The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
One of the only silver linings in this historic period of social distancing is the chance to reread favorite old books. In my case, it is the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The book rather than the 1969 movie of the same name (although I liked it, too) is what I want to discuss.
Edinburgh of the 1930s is the setting for the novel. Miss Brodie is a teacher in a private girls’ school and her charge is the twelve-year-old class. She ignores the curriculum to introduce ‘her girls’ to her highly romanticized view of the world with its decided fascist leanings. The girls adore her and follow her teachings slavishly. Well, with one notable exception. Read the book—it really is worth it.
But it is Spark’s defiance of literary conventions which I find fascinating.
Brodie ignores literary conventions
Lack of internal thoughts
A novelist’s access to the thoughts of at least the protagonist allows we understand the character’s world view, her fears, her desires, and hopefully find her sympathetic enough to want to know what happens to her.
Spark never uses this technique. Absolutely no internal dialogue. And yet we have a perfectly clear image of who she is.
How does she do it? By having her girls, their parents, her colleagues and her various lovers be fascinated/annoyed/jealous of her. From those sources, we have a complete picture.
Normally, I would be all over this. It verges on tell, not show. Spark forces us to rely on the observations of others rather than our own. It should be difficult to ‘get’ the character if her thoughts are closed to the reader.
And yet, it totally works. I know who Jean is despite Spark writing with one hand tied behind her back.
Shifts of Points of View (POV)
Because of intense fascination of Brodie’s girls with her, we get lots of shifts into their POV. We are inside the heads of the non-major characters and it all seems perfectly natural. But multiple POVs are usually frowned upon, particularly, you would think, because there isn’t one for the main character.
Shifts of time
In addition, Spark casts forward into the future to talk about the fictional present. She depicts the Brodie girls as adults, discussing how they view Brodie now. Just fascinating..
Breaking the rules
You might think that Spark could get away with what she did as she was depicting an over-the-top persona. The flamboyance of the character makes it easy for others to know her and pass that knowledge on to us.
But other authors have used the same technique with much more taciturn lead characters. Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses features cowboys in many of his novels. Can you imagine a bunch less likely to admit to having inner thoughts, much less sharing them? And yet he also makes it work (also worth reading, by the way).
So, authors can and do break rules that are normally considered sacrosanct. In Breaking the rules, I discussed the danger of writers assuming that they can be as wild and crazy as they like, assuming that their readers will take it lying down. But news, the only thing they might lay down is your book. Next post: When to Break Literary Law.