Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Kids book review: “Red Nemesis (Young Bond)” by Steve Cole

When I was a kid, I watched all the James Bond movies, several times over, because my Dad loved them. So, I know the storylines well and have views about who is my favourite ‘Bond’ (Sean Connery, of course!). In recent years, the Bond movies have got darker, more erotic (rather than just sexy with a smile) and have greater psychological depth, more adult in other words. But there is something about the Bond marque which remains innocent, boyish and which has an appeal across the age groups, despite the inevitable multiple death toll! And it’s not just the baddies who die, which is awkward for younger viewers. However, I watched them all as a child and I think I’m okay.

Red Nemesis imgTo my shame I have never read any of the Fleming novels (my husband has and he likes them a lot), so I was delighted to pick up this book from the children’s section of my local library and if you have pre/young teens in your household, I think they might like it. Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, is the ninth novel in the ‘Young Bond’ series by Penguin Random House (under their imprint Red Fox). Five have been written by Charlie Higson (author of ‘The Enemy Novels’ – The Enemy, The Dead, The Fear, etc) and four so far by Steve Cole (famous for his Astrosaurs books). They are all closely linked to and published under the aegis of the Ian Fleming novels. In these books, we meet James Bond as a schoolboy. He already has connections with the British Secret Services, thanks to his father’s career in defence sales, and becomes involved in improbable missions and adventures. All part of the escapism! In Young Bond we get to see the life events that shape the man we know so well. (In my case through Sean, Roger, Pierce, Daniel, et al).

Red Nemesis is set in the summer of 1935 during James’s summer break from Fettes College, a smart public school in Scotland. He is about to go home with his Aunt Charmian; his parents are dead, having been killed in a skiing ‘accident’ when he was younger. The story opens a couple of years earlier in London with a mysterious Russian, Ivan Kalashnikov, deliberately breaking the legs of his daughter, Anya, in a car crash that was meant to look like an accident. Anya is a promising ballerina set for a glittering career on the international stage. Why would a father do this?

On the train back from Scotland, Charmian hands James a backpack which belonged to his father and which has been retrieved from the ice where he died. The contents are mysterious and include items which James senses are clues to an unsolved mystery in which his father may have been involved, in particular a cryptic postcard penned to his brother Max, James’s uncle and Charmian’s late husband. James also feels the contents of the backpack may bring him closer to the truth about his parents’ untimely deaths.

Following the clues, James goes to London. He first visits the Secret Intelligence Service to hand over copies of the documents in his father’s backpack to a former acquaintance of Max’s, the SIS agent Adam Elmhirst. He then goes to the Mechta Academy of Performing Arts, an international school near the SIS building. He masquerades as a prospective pupil, the son of a diplomat, pretending he has made an appointment to look around. He is given short shrift by the cold foreign authorities at the school but manages to break free of security. He conducts his own tour of the basement and finds a large stock of a powerful explosive. He is discovered and gets into a fight with a young man who is apparently a pupil. James wakes up in a cell, locked up for trespassing on the premises of the school without permission, until he is rescued by the aforementioned Elmhirst, who immediately invites James to accompany him to Moscow to help solve the mystery of the contents of the backpack, which Elmhirst says will lead them to uncover some malign Russian plot.

Most of the rest of the book is set in Moscow, as James and Elmhirst get into numerous scrapes. There are dramatic chases, villains, fights, plus of course, a bit of young love interest when James tracks down Anya Kalashnikov (he was clearly already powerfully attractive from quite a young age). Anya becomes James’s sidekick after her father is brutally killed; she realises she is not safe and has nothing to lose by getting involved with the mystery-solving activity.

There is violence, peril, quite a few deaths, unlikely villains, stereotypes and spies, but all of it in true James Bond fashion. It’s not as tongue-in-cheek as some of the earlier Bond films; there is an element of the troubled soul, the three-dimensional human we have come to see in the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond (though not that dark), which is probably truer to the Fleming novels.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it has nail-biting action, problem-solving, and James feels like a well-developed character with fears, feelings and flaws as well as bravery, resilience and strong fighting instincts. There is quite a bit of violence and death, so I would recommend for 12-14 year olds. Alongside James, Anya provides a strong female character so I think both girls and boys would enjoy this. I did!

What do your kids think of the ‘Young Bond’ novels?

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