being desired by boys, a third for having remarkably small eyes, and a fourth for being hapless. These are not auspicious beginnings for identifying vocation, for leading what is already inside the girls out.

And the great gulf between the "potentiality" (a word Spark seems to like) of their childhoods and their adult fates is so blunt as to be shocking--the first outcome we learn about is that of the hapless and stupid girl, Mary, whose hapless and stupid death in a fire is described in maudlin detail. Why does Miss Brodie so to speak "elect" such a pathetic girl to her set? What is the meaning of election if one must live and die like Mary? Did Miss Brodie see some spark or potentiality in her, or think it a challenge suitable to her prime to improve someone as dull as her? But for the reader, the girls are always destined, or predestined for their smallness in the world. Jenny, the prettiest of the Brodie set and thought by Miss Brodie to have much potential until she unaccountably "becomes insipid" sometime in her mid-teens when she discovers acting, and ends up only "an actress of moderate reputation," contentedly married for 16 years when she comes across an Italian stranger with whom she falls in love, but "there was nothing whatever to be done about it." This--both the mediocrity in a life of imitation and the unthinking unwillingness to pursue an illicit love--was not imagined in Miss Brodie's plans for the girls. Only the main girl, Sandy, whom Miss Brodie is always saying will go too far one day, achieves a kind of strange acclaim, a place in the world for a psychology book she writes, but that only after she converts to Catholicism and rejects the world to enter a convent. "What a waste. That's not the sort of dedication I meant," says Miss Brodie when she hears about Sandy's vocation. Ironically, of course, Sandy--the one who is famous for nothing more than her small eyes--turns out to be the only one of the Brodie set to have any capacity for a vocation at all.

One might also ask how well Miss Brodie herself lives up to her vocation, which she declares several times is her students. It is clear that she loves her students and they love her, but she doesn't realize that if it's to be a vocation, this love must be exclusive. When she starts an affair with another teacher, the girls, and Sandy most of all, feel betrayed. The other girls turn their attentions more to the world outside Miss Brodie, while Sandy starts up an imaginary affair with a policewoman, whom she helps to gather evidence of Miss Brodie's crime. This is a great moment in the psychology of modern eros, by the way. In Emile, Rousseau argues that, in order to educate children in a world without any legitimate authority (the fear of punishment being a perversion of authority to which we resort for lack of other means), a teacher must dedicate his whole existence to a single child. Authority can only be established contingently on a child's sense of the adult's perfect benevolence to him, which requires unstinting attention to the child. The impossibility of living up to this demand is in part what makes Emile a Lockean comedy rather than a serious guide to childrearing. But we get an image of Emile gone wrong in Miss Brodie, who sets out to do exactly what Emile's tutor does, but never realizes that the temptations of "her prime" must be seen as mere distractions from her vocation rather than the arbiters of her own happiness. This is of course an impossible demand, but Calvinism makes it.

Also this book is wonderfully written, mimicking the rhythm of children's thoughts with their endless repetitions while the girls are young, and picking up as they grow older. Emily Hale is also right that, despite the sort of whimsical narration and plot, it's ultimately dark. I finished it in a state of low-grade gloom, quite convinced that I ought to lay off the Calvinism for a while.


Emily Hale said...

This is very interesting! One correction, though: Laurie Colwin is not Catholic! :)

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, fair enough. I'd never heard of her in my life until I started reading your blog.

arethusa said...

I actually have loved that book since I read it in high school. It's one of Spark's best.

However, I have often thought that Miss Brodie represents exactly what is wrong with education these days.

Miss Self-Important said...

Why is that? Spark makes it clear that Miss Brodie is wrong, but that all the other teachers are wrong as well. It wasn't clear to me that any of the three possibilities offered (Miss Brodie, the "Safety First" headmistress, or the technical experts in the secondary school) was singled out as a particular source of modern educational failing.

arethusa said...

Oh, not in the novel at all is Miss Brodie a symbol of the failure of an educational system (I agree that Spark isn't singling anyone out); but her insistence on "leading out," on her students' exceptionalism, and her overly close relationship with them all are characteristic (this is only my view) of a teaching style today that is becoming all too popular and seems of little benefit to me.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure the close relationship is a problem per se--aren't there many reasonable grounds for a close relationship b/w teachers and individual students--family friendships, local connections, the students being very advanced or very behind and so requiring more personal attention? Miss Brodie's closeness was problematic b/c its basis was her mistaken conviction that she knew and could lead the girls to their destinies, and also b/c she thought herself a great exemplar of humanity when she was in fact a pretty average specimen.

Miss Self-Important said...

By contrast though, Spark also criticizes traditional pedagogy represented by the rest of the school for its tendency to submerge the individuality of the girls (team spirit). If Miss Brodie exaggerated by insisting that each girl was born complete and individual, so that no external knowledge required imparting by education, the school exaggerated in its belief that the girls were blank slates on which any personality could be written. Catholicism seems to offer some kind of mean b/w the atheistic Miss Brodie's predestinarian Calvinist pedagogy and the nominally Presbyterian Lockeanism of the rest of the school.