The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I have just seen the play. It is not a good one – not that the performance of it at Nottingham’s Lacemarket Theatre was poor: quite the reverse. I do not claim to have a special understanding of Muriel Spark’s book, but I am sure that the adapter, Jay Presson Allen, does not. The playscript is very offputting, with stipulations about the size his name should be printed on posters. And then follows royalties, permission, and an exacting list of costumes, like the Marcia Blain School for Girls would send to parents.

Miss Brodie is often described as dangerous, but Allen’s scripts are. Not only has he written an internationally travelling play, regularly staged, but an enduring screen version that starred Maggie Smith in 1968. (I can hear her saying that as Miss Brodie). I understand about adaptation, being a writer of various media myself, and I believe that you can translate most things between media through utilising the possibilities of the new medium. Both scripts do not exploit these possibilities and are very conventional narratively and stylistically. The film is the worst as it is without Sister Helena, who is the point of the story. The film contains only a linear going forward in time, but the book is full of time changes. The scripts are without the richness and rhythm of the book and do not attempt to include the inner life of Sandy which is so distinct and important in the novel. Sandy’s showdown with Miss Brodie is neither part of Spark’s work, nor a well written scene. The intended nuances are not clear on a stage without seeing Allen’s intrusive set of stage directions. The play and film need a narrator because that omniscient voice is part of Muriel Spark’s literary device with its own disembodied predestination and oversight. The poetic, Biblical style is all lost in translation and the time period simplified to point of P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N of the source material.

It is not that I necessarily highly esteem the novel. Most ingratiatingly, the Penguin introduction says that not a comma is out of place. Therefore I read the book looking especially at commas; some of the sentences jar in the way they are punctuated, as does the repetitions of phrases such as ‘being famous for sex’ or ‘running hither and thither in the flames’ and ‘the crème de la crème’. I understand that this feature is part of the Biblical style that’s key to emphasising the central theme of Presbyterianism vs Popery.

I too have seen the parallel between these competing strands of Christianity, just as there are parallels in between the Brodie set, the Fascisti, and Girl Guides. Predestination and Calvinism are not brought out enough in the adaptations, and without Sandy’s defecting to the other religious team as well as leaving the Brodie set, the film is as ridiculous as Miss Brodie is made out to be.

Sandy is given script lines which denigrate the career of her lover that are not in the novel. It seems that Allen has made the story about a snotty school girl speaking hard satisfying truths. He inserts comments like ‘you went to bed with an artist but couldn’t cope that you woke up with a man’. Miss Brodie never sleeps with Teddy Lloyd in the book. It shows how badly a Scottish women’s story can be retold by an American male, who desperately latches on to the one minor character the author could possibly re-nationalise as his own – the visitor to Sister Helena.

Allen seems to see Sandy as some avenging angel who ‘puts a stop to Miss Brodie’ and the philandering art teacher, and that we as an audience should agree with her. Again, this misses the nuances out and badly misunderstands the story. It also distorts some facts: Mr Lloyd is one armed, and red haired like Mr Lowther. Mr Lloyd does not harangue Miss Brodie in the ladies’ toilets, as Maggie Smith’s real life husband to be does in the film. He is also not guilty of underage relationships with pupils as Sandy is 18 and has left the school when they become lovers for a summer. Mrs Deirdre Lloyd is kept out of Allen’s work, but Teddy’s wife has several lines in the book and becomes Sandy’s friend.

It seems to me that Sandy is also one of the unrequited lovers of Miss Brodie looking for substitutes. Briefly, Sandy decides that Brodie is a lesbian, although I see no evidence for it. However, there is plenty that Sandy is. She fantasises over the policewoman she never meets who helps Jenny after being accosted by a flasher by the Water of Leith. It is Sandy who most loves Miss Brodie. I see her affair with Lloyd as a way of ‘working it off’ [her own crude phrase] on someone else as much as he is, or Miss Brodie does on Mr Lowther. Perhaps Sandy’s feelings are more complicated than romantic love; perhaps it is what she ascribes to Brodie’s affair with the autumnally fallen Hugh: that they were above being physical; a purer love. It might be more what we’d facetiously call a lady crush, but the power of Miss Brodie was enough to send religionless Sandy into a convent, a broken woman.

This act isn’t fully and satisfactorily explained. It says in the book that Sandy extracted Teddy Lloyd’s religion from him ‘like a pith from a husk’, but that does not suffice. Was to to fill that void of not having any religion to rebel against which Sandy speaks of when visiting St Giles’ Kirk? Was it to spite Miss Brodie, who hated Catholicism? Sandy never speaks of a religious calling, a falling in love with God. She does not go out and find other lovers as the rest of the Brodie set did. Sandy hasn’t just renounced the world, she has renounced love because of her broken heart and guilty conscience over Miss Brodie. She has well chosen her nun name to be ‘of the transfiguration’ for she too has tried to metamorphose and has been unable to. Holding the bars of the convent grille is the act of someone desperate and imprisoned, not striding out of the school gates scot free, as in the movie, with Sybil Thorndike’s high and noble mien.

Miss Jean Brodie is a hard woman to ultimately admire as she does not bring out of her class, and she swamps Mary Macgregor’s confidence. To modern teachers, she is especially inappropriate in her dealings with pupils. Whereas we may sometimes sympathise, no character is appealing, especially not Sandy, whose story this really is. And that ultimately weakens the story. It’s a book I want to like more than I do, and when I arrived at the end, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, of being taken on a pretentious ride that didn’t take you anywhere particularly although you feel you may have not taken in all the journey’s details on the way.

I’ve also written about “Leading out or Thrusting in – Miss Jean Brodie on teaching”  – an admirable speech that is preached but not practised. I may repost it here as this link may not still work.

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