I recently made a deal with my dad that I would read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie if he read Patricial Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He, of course, went on to purchase a copy of Miss Jean Brodie for me, while I left him to find his own Mr. Ripley, but I think that’s allowed because daughters are always entitled to spontaneous presents. Having finished this wonderfully strange and spare novel—about an unorthodox teacher at a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh of the 1930s and her devoted coterie of students—I can’t believe I’d never read anything by Muriel Spark before. When I first found myself carried away on her odd, lilting prose, it reminded me of the first time I read Gertrude Stein; there’s a kind of hypnotic quality to its repetitiveness, as if it’s on the verge of falling into a verse incantation. Spark’s writing isn’t as deliberately disorienting as Stein’s, though, which is what makes it seem strange rather than experimental—a mystifying of something that keeps a ghost of its normality, or in the words of the title of the book on psychology one of the Brodie set goes on to write, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.” Back when I thought I was more likely to become a novelist than anything else, I fantasized about a writing sentences like this one: “The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six-o’clock feeling in the house.” And if there’s anything that seduces me more than strange, beautiful prose, it’s strange, beautiful prose with a wicked sense of humor. I have to reproduce in full the letter written by two of Miss Brodie’s students—by turns curious and repulsed by the sex they imagine everywhere—that caps off their collection of fictional correspondence between Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther, the music teacher:
My Own Delightful Gordon,
Your letter has moved me deeply as you may imagine. But alas, I must ever decline to be Mrs. Lowther. My reasons are twofold. I am dedicated to my Girls as is Madame Pavlova, and there is another in my life whose mutual love reaches out to me beyond the bounds of Time and Space. He is Teddy Lloyd! Intimacy has never taken place with him. He is married to another. One day in the art room we melted into each other’s arms and knew the truth. But I was proud of giving myself to you when you came and took me in the bracken on Arthur’s Seat while the storm raged about us. If I am in a certain condition I shall place the infant in the care of a worthy shepherd and his wife, and we can discuss it calmly as platonic acquaintances. I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime. We can also have many a breezy day in the fishing boat at sea.
I wish to inform you that your housekeeper fills me with anxiety like John Knox. I fear she is rather narrow, which arises from an ignorance of culture and the Italian scene. Pray ask her not to say, “You know your way up,” when I call at your house in Cramond. She should take me up and show me in. Her knees are not stiff. She is only pretending that they are.
I love to hear you singing “Hey Johnny Cope.” But were I to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King of Arms I would decline it.
Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.
With fondest joy,
Ultimately, this is a story about the disenchantment of childhood devotion and idolatry, and it leaves you with the lost feeling of looking back at things you loved as a child with the too-wise eyes of an adult. It also leaves you with the wonderful sense of the author’s own intelligence, as if you’ve just been seeing the world through a more perceptive gaze.
I will certainly read more of Muriel Spark’s work in the future.