I know that for many people the question of re-reading is a thorny one. Some people swear by it, others at it. I had better come clean at the outset and say that I am an unrepentant re-reader, although Muriel Sparks’ 1961 novel would not be my normal re-reading fare, which tends more towards a small number of books that have something of the quality of comfort food and come out when I am ill, tired or at odds with the world or (more likely) myself. However, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the first of three books set in Edinburgh that I need to reacquaint myself with for discussion next week and so I have been back to 1930s Scotland and found myself thinking about the book from a completely different standpoint than when I first read it, probably thirty or more years ago.
Coming to a book anew like this reminds me of the saying that you can never cross the same river twice and convinces me that, at least with a novel of this quality, reading a book for the second time is never simply a re-reading but rather a re-understanding. I am not the same person I was the first time round and for that reason this is not the same book either. I seem to remember being horrified by the manner in which Jean Brodie, to my way of thinking, abused not simply her role as teacher but also the girls she chose to turn into the Brodie Set. I would have been teaching ten and eleven year olds myself at the time and so inevitably that would have been the material uppermost in my mind. Her behaviour still appals me and, although I can’t say I think much of Miss Mackay’s style of headship, I can sympathise with her desperate search for a reason to dismiss her junior member of staff. However, what I found myself focusing in on during this read was the influence on Miss Brodie, conscious or otherwise, of religion.
This change of focus may have come about because I am at present working on the way in which the tussle between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths influenced the art of the late sixteenth and early seventeen centuries. The power of the church over every aspect of daily life both fascinates and appals me. Another of the other books I’m reading, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, also has as one of its settings 1930s Edinburgh and in both books the Calvinistic influence on society and its mores is almost palpable. But, what interests me most is the unconscious impact religion, whether in the shape of Calvinism or the Roman Catholic Church, has on Jean Brodie. She may reject the harsh tenets of the particular form of Protestant teaching prevalent in the Scottish capital but she certainly prescribes to its belief in Providence, the belief that some are chosen and others are not. However, in this instance it isn’t God who does the choosing but Miss Brodie herself.
She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.
Yet, at the same time, despite despising the Church of Rome, she echoes what is, at least in popular conception, the philosophy of the Jesuits. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life, she says. Whether or not Ignatius Loyola actually said Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man is disputed, but a reader encountering Brodie’s claim is almost certainly going to make the connection.
So, what is it about these religions which appeals to Miss Brodie even if she doesn’t acknowledge their attraction? In both cases it would seem to be power, the power to control others not just for the short period of time that they are are in her sphere of influence but throughout their lives. Now I have to give some thought as to just why she felt the need to dominate and dictate the lives of the six girls who make up the Brodie set.