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A teacher can have a profound influence on a child’s life, even if it’s something to react against. The teacher in Muriel Spark’s novel, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” says “give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” She’s a magnetic, unconventional instructor at an all-girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s. Miss Brodie is an attractive spinster who’s dedicated her life to a small group of her favorite students — the crème de la crème. She aims to enlighten them on the finer things in life: art, religion, sex and fascism. But one of them will betray her. In this month’s Readers’ Review, we take a look at one of literature’s most famous teachers.
- Leslie Maitland Former reporter for The New York Times and author of "Crossing the Borders of Time."
- Nina Marks President of Collegiate Directions Inc., and principal of Marks Education.
- Dane Kennedy Professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.
MR. TERRENCE SMITHThanks for joining us. I'm Terrence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's having a voice treatment and then going on vacation until September, richly deserved. For this month's "Readers' Review" a look at one of literature's most enigmatic teachers. The book is "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark.
MR. TERRENCE SMITHAnd joining me in the studio are Leslie Maitland, former reporter for the New York Times and author of "Crossing the Borders of Time." Dane Kennedy, professor of history and international relations at George Washington University. And Nina Marks, president of Collegiate Directions Inc. and principal of Marks Education. Welcome to all of three of you, it's a marvelous book.
MS. NINA MARKSHi, Terry.
SMITHAnd I look forward to talking about it.
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDThank you.
SMITHLet's talk about this notion of being in one's prime and what Ms. Brodie means she says she is in her prime. There's a wonderful quote, page eight, it says, "One's prime is elusive." She's talking to her students, the girls. "You little girls when you grow up must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full."
SMITHShe followed that advice. Nina Marks?
MARKSI think Muriel Spark and Jean Brodie are so interesting to looking at sort of in juxtaposition. The thing about this novel to me is that she wrote it, Muriel Spark wrote it having had, you know, some difficult times in her own personal life.
MARKSHaving left her husband and her son behind in what is now Zimbabwe and sort of creating a life for herself which was not easy but she wrote it, you know, at the beginning of the '60s about the 1930s during the period of her own schooling at the James Gillespie School in Edinburgh.
MARKSAnd I think it applies in so many ways to us today that it's just magical. That it's been chosen for this conversation.
SMITHIncidentally, on the website of "The Diane Rehm Show" we have a photograph of Muriel Spark's in her class in the James Gillespie School that you mentioned in Edinburgh and then we have in there in that photograph you can see the teacher that influenced her.
SMITHSo it's sort of fascinating to look at. Leslie Maitland, what does it mean to be in your prime?
MAITLANDWhen you, they never explicitly say but you can figure out that Jean Brodie is 40 years old at the start of this book and I think she feels that she's at her most energetic, her most influential, her most charismatic and creative.
MAITLANDShe herself, you know, holds herself apart from the rest of the teachers in the school, thinks she's above them, more cultured. She's a European and wants to bring that influence of Italy and Germany and France to her students. And she sees herself as a large spirit person of good passions and ideas.
MAITLANDAnd, of course, the thing that I find so marvelous about the book in itself, you know, really moral satire that it is, is how in her prime she says that, you know, her strength and her power as a teacher is such that if given a child at an early enough age she will have such an impress on them by force of her own opinions, ideas and leadership that they will be hers for life.
SMITHOf course that's what the Jesuits used to say about the boys in their care as well. Dane Kennedy, how did you feel about this novel and this notion of being in your prime?
MR. DANE KENNEDYWell, I think there's also historical context to this too and that has to do with the, with what was described by the early 20th century as the new woman. A woman who's independent, who's not married, who is not going to get married and who is trying to find ways to acquire an independent autonomous existence that brings with it power.
MR. DANE KENNEDYAnd for Ms. Jean Brodie, being in your prime is acquiring that kind of power I think that allows her to sort of establish an autonomous existence, to influence and shape men. There's a strong sexual dimension to this I think that's extremely important to recognize. It comes through from the very beginning in terms of what she's teaching her girls. And for her this is part of the power that represents being in your prime.
SMITHRight, now Nina Marks, Jean Brodie in this novel develops a special fondness for a group of girls called the "Brodie Set" in school and she picks them out and influences them and follows them even as they go up in class rank and in the school.
SMITHDoes she also manipulate them?
MARKSEnormously and there's, at the beginning of chapter three, to the point that Leslie and Dane were just elaborating on there's this very interesting editorial. One of the rare sort of editorials that Muriel Sparks offers us. It is not to be supposed that Ms. Brodie was unique at this point in her prime or that since such things are relative she was in any way off her head.
MARKSShe was alone merely in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blane's. There were legions of her kind during the 1930s and then she continues for a while and she adds, "They were not however committee women. They were not schoolteachers."
MARKSSo to have a woman with this charisma, conviction, you know, very clear, black and white mind set about what you needed to know to be the crème de la crème and remember all her girls were the crème de la crème, was, you know, you could see why the rest of the faculty and the poor head of school, Ms. Mckye, you know, were always lined up on the other side.
MARKSShe was a dangerous woman and the girls actually say on page seven, "They knew even at 10 that Ms. Brodie was dangerous."
SMITHNow, you went, Nina Marks, to an all-girls British school.
SMITHHow does the Marcia Blane School for girls in this novel come through to you?
MARKSI went to school and this novel, you know, has a particular resonance for me therefore. I went to a girls school in England in the 1960s at the time that this novel was written not when it's set of course.
MARKSAnd it was in many ways a remarkable place. It was quite progressive in some respects. It was however an environment dominated by, except for the art teacher who was male, dominated by women who were unmarried and who had given their lives to this profession.
MARKSThe school was, it was a boarding school, but nonetheless, you know, their lives were us. And I don't think at that time one thinks, you know, one is relatively self-centered growing up but there was that notion of sacrifice and investment and living through your students which of course comes through loud and clear with Ms. Brodie and you begin to reflect on how difficult and perhaps indeed dangerous in some cases that can be when you have somebody with this level of charisma and conviction and certitude.
SMITHLeslie Maitland, go ahead.
MAITLANDI was just going to say one of the absolute funniest moments of the book is when she's having come back from Italy, says to her students, So who's the greatest Italian painter?
MAITLANDAnd one of them says, Leonardo Da Vinci. And she says, Wrong, it's Giotto, he's my favorite. And so the amusing part of the book is that, you know, her constant fight with the headmistress is over the notion of what is education.
MAITLANDAnd she says to her, Education is defined by the root of the Latin word. Which duco, I lead, I lead out. And she says here in the book, The word education comes from the root E from, exit out and duco I lead. It means they're leading out.
MAITLANDTo me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Ms. Mckye, the headmistress, she says, It is a putting in of something that is not there and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion.
MAITLANDAnd the truly of course ironic part is that she is so much telling the girls what to think, what to feel, how to wash their faces, how much it is proper to open a window, that finally the most cerebral of the girls in the end winds up saying that she came to feel that "the Brodie Set" was like one big body with Jean Brodie as the head of the body.
SMITHDane Kennedy, the structure of this novel is interesting because she uses a technique you don't always see which is the flash forward to tell you what happens to this character and how this plays out. Are you happy with the structure of the novel?
KENNEDYIt's, I think it's just a fabulous novel. It's lovely and it is very clever in its organization. but one of the things that I found particularly interesting about the novel was the way in which Muriel Spark sort of builds on and subverts what is a very beloved British literary tradition and that is the school story particularly the public school story starting with Thomas Hughes, "Tom Brown School Days," going through "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and a whole array of works like this.
KENNEDYAnd it’s a genre which is nostalgic, it's sentimental, it's moralistic and it's about building character in boys. Well, Jean Brodie is building character in girls right. But what you see is a process that is in some ways quite horrific in terms of its consequences and the way in which Muriel Spark portrays this is utterly unsentimental, is utterly un-nostalgic and really sort of exposes in some sense the problematic of this whole enterprise.
SMITHAnd she is almost dictating to the girls, how they should think and feel about life, about men, about sex, about everything.
KENNEDYYes, absolutely. This is...
SMITHGo ahead, Leslie.
MAITLANDWell Terry I find your point so interesting about the way she sort of flashes forward to tell you what's going to happen to the girls. The first time that you encounter it in the book it's a little bit of a shock but ironically, you know, the night before I read the book I had received a note from a reader of my book who sent me a picture of herself as a child and then told me of what happened to the rest of her life. And looking at that childish picture I was overwhelmed by the feeling of knowing what would happen to her later.
SMITHComing up, more about "The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie."
MR. TERENCE SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're in a Readers' Review of the novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks (sic) . And the reviewers with me are Leslie Maitland, former reporter for the New York Times and author of "Crossing the Borders of Time. Dane Kennedy, professor of history and international relations at George Washington University. And Nina Marks, president of Collegiate Directions, Inc. and principal of Marks Education.
MR. TERENCE SMITHLeslie, you were making that point about the impact on readers.
MAITLANDYes. When you know -- when you see a child and you know what's going to happen to them later, it's a very poignant and almost chilling feeling. Because it's as if everything was laid out by fate and you know more about their future than they do. And so that's what happened to me when I received this picture from a reader. But in reading the book, to find out, you know, that Sandy, the most cerebral of these students will become a nun, for example, is a shock at the moment when you learn it so early in the book.
SMITHRight. Nina Marks.
MARKSI was going to say that it's so interesting to juxtapose Miss Brodie's sort of omniscience with that of the author because she thinks she knows everything. And then we begin to see, you know, what actually lies behind the story. And to Leslie's point about, you know, Sandy's conversion , one of the other great lines -- we've had some great quotes from the novel -- one of my favorite sort of poignant lines is oft Sandy's affair with Teddy Lloyd who was a Catholic, the art teacher. And Spark says, "You know she left the man but took his religion." And she becomes a Catholic. She becomes a nun.
MARKSAnd I think the heart of this story goes to Spark's own conversion to Catholicism in 1954, you know, having been raised a Presbyterian -- one Jewish parent, one Presbyterian, raised Presbyterian. And this thesis, this is odd psychological treatise that Sandy writes as a nun called the transfiguration of the common place, which I think is, you know, the theme in this novel. What lies beyond the ordinary?
SMITHDane Kennedy, Jean Brodie is described as, and this is a quote, "an Edinburgh spinster of the deepest dye." Tell us what that means.
KENNEDYWell, that's a good question. I'm not quite sure what it means except to say that she's someone who is utterly fearless and determined and single-minded in her sense of herself. And as we were saying earlier in terms of her views on what's -- you know, on her opinions. So that's the -- it strikes me, the key to her character.
SMITHI think it is. Leslie Maitland, the -- let's talk a little about the girls in the Brodie set as they were called. Each is identified repeatedly, in fact, by being famous for something. For Sandy, she was famous for her small eyes and penetrating gaze.
SMITHAnd that's brought up. For Rose, she was famous for sex.
MAITLANDFamous for sex, and that is really funny because it becomes a reputation, thought never actually a reality. She winds up, you know, having sort of friends who are boys because she's interested in cars and things like that and knows...
SMITHAnd she's very beautiful.
MAITLANDShe's attractive, but Jenny is set apart as the great beauty who will become the actress. But Jean Brodie identifies what they're good at and tries to sort of put them in the box of what they're going to be so that it becomes all the more ironic that Sandy, who is sort of only identified in terms of her unusual vowel sounds and her little squinty pig-like eyes, turns out to be the one who's truly cerebral, creative, imaginative. And in the end, you know, a psychologist, a nun, by her own last name, as we are told, a stranger, you know, to everyone.
SMITHAnd this is a flash forward of ours, she ultimately becomes the one who betrays Jean Brodie.
MAITLANDRight. The transfiguration of the commonplace, in a sway. She turns out to be as Sandy's stranger, not what we think she is. She's selected in the end by Miss Brodie to be her deepest and truest confidant, the one girl whom she develops a more adult relationship with. And yet she is her betrayer in the end.
MARKSI think there is that -- in the moment that Jean Brodie realizes that it was Sandy who betrayed her, there is that -- it's almost a Biblical moment, you know. She -- this was her Judas. This was the person that she trusted and never had thought would betray her. And yet...
SMITHWe should explain that the betrayal has to do with her job at the school and...
MARKSI'm sorry. Yes, absolutely.
SMITH...and Sandy comes around to the point where she ultimately decides to in effect turn Jean Brodie in for her fascist-leaning, or at least her admiration of fascism. And that's enough to do it.
MARKSAnd she realizes the truth of what, you know, the ten-year-old girls had begun to be aware of when the first sort of meeting with Ms. Brodie when she showed them the portrait of Stanley Baldwin and, you know, said dismissively that Miss McKye (sp?) believed that, like, Baldwin's safety first -- in safety first. And safety did not come first. You know, truth and beauty come first.
SMITHAccording to Jean Brodie.
MARKSAccording to Jean Brodie.
SMITHYeah, Dane Kennedy, why was Jean Brodie scorned -- if that's not too harsh a word -- by the other teachers and of course the principal?
KENNEDYWell, I mean, partly it's because of her teaching practices because she in fact isn't -- if we were to use a modern example, she isn't teaching to the standard curriculum, right. She's teaching things, as she calls it, about goodness, truth and beauty, although there's a great deal of irony in that claim, rather than teaching mathematics and other subjects that might be, as they see it, more practical.
KENNEDYBut there's another dimension to this too, and that is the way in which she scorns our sort of -- well, she's certainly dismissive of the other teachers. And as she sees them, they're sort of mundane characters. But...
SMITHThere are two great exceptions of course, and they are the two male teachers...
KENNEDYThat is correct.
SMITH...in the school. And she has an altogether different approach for them.
KENNEDYThat's right, but that isn't because she -- I don't think it's because she regards them as being in any sense sort of superior but rather she can manipulate them in ways that she can't manipulate the female teachers in the school. So...
SMITHWell, let me ask Leslie, I mean, what does she want from these men? There are two men. One is the music teacher, one is the art teacher. And they are the men in her life.
MAITLANDWell, I think in the one case the art teacher, I think she truly was in love with him, right. Obviously there was sexual chemistry between them. And she was a woman in her prime and she was interested in him. He was a married man and a Catholic with six children but she was intrigued by him. Yet, she -- you know, for all her talk against safety first throughout the book, you know, she is not the one who runs off to fight the Spanish Civil War, although she encourages her students to. She's not the one who engages in the adulterous relationship with the man she loves. She encourages one of her students to. And so there is that hypocrisy there.
MAITLANDBut in regard to the two men, yes, one she truly loves. The other one I think she falls prey to his admiration and maybe toys with the idea of a marriage. And he's obviously wealthy and has a lovely country estate. He becomes useful to her for a while and, you know, she nurtures him and feeds him and takes care of him and has a sexual relationship with him, but ultimately cannot give herself to him, or indeed to other men who come along and seem interested in her.
MAITLANDAnd we later learn that Rose's father is a successful widower with a big business but was interested in Jean Brodie. And she won't have him. No, he's too carnal. He's not cultured enough. And so opportunities for her to marry slip away and you almost want to take her by the shoulders and say, lady, you could have a different life.
SMITHNina Marks, what were the qualifications as you define it, to be a member of the Brodie set for the girls? I mean, what did Jean Brodie look for and find in the girls who became her favorites?
MARKSI think if you -- even in the era that I was in school, but so much so more in the 1930's, this was a hierarchical world. And she looked, I think, for girls who were of, as she said, not just an impressionable age -- she says impressionable age -- but also an impressionable outlook. These were girls who, each in their own way, had -- each in her own way had, you know, insecurity, a need to belong. That image of Miss Brodie striding through Edinburgh with them in a little pack behind her, sort of the mother duck, I think is -- that's what it took to be part of the Brodie set. You had to fall in.
MARKSAnd she picked them early for very good reason.
MAITLANDTen years old.
MARKSThat's right, ten years old. And...
SMITHAn impressionable age.
MARKSExactly. And she kept telling them, you know, these somewhat insecure girls, if you think about the little flashbacks and how she permeates even their fantasies, you know, the extended fantasies about, you know, the lady of Charlotte (sp?) . And there are these -- you know, they switch from reality to fantasy, back and forth through the novel. Miss Brodie's own reality and fantasies. But the little girls sort of osmote (sp?) all of this. They're young enough, but they begin to think the way she does, which is quite -- which is dangerous.
SMITHAnd she pushes them towards the male teachers, Dane Kennedy, does she not?
KENNEDYOh, absolutely. I mean, she sees them as a vehicle for her -- you know, satisfying her own sense of power and the like. One of the things that I find that I was thinking about that's really an interesting dimension on the novel is the way in which she's portrayed as a fascist. She's drawn to Mussolini, she's drawn to Franco, she's drawn to Hitler. And it seems to me...
SMITHAnd why? Because...
KENNEDY...yeah, it seems to me that this is integral to her character and to the way in which she tries to create a cult of personality, which is what these fascist leaders are also doing. And so I think the fascist dimension of this, this personality cult is something that is integral to the entire enterprise that Jean Brodie is engaged in.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. We'd like to make you part of the conversation. Leslie Maitland, yes, go ahead.
MAITLANDWell, just building on Dane's point which was so good, what's fascinating is that she, you know, totally scorns things like the Brownies or the Girl Guides or team spirit over sports and on the field. And, you know, you wonder for a little bit, how is it that this woman who touts individualism and rails against things that band girls together could at the same time be so drawn to these images and put up pictures on the wall of the black-shirted Mussolini followers or the brown-shirted Hitler followers, El Duche and Fuhrer. And you realize that she is jealous of competing regiments. She does not want them giving their loyalty to other groups. She is going to be the El Duche.
SMITHSo manipulative again.
MARKSI think it's -- I thought about this having spent my life as a teacher. You want -- it's such an interesting relationship that a good teacher, a great teacher needs to develop with promising students. You must have some charisma, some conviction. You want to have a certain certitude that what you're here to help these students learn is very important. At the same time, you've got to promote the spirit of inquiry and to sort of let them develop obviously what we now realize is so important, which is their own tangential interests and engagements. And that's where she couldn't let go, you know?
MAITLANDBut, you know, it's so funny, in the book at one point, the view of the authorities is that the Brody set is vastly informed on subject irrelevant to authorize curriculum and to things that are of any use to the school. But later on, even the head mistress at one point says that she has to admit that the Brodie set are the brightest girls in school, in spite of the fact that they have not been, you know, rigorously trained...
MARKS...and count on their fingers.
SMITHRight. I mean, we all, I think, many of us anyway have -- are impressed by a teacher, perhaps more than one in school who makes a tremendous impression on us and stays with us through our lives. But now all of them have all the characteristics of Jean Brodie.
MAITLANDYou know, the ones who do really kind of make a big impact and change the course of your life. As a matter of fact, Terry and I worked together at the New York Times. And, you know, I took a detour from my lifelong attention to go into journalism and went to Divinity School because of a teacher actually that I had in college, who with one sentence sent me on a detour of a couple of years to Divinity School because he said something like, well the subject of journalism is the extraordinary and the subject of literature and poetry is the ordinary.
MAITLANDAnd I thought, my goodness, I don't know anything yet about the ordinary. How can I focus on the extraordinary? And with that one sentence, you know, he really did change the course of my life for a couple of years.
SMITHI didn't know that, but you, of course, abandoned the sacred for the profane and came back to the New York Times. What a step down. Nina Marks, go ahead.
MARKSWell, that takes us right back to the transfiguration of the commonplace, right. What do you see in what lies before you? You know, Coleridge said, you know, he hoped that we could suspend disbelief for a moment. And I think that's what happens in Jean Brodie's classroom. And when it happens right, as Leslie and Dane have pointed out, it's magical. It's magical. It's what great teachers do. You don't worry about the bell ringing. You don't worry about what your next, you know, class assignment is.
MAITLANDYou know, you fly.
MAITLANDYou literally fly.
MARKSBut you've got to -- that's where you've got to understand, you know, what the teacher's responsibility is, where the boundaries are. And she has no boundaries. None.
SMITHNone whatsoever. All right. Coming up, more about "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Stay with us.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about -- in a Readers' Review, we're talking the novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark. And with me are Leslie Maitland, former reporter for The New Times, Dane Kennedy, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and Nina Marks, president of Collegiate Directions Inc. and president of Marks Education. It's interesting that there's an observation about -- Beth has emailed us, about the movie version in which the Jean Brodie character was played and played brilliantly by Maggie Smith. And she says, "After watching it, I was pretty ambivalent about the Miss Brodie character."
MAITLANDGood. I think we're meant ambivalent about her. And the fact that Maggie Smith, you know, did such a bravura performance that won her an Academy Award was -- she was perfect.
MARKSI thought she did -- it was an extraordinary performance because she really -- she allowed us to see her own vulnerability. We actually were able to go behind what the girl saw and see, you know, Miss Brodie at times as the way she saw herself, those rare moments of candor. She allows herself very few moments of candid self-reflection. It's much too difficult. But the movie also gives you a sense, as you look at those little girls in uniforms and you look at how their daily lives sitting in the classroom, you get a sense of the structure of a school in the 1930s and why Miss Brodie was, you know, the queen of that classroom. It was almost the messiah in that classroom to pick up on some of the references that Leslie and Dane have offered earlier.
MAITLANDYou know, Nina, you make a great point. In the movie we see her cry. In the book one of the interesting things is that we hear Miss Brodie speak. We are told what her opinions are, but we never really get into her feelings or we never really live inside her head and know how she's actually reacting to things. So to see Maggie Smith cry and emote is very -- one, I would say, difference between the book and the movie.
SMITHWell, that's very true. And the character of Jane Brodie in the novel is held back somewhat. I mean, she's depicted in some -- with great economy of words, but not fully and not completely. You'd agree with that, Dane?
KENNEDYOh, absolutely. And, in fact, I think it's true of all of the characters. I mean, the really striking thing I think about the novel is the way in which Muriel Spark holds back on explaining motivation, that doesn't appear for any of these characters. We don't understand or we're not told why Sandy betrays Jean Brodie, for example. So the reader is required to sort of intuit from what actually takes place, why these people are behaving as they are, which is, in fact, one of the most, I think, engaging and innovative features of the novel.
MARKSI think it also allows -- because it's such a spare work, it allows us to apply it across decades and in different eras. I mean, if you look at the 1960s when she wrote this book and the 1930s that she writes about and our, you know, 21st century issues today, you see very similar issues of economic and social and religious and political divides, upheaval and this conversation ongoing right now nationally about what is a great education. How do we provide a great education? What is a great teacher?
MARKSSo because she's sort of written that epidermal lair and then we have to -- we have to provide the rest. We were saying, you know, chatting earlier just before the show that it sort of gets a different reader engagement. It's brilliant if you're confident enough to do it.
SMITHMm-hmm. All right. Let's take some calls. We have many callers waiting online who are interested in this. Marion in Floral City, Fla., welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARIONThank you. Your program really resonates with me. It throws me back into a time machine. I was taught by European nuns, German and Polish, over in Indiana at that time. When I was in the third grade, this spidery looking old nun came down. This was the first or second day. And that was terrorizing in those days in my youth. What happened to me, at any rate, I was left-handed and she would beat the heck out of my left hand because that was evil, see, and it tells you I still write today with my right hand.
MARIONAnother time I got -- some little boy got into trouble and then he points his finger at me trying to get the heat off of him and I didn't do anything. And she took -- this nun took us up to the second floor and wailed the heck out of us with the kind of razor strap that a barber uses.
SMITHAll right. Let me -- well, Marion, let me let our panelists here talk about that. Leslie, Jean Brodie's technique was not corporal punishment by any means.
MAITLANDNo, not at all. I think she used scorn and derision, I think, to humiliate a wrongdoer. At one point, for example, a little girl who rolls up her shoulders, catches her eye. Rolls up her sleeves, catches her eye. And she says, are you doing the wash today? Girls do not roll up their sleeves in my class.
SMITHOh, I see. All right. All right. Let's...
MARIONWell, I -- can I just say one more thing?
SMITHYeah, very briefly.
MARIONYeah, okay. My experiences, they made a Quasimodo out of me. You know what that is.
SMITHYes, I know.
SMITHAll right. Thank you very much for your call, Marion. All right. In St. Louis, Mo., Tony, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SMITHGood day to you.
TONYStarting the program with noting it started in Zimbabwe, and I'm familiar with -- somewhat familiar with British schools and East Africa. It occurred to me while listening to this that she was treating the girls perhaps as though they were natives in the British colonial sense. Thank you.
SMITHAll right. Nina Marks, do you agree with that?
MARKSI don't actually. I think, you know, having gone to a British School in India and then a British school in England myself, the system was the system. And the belief was that your teachers were there to teach you and you were there to learn. It was a very -- it was a strict order. And I don't think it had to do with seeing the students as less than or in any way inferior. Clearly, however, your teachers, all of them, and I think Miss Mackay would've endorsed that, were the superior beings. You came to learn. The idea of some classrooms in this country where you can call your teacher by a first name or something would've just been anathema.
SMITHHard to believe. Leslie Maitland.
MAITLANDWell, two things I just wanted to bring up there. One, Miss Brodie constantly says that she's putting an old head on young shoulders. And she does treat them very much as equals in certain ways. But the other interesting thing the gentleman caller brings up about Zimbabwe, I was amazed to read that in Muriel Spark's own life she had been married. She went with her husband who was Jewish to live in what was then Southern Rhodesia. And when war broke up, she decided not only to divorce her husband, but to return to Scotland. And because she could not transport a child during war time, she simply left behind her only son who was then four years old in Africa. She left him behind in a school there. So it's sort of amazing to realize.
MARKSAnd never had a good relationship with him thereafter.
MAITLANDIn the end as she disowned him, he became an Orthodox Jew and they were totally estranged. He sent her paintings. He had become an artist interestingly. And she declared his paintings to be worthless and would never hang any of them.
SMITHMm-hmm. Dane Kennedy, one of the interesting -- well, the interesting dynamic is -- particularly is between Jean Brodie and Sandy, the girl in the Brodie set that she sort of identifies, picks out, encourages, brings on and who in some respects becomes her alter ego and then -- and then turns on her. And there's -- I wonder what the significance was in your view when Sandy in the book comes to believe that Jean Brodie was in the, quote, "an unconscious lesbian."
KENNEDYYeah. I noticed -- I noticed that phrase and it was striking. In part perhaps it has to do with the fact that she herself doesn't take up with Teddy Lloyd personally and...
SMITHThe art teacher.
KENNEDYThe art teacher. In part it seems to me that it has to do with the tension and the real sense of rivalry. These are two figures who in some ways are quite similar to one another in personality and character. And it's precisely because I think Sandy realizes that connection between them that she, in fact, draws back and enters a nunnery actually, which is certainly a significant statement about her own sort of choices in regard to sexuality and the like.
SMITHYeah, was it, in fact, a wink at the rumors about Muriel Spark?
MARKSWell, and there had been rumors about Muriel Spark, you know, having -- she's had some very close, intense friendships with women. She ended up leaving her estate, her full estate, to a woman.
MAITLANDShe lived with one for three decades in Italy.
MARKSExactly. But never self-identified, you know, as a lesbian or not. I mean, she just didn't -- she wouldn't go there. The thing that's very interesting about the way that Sandy ends up, you know, behind those grills sort of holding on, we were saying that sort of the prisoner in her own -- in a cell of her own making, if you will, was that...
SMITHThis is when she becomes a nun.
MARKSWhen she becomes a nun. Is that Muriel Spark said of her own conversion to Catholicism, that it allowed her to see human existence as a whole. She felt it sort of set her free. And yet this story is set with somebody for whom the conversion dramatically narrows her life.
SMITHMm-hmm. Interesting. Let's take, if we can, another call. Bushfa is in Dallas, Texas and has been very patient. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BUSHFAHi, this is Bushfa. Thank you for taking my call.
BUSHFAI really enjoy Diane Rehm and KERA all the way, every show, every music, everything about the station. My question to you is I just heard a part of the talk about how Jean Brodie was attracted by Hitler and Mussolini. And to me those two great dictators from World War II and if she was drawn to them, it was -- both the dictators came from fear and if she was drawn to them, it would mean that she herself came from that kind of situation where it's more fear. And fear or not, both of them are very powerful energies on two ends of the spectrum. So would that explain how she was able to get that much, you know, attention from other girls or, you know, at the school?
SMITHWell, it's hard to -- it's hard to know really. I agree that her fascination with fascism is, at the very least, an oddity, an odd aspect of it.
SMITHBut, Dane Kennedy, do you have a thought on that?
KENNEDYI don't think it's so much that she's trying to instill fear in her group, quite the contrary. In her own mind it seems to me she's trying to empower them. But what she is continually determined to do is make sure that that empowerment doesn't lead to their independence from her control.
SMITHMm-hmm. I'm Terence Smith. You're listening go "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, call us at 800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. The conversion to Catholicism, Spark, plays a role in all of this. I recall that she was applauded for it by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, two British authors who were themselves -- whose Catholicism deeply imbued their writing. Was it significant, Nina Marks?
MARKSI think, you know, we get to the heart of the question of faith and the question of influence in the second chapter of this book. It's page 34 in my text. And Sandy is being interviewed by this gentleman who comes to the convent and, of course, they're having the conversation through the grill as always. And he -- it turns out that he'd lived in a different Edinburgh in many ways I think literally and metaphorically than she did.
MARKSBut he says, what was -- Sister Helena, what would you say was the greatest -- your greatest influence during the '30s, I mean, during your teens? Did you read "Audin and Elliot" (sp?) ? No, says Sandy. We boys were very keen. You know, did you take sides on the Civil War? Well, not exactly, says Sandy. You weren't a Catholic then of course. No, says Sandy. The influence of one's teens are very important, said the man. Oh, yes, said Sandy, even if they provide something to react against. And he persists, what was your biggest influence then, Sister Helena? Was it political? Was it personal? Was it Calvinism? Oh, no, said Sandy, but there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.
SMITHThat's wonderful. Leslie Maitland.
MAITLANDYou know, allow me to read a quote as well. Charles McGrath of The New York Times in a review of a biography of Muriel Spark just really summed this up fabulously. He said, "Spark's Catholicism, which critics kept coming back to in the hope it offered a secret key to her work was more idiosyncratic and less sin-obsessed than (unintelligible). She was a cheerful, if highly irregular churchgoer and unapologetically pro birth control. In her fiction, Spark loved to play God, loftily manipulating characters' fates. And she was less the benign and loving God of traditional Catholic theology than Calvin's cruel jokester who would allow you to think you were saved, only to surprise you at the end."
SMITHWhat a good summation of Jean Brodie. Go ahead, Dane Kennedy, a final word here.
KENNEDYThat really I think sums up some aspects of this. The character Mary McGregor is a perfect example of that playing God. And also the way in which there's a lack of sentimentality to her vision of the role of faith and God and life.
SMITHAll right. Well, I want to thank all three of you for this terrific conversation about a terrific book. Leslie Maitland, Dane Kennedy, Nina Marks, thank you so much. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm.
SMITHThank you for listening.
MARKSThank you very much.
SMITHThanks so much.
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