The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
At the university where I am happily employed (and hopefully will remain so), we have an ongoing activity that must involve such words as fatuous and annoying. It is designed to engage faculty and staff and to encourage overall wellness, and it does so through not terribly enticing prizes and a Jeopardy-style challenge board. The categories are such gems as "social wellness" and "environmental wellness," and the activities are things such as "Walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch and tell us how walking contributes to your physical wellness" or "Complete the computer-based training on Workplace Diversity and tell us how it contributes to your environmental wellness." I have not yet mustered the gumption to complete any of these tasks even though I dutifully check on them when they send reminder emails. The latest enticement was something I could get behind, though, as it fell under the category of "intellectual wellness." It required you to follow this link to the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list. Then, you were to go to our library, check out and read one of the titles, and report back on how it contributed to your intellectual wellness. This task is, of course, ridiculous. But I did it. And now, I can report on both the list (also ridiculous, see below) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
The list was created by the Modern Library Board, which actually included some pretty thoughtful people, and it limited itself to the best 100 novels of the 20th century, originally written in English. So, yes, there will naturally be some huge omissions: Tolstoy, Camus, Austen, etc. . . However, the list is dominated by white male authors, many who appear multiple times for similar works, and the notable absences of qualified works is disturbing. How do you seriously omit Toni Morrison?
Despite the list's shortcomings, I could not resist the siren call. I've got several similar lists in my possession. I think most serious readers use lists such as these to feel accomplished - we glean a stilted sense of self-worth from our achievements in this oddly-constructed, fully false world of 100 Bests. I can easily get overwhelmed by all the amazing literature floating around out there (not to mention the stuff not yet written or published) that I haven't yet read. Just going into a library makes me equal parts exhilarated and exhausted by all the possibilities in front of me. But marking something off a list at least feels like you're moving in the right direction. So, the lists remain. And I occasionally return to them to measure my growth and to see if I'm still worth anything after all.
This list proves me not worth much. I've only read about 40 of the 100 best. How terrible is that? A good handful of the authors/titles I'd never even heard of. Pathetic. I'm now wallowing in a pool of goo that used to be my "intellectual wellness." But I will soldier on. And my battle back to wellness began with the small step toward Muriel Spark. Spark is an author I had heard of. But I hadn't yet read any of her work, so she became the first victim in my onslaught on the Modern Library list.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an often hilarious, effortlessly witty, subtly serious look at adolescence and the influence an individual can have upon youth. Miss Jean Brodie is at times a figure to be admired (her Progressive education style did produce remarkably curious learners) and pitied (her constant reference to her "prime" being merely the foremost absurdity). But Spark should be only admired. Her writing is a perfectly chilled soup in summer. Her crisp observations and quiet condemnations are thorough in their ability to captivate. An example from page 1, paragraph 1:
"The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away."
One of the reasons this book has received critical praise must have to do with her skillful movement across and through time in the narrative. This movement creates layers that quite effectively transmit the importance of Miss Brodie upon these girls throughout their lives. And it is most successful because you never lose the thread of the narrative or the girls (and their respective reasons for fame). You understand fully how these girls were drawn together and drifted apart as people will do as they age. You remember the feeling of wanting to please a favorite adult. You can't help but laugh at the tragic Mary Macgregor and admire the self-contained Rose Stanley and triumphant Sandy Stranger. The Brodie Set is at once familiar and foreign, and I feel a definite improvement in my intellectual wellness for having met them.