Muriel Spark’s “questionable feminists”

I have long quoted lines from Muriel Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, claiming it to be among one of my favourite novels of my girlhood, and Spark to be one of my most admired writers.

Yet, recently I had occasion to revisit the book for a class I was taking part in and what I found between the pages surprised me and led to me challenge my affection for the subversive school teacher I had claimed as a worthy heroine when in my teens.  In the narration of the novel, Spark portrays Miss Brodie as engaging in discussing ideas about birth control, speaking to men on important topics as equals and having feminist ideas.

It was just these parts of the narration that stood out for me on my first reading of Miss Brodie as a teenager: I wanted to be at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, observing this worldly woman, telling the girls the secrets to living life in your prime.

Muriel Spark, British novelist, wrote a total of 22 novels, produced a solid collection of poetry and won literary prizes.  She was known as a writer of fiction, poetry, criticism and literary biography. Polygon are to re-publish all 22 novels to commemorate the centenary of Sparks’ birth in 2018.

Stylistically, it is impossible to pick up a Spark novel and mistake it for another novelist’s.  Yet neither does she stick with one type of subject matter: her lens is wide-ranging, and her prose often exhibiting an uncomfortable wit and dark humour.

Spark covered the hard subjects: religion was a particular favourite in many of her novels, as was death, both of which feature in Miss Brodie.  The title character is a school teacher situated somewhere in her thirties, single, but engaged in romantic liaisons of which she enjoys regaling her female pupils at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh in the 1930’s.  She is one of many professional single women of the era to have lost her lover in the first world war.  Miss Brodie selects a group of girls from her class at the outset of their time at the school, to which everyone, even the other teachers, refer to as ‘The Brodie Set’, and begins educating them in what she sees as the important aspects of life: foreign travel, romance, art and her own love life.  She is frowned upon by the other teachers, particularly the head, who tries to find reasons to get rid of Miss Brodie, but her set are loyal to her and protect her.  We are told early on, however, that one of them will eventually break out of the set and report Miss Brodie, as her behaviour becomes more extreme.

The sexual liaisons and intrigues amongst the teachers and pupils at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls drive much of the plot of her most famous novel.  But although based on the girls’ school Spark attended in Edinburgh in the 1930’s, the sexual content was a fictional addition; pre-marital sex would not have been a viable option for a respectable young woman such as Spark and her school friends in the 1930’s, and Spark herself has said that she was in fact pretty naive and innocent of such matters at that time.

Spark does concede that Brodie was, in part at least, based on a real teacher at the school of her girlhood.  Indeed, there were many ‘Miss Brodie’s’ around in the 1930’s: still fairly young spinsters who had lost their young men in the Great War, as pointed out in a more sombre paragraph of the narrative, where Jean Brodie is pointed out as one of ‘legions…who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art, social welfare, education or religion’.  The author/narrator tells us here, in no uncertain terms, that women ‘of Miss Brodie’s kind were great talkers and feminists and, like most feminists, talked to men as man-to-man’, going on to give an example of a conversation she has had with a Mr Geddes about birth control for the working classes.

Spark was one of several women novelists to begin a renaissance in women’s writing at this time; others included Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt, responding to a demand for an authentically female literature.  This was fuelled, in large part, by the feminist movement of the early twentieth century as women began to seek novels focusing on issues relevant to them, central to their lives as women and artists.  By the end of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when Miss Brodie was published, second wave feminism had arrived and books by women writers such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) had opened the door to other women artists’ responding to the literary world, focusing on issues relevant to women’s experiences of the time, such as sexuality, gender and personal freedom.  The 1960’s also importantly saw a rise in the emergence of feminist literary theorists.

I always saw Miss Brodie as fitting neatly into this era of developing women’s literature, but returning to the book as an adult with daughters of my own, I can see that the feminist portrayal of Jean Brodie begins to look somewhat absurd as the novel progresses.  At first feeling subversive, teaching the young girls in her charge such wide-ranging topics as the menarche, the love life of Charlotte Bronte, the love life of Miss Brodie herself, as well as her opinions on great Italian artists, and the impressive rise of Mussolini.  These opinions and topics of discussion sometimes make Jean Brodie appear fascinating and subversive; at other times, they tip her into the category of a lonely eccentric.

Later in the novel, Miss Brodie’s actions lead to much more serious consequences than not following the school’s curriculum.  Her ‘advice’ to rebellious new girl Joyce Emily, who is spurned from joining the set, to run away and offer to fight for Franco, causes the girl’s death.  Likewise, her plan to get the art master, with whom she is in love, to seduce one of the set in her place, backfires when the ‘wrong’ girl ends up sleeping with him.  The fact that she sent the young girls to his home studio to sit for portraits specifically for this reason shows a more foolish and possibly even dangerous side to Spark’s character, and I wondered whether she is challenging the reader to feel sympathy for this lonely spinster, or revulsion at her behaviour.  It is something I question on re-reading any of Spark’s novels: her characters are unique women, and her portrayal of them often tests our sympathies and understanding of their motives.

This is where the novel can provide a less than appealing view of feminism: do we want a heroine who can easily be dismissed as an eccentric, a bit of a sad character, who merely appears to create her Brodie set in order that she prevent herself from becoming lonely?  Perhaps trying to exert her influence over impressionable young girls, when she will likely have no daughters of her own?

Spark stated that Miss Brodie was not her favourite novel; in fact, she confessed to wishing people wouldn’t just remember her for that creation.  Her personal favourite was The Driver’s Seat, a dark story featuring a woman pursuing a man across Rome in order that he can murder her.

When I first read The Driver’s Seat, advertised at its release as ‘a metaphysical shocker’, I confess I was a little shocked, and unsure what point Spark was driving at with her heroine.  Was the central character, Lise, a sad, isolated victim, or the instigator of taking control of her life?

The story features Lise, a spinster (as with Jean Brodie) living somewhere in Northern Europe; the exact destination is never specified.  She leaves her steady job as an accountant to take a holiday to Rome, where it is revealed early on that she will be murdered.  Through the narration, we come to realise that Lise has a history of erratic behaviour, and it is she who will chase down an unsuspecting male whom she has identified as becoming her murderer.  Spark herself referred to the story as a ‘whydunnit’, as it explores Lise’s mental thought processes as she prepares for her own murder.

Perhaps Spark’s affection for the novel lies within this confusion and bafflement.  Within any Spark novel, or even her accomplished short stories, for which her biographer claimed her to have written the first example of magical realism in the UK, there is often the feeling that she is playing with the reader, making mischief, challenging what we think we know.  The unwitting victim of male violence has been well covered in fiction, both by male and female writers.  But the idea of a woman orchestrating her own murder could have been anathema to readers, and Spark here has bravely tackled a unique idea to challenge us.  It is difficult to comprehend the complex central female character of Lise’s motivation, and her mental thought processes, together with a subversive and dangerous plotline, caused me to see her earlier Miss Brodie as a pretty tame, lonely middle-aged school teacher.

Whether this was progress in the development of feminist heroines is debatable.  But Spark’s female characters are anything but quiet, sensible wallflowers: they burst from the pages of her books, demanding attention, standing up and standing out, demanding that we question the ideas we hold about women’s lives.  Very much like Dame Muriel did herself, and that has to be a positive thing.

Photo by Reza Shayestehpour on Unsplash

Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the UK, where she divides her time between writing Essays for various places, including The Short Story, editorial work for Great Jones Street, writing short fiction and teaching yoga. She has been published widely online, in places including: Thresholds, The Real Story, Spelk and The Nottingham Review. She is often lurking on Twitter @katejonespp

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  • KERRI commented on March 22, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for this Kate. I enjoyed reading it on many levels – feminist history, your analysis of the book using both a personal and a historical feminist perspective and most of all that you, like Spark herself raise challenging questions without providing any easy answers thus encouraging me/us to have to think for ourselves and make our own choices about what it means to be a woman and a feminist in this rapidly changing world. Both attributes we surely need as much now as Muriel Spark, Miss Brodie and her ‘set’ needed and explored in the 1930’s.

  • Kate Jones commented on March 28, 2018 Reply

    Thanks for your encouraging comments, Kerri. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and that it resonated with you. I agree – there are no easy answers, but we must all keep asking the questions.

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