The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

15/06/2024

              We wouldn’t be saying anything new in noting Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie invokes predestination and utilises a literary technique to register it: prolepsis. Patrick J. Whiteley notes that David “Lodge has convincingly linked this novel's thematic concern with predestination to its proleptic narrative strategy.” (‘The Social Framework of Knowledge: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’) Speaking of one of the title character’s pupils’ realisations, Lodge says, “Miss Brodie, she [Sandy] realises, has created her own secular religion of which she is simultaneously the God, Redeemer and minister to the elect. She tries to create the girls in her own image, and to direct their destinies according to her own divine plan.” (‘The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience’) This is pretty much Calvinism, a world of the damned and the elect with nobody knowing whether they are one or the other in advance. T. M. Devine insists that “Calvinism held that all humanity was corrupted by sin but that an omnipotent God had decreed that mankind should be divided into two groups: the elect, who would achieve salvation, and the reprobate, who would be damned for all eternity.” (The Scottish Nation

The best you can do is live without sin and wait for the outcome on your death. As Sandy notes, when thinking of three teachers, Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters, they believed “…that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died.” When Sandy reads John Calvin she notices for all the general misconceptions, one thing is unequivocal: “he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.” Spark in her way mimics yet questions this vision of the world, and Sandy herself may be said to escape it as she will go on to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. In contrast to the Calvinist, the Catholic isn’t predestined in quite the same manner. Sure, in the 16th century, Jansenists proposed within the Catholic church that natural sin needed to be met with God’s Grace — that we are destined to fall into sinfulness but grace could allow us to transcend our condition: “a grace made available and “requiring God’s grace to be saved—and the power of concupiscence; exalted the all-powerful character of the grace made available by Christ the Redeemer that is the sole means of restoring humanity to true freedom…and supported the Augustinian arguments regarding the necessity of grace for any good act.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica

   In such a notion one’s actions can impact on one’s destiny and thus we might wonder if Sandy becomes a nun in the wake of her decision to act in a way that can seem both thoroughly honourable and thoroughly treacherous. It is she who betrays the Fascistically-inclined Miss Brodie, offered in a proleptic moment halfway through the novel when it is now 1946, Brodie and Sandy are having tea in the Braid Hills Hotel, and the narrator tells us that “it is seven years, thought Sandy, since I betrayed this tiresome woman.” We have had hints of this betrayal earlier in the book and much later in timeone of the Brodie set, Eunice is now married, it is the late fifties, and she says to her husband, “she was betrayed by one of her own girls.” 

     We might wonder reading the book whether Spark is complicit with Calvinism or determined to escape from its strictures — or desires this ambiguity. To write a novel that frequently anticipates its own events can seem a lot like playing God with your characters’ lives and giving the impression there is nothing one can do about their fate. The book’s initial example of prolepsis comes when first discussing another of the set, Mary, “...who at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire...” Writing more generally of Spark’s work, Christopher Ricks says: “When Dickens killed off Little Nell or Paul Dombey, it was held that he had bred them only for the market. Mrs. Spark breeds her(s)…for the market, too, but when she slaughters them she does so with the particular kind of sentimentality we nowadays prefer: not sweet, but dry.” (New York Review of Books) Viewed from a different perspective, if Spark had eschewed prolepsis and held closer to Sandy’s viewpoint (since we don’t really get inside anybody else’s head anyway), then it could have been more clearly a book about choice rather than predestination. But that might be part of Spark’s irony: she wants Sandy within the novel to practise free will but to have novelistic predestination still more evident. 

    We might puzzle over this novel’s ambivalence towards control. We have an omniscience so great that it can tell the future but a restriction so determined that we never know what is going on in Miss Brodie’s mind. When Brodie speaks of her relations with one of the teachers at the school, Mr Lowther, she says “...If I wished I could marry him tomorrow.” The very next day he gets engaged to someone else and we have no idea how Miss Brodie feels about it.( She may insist that her true love is another teacher, Teddy Lloyd, but he is a married man and Brodie accepts that their love for each other is immense but he cannot leave his large family. Yet this doesn’t stop her trying to get one of her set, Rose, to sleep with him, even if it is finally Sandy who will do so.) Such a technique — a temporal omniscience within a psychological restriction —can make the novel seem arch, knowing in what it wants to tell us and deliberate over what it wants to withhold. 

All novelists withhold and yet not all fiction writers make us aware of their technique, nor give us a sense of their manipulations. Ricks invokes the latter when speaking of Little Nell and Dombey: they are plumped up all the better to be killed off. When the narrator early on in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie announces Mary’s death, it is as if Spark is saying she won’t bother with the plumping up and the technique can save us from the sentimentality of a Dickens. However, the technique can also mean that we don’t feel Sandy’s choices are her own, that though in the book she will sleep with Teddy Lloyd, betray Miss Brodie and convert to Catholicism, these are all afterthoughts within the book’s pre-thought: within its proleptic need to say that the author knows best and the characters are always no more than the result of an author’s manoeuvres. 

Spark reckons “It is very difficult writing in the first person, because you can’t be everywhere as you can in a third person novel, in which you can be a fly on the wall, you can be everything, you can see everything, you can describe everything, you can enter people’s minds.” (Salmagundi) But the potential disadvantage of writing in the third person is that since the writer can go anywhere one might wonder why they don’t. If in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the novel is a mixture of restricted narration, as we cannot get into Brodie’s head, but omniscient as we hear what Eunice believed many years later when talking to her husband, the danger is that this freedom suggests a paradoxical control, while the constriction might indicate indifference, an indifference readers may feel in the cruel depictions Spark offers. We notice it when the narrator speaks of “Sandy's little pig‐like eyes” or Mary, who “sat lump‐like and too stupid to invent something. She was too stupid ever to tell a lie...” 

       The advantage of first-person or third-person restricted is that if, in this instance, Sandy wanted to know what was going on in Brodie’s head, we would accept the limitation as a fact and a principle. Humans can’t get into other people’s minds, and the writer has chosen a method that insists upon it. However, if the narration is as free as Spark’s happens to be here, the choices made aren’t controlled by reality and narrative principle but by authorial insistence. Yet this creates an arbitrariness that some might believe is countered by Spark’s interest in predestination: that the book’s form is dictated less by a notion of reality or even conventional literary technique, but by a theological imposition on narrative expectation. In other words, on the predestination we opened with, and where the use of prolepsis allows the writer to play God with the characters’ lives. Spark does so in an unusual manner and makes us think that writers are more given to play psychoanalysts with their characters’ lives — revealing their thoughts rather than anticipating their future. But if many find Sparks’ work a little cold, cruel and judgemental (as Ricks does), then we may wonder if the theologically literary techniques practised by Spark aren’t too far removed from Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters. It is as if Spark too enjoys the idea of a nasty surprise, however promptly she often chooses to offer it. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

We wouldn't be saying anything new in noting Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie invokes predestination and utilises a literary technique to register it: prolepsis. Patrick J. Whiteley notes that David "Lodge has convincingly linked this novel's thematic concern with predestination to its proleptic narrative strategy." ('The Social Framework of Knowledge: Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie') Speaking of one of the title character's pupils' realisations, Lodge says, "Miss Brodie, she [Sandy] realises, has created her own secular religion of which she is simultaneously the God, Redeemer and minister to the elect. She tries to create the girls in her own image, and to direct their destinies according to her own divine plan." ('The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience') This is pretty much Calvinism, a world of the damned and the elect with nobody knowing whether they are one or the other in advance. T. M. Devine insists that "Calvinism held that all humanity was corrupted by sin but that an omnipotent God had decreed that mankind should be divided into two groups: the elect, who would achieve salvation, and the reprobate, who would be damned for all eternity." (The Scottish Nation)

The best you can do is live without sin and wait for the outcome on your death. As Sandy notes, when thinking of three teachers, Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters, they believed "...that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died." When Sandy reads John Calvin she notices for all the general misconceptions, one thing is unequivocal: "he having made it God's pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier." Spark in her way mimics yet questions this vision of the world, and Sandy herself may be said to escape it as she will go on to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. In contrast to the Calvinist, the Catholic isn't predestined in quite the same manner. Sure, in the 16th century, Jansenists proposed within the Catholic church that natural sin needed to be met with God's Grace that we are destined to fall into sinfulness but grace could allow us to transcend our condition: "a grace made available and "requiring God's grace to be savedand the power of concupiscence; exalted the all-powerful character of the grace made available by Christ the Redeemer that is the sole means of restoring humanity to true freedom...and supported the Augustinian arguments regarding the necessity of grace for any good act." (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

In such a notion one's actions can impact on one's destiny and thus we might wonder if Sandy becomes a nun in the wake of her decision to act in a way that can seem both thoroughly honourable and thoroughly treacherous. It is she who betrays the Fascistically-inclined Miss Brodie, offered in a proleptic moment halfway through the novel when it is now 1946, Brodie and Sandy are having tea in the Braid Hills Hotel, and the narrator tells us that "it is seven years, thought Sandy, since I betrayed this tiresome woman." We have had hints of this betrayal earlier in the book and much later in time: one of the Brodie set, Eunice is now married, it is the late fifties, and she says to her husband, "she was betrayed by one of her own girls."

We might wonder reading the book whether Spark is complicit with Calvinism or determined to escape from its strictures or desires this ambiguity. To write a novel that frequently anticipates its own events can seem a lot like playing God with your characters' lives and giving the impression there is nothing one can do about their fate. The book's initial example of prolepsis comes when first discussing another of the set, Mary, "...who at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire..." Writing more generally of Spark's work, Christopher Ricks says: "When Dickens killed off Little Nell or Paul Dombey, it was held that he had bred them only for the market. Mrs. Spark breeds her(s)...for the market, too, but when she slaughters them she does so with the particular kind of sentimentality we nowadays prefer: not sweet, but dry." (New York Review of Books) Viewed from a different perspective, if Spark had eschewed prolepsis and held closer to Sandy's viewpoint (since we don't really get inside anybody else's head anyway), then it could have been more clearly a book about choice rather than predestination. But that might be part of Spark's irony: she wants Sandy within the novel to practise free will but to have novelistic predestination still more evident.

We might puzzle over this novel's ambivalence towards control. We have an omniscience so great that it can tell the future but a restriction so determined that we never know what is going on in Miss Brodie's mind. When Brodie speaks of her relations with one of the teachers at the school, Mr Lowther, she says "...If I wished I could marry him tomorrow." The very next day he gets engaged to someone else and we have no idea how Miss Brodie feels about it.( She may insist that her true love is another teacher, Teddy Lloyd, but he is a married man and Brodie accepts that their love for each other is immense but he cannot leave his large family. Yet this doesn't stop her trying to get one of her set, Rose, to sleep with him, even if it is finally Sandy who will do so.) Such a technique a temporal omniscience within a psychological restriction can make the novel seem arch, knowing in what it wants to tell us and deliberate over what it wants to withhold.

All novelists withhold and yet not all fiction writers make us aware of their technique, nor give us a sense of their manipulations. Ricks invokes the latter when speaking of Little Nell and Dombey: they are plumped up all the better to be killed off. When the narrator early on in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie announces Mary's death, it is as if Spark is saying she won't bother with the plumping up and the technique can save us from the sentimentality of a Dickens. However, the technique can also mean that we don't feel Sandy's choices are her own, that though in the book she will sleep with Teddy Lloyd, betray Miss Brodie and convert to Catholicism, these are all afterthoughts within the book's pre-thought: within its proleptic need to say that the author knows best and the characters are always no more than the result of an author's manoeuvres.

Spark reckons "It is very difficult writing in the first person, because you can't be everywhere as you can in a third person novel, in which you can be a fly on the wall, you can be everything, you can see everything, you can describe everything, you can enter people's minds." (Salmagundi) But the potential disadvantage of writing in the third person is that since the writer can go anywhere one might wonder why they don't. If in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the novel is a mixture of restricted narration, as we cannot get into Brodie's head, but omniscient as we hear what Eunice believed many years later when talking to her husband, the danger is that this freedom suggests a paradoxical control, while the constriction might indicate indifference, an indifference readers may feel in the cruel depictions Spark offers. We notice it when the narrator speaks of "Sandy's little pig‐like eyes" or Mary, who "sat lump‐like and too stupid to invent something. She was too stupid ever to tell a lie..."

The advantage of first-person or third-person restricted is that if, in this instance, Sandy wanted to know what was going on in Brodie's head, we would accept the limitation as a fact and a principle. Humans can't get into other people's minds, and the writer has chosen a method that insists upon it. However, if the narration is as free as Spark's happens to be here, the choices made aren't controlled by reality and narrative principle but by authorial insistence. Yet this creates an arbitrariness that some might believe is countered by Spark's interest in predestination: that the book's form is dictated less by a notion of reality or even conventional literary technique, but by a theological imposition on narrative expectation. In other words, on the predestination we opened with, and where the use of prolepsis allows the writer to play God with the characters' lives. Spark does so in an unusual manner and makes us think that writers are more given to play psychoanalysts with their characters' lives revealing their thoughts rather than anticipating their future. But if many find Sparks' work a little cold, cruel and judgemental (as Ricks does), then we may wonder if the theologically literary techniques practised by Spark aren't too far removed from Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters. It is as if Spark too enjoys the idea of a nasty surprise, however promptly she often chooses to offer it.


© Tony McKibbin