There’s a book I come back to periodically throughout my life – a strange piece of Scottish literature called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I encountered this book when I was quite young. I didn’t completely understand it the first time I read it, but it stuck with me. The main character, Jean Brodie, and her charisma were seductive and enchanting. I was a child, and easily charmed by such people, even in fiction.
This story is about a narcissist – a more covert sort of narcissist, one who exudes charm and class. She’s a teacher, and her students are enamored of her. Knowing this (likely counting on it), Miss Brodie singles out a small group of them (the Brodie set, they’re called), giving them secret knowledge that is well beyond the boundaries of her position as a teacher, as well as beyond their ability to understand.
Even though they don’t understand her, understanding isn’t necessarily her primary goal – the purpose is to create a bond with them and between them that is stronger than their bonds with other peers, or parents, or teachers. The purpose is to put herself at the center of their lives.
The writing style is eerie in the way that the author, Muriel Spark, repeats certain things to the reader, mainly to do with the labels that Miss Brodie gives to these elect students early on in their lives. It also echoes how repetitive Miss Brodie herself is, telling the same stories, repeating the same phrases, and later in the story, asking that the girls tell her the same story and repeat the same details over and over.
Throughout the story, you learn that Miss Brodie is in love with the art teacher, who is married and Catholic. It’s implied that having an affair is somehow beneath her, and so she begins to indoctrinate her elect pupils with ideas that eventually leads one of them (when she’s of the proper age, of course) into bed with him – as a doppleganger, a stand in for Miss Brodie, who expects to be told details.
Miss Brodie has her own stand-in as well – since she can’t be with the one she loves, she takes advantage of one who loves her. He’s the first to break away, and it’s a moment in the book where the tapestry that Miss Brodie has woven begins to fray. Once he breaks away, the girls begin to as well – not because of him, but as the natural part of the aging process.
The problem with preying on children is that children have a tendency to grow up. And the thing about growing up is that who you are and what you want will shine through any wall put up around you, and all it takes is one little crack for the whole thing to eventually begin to crumble.
Spark lets you know early on that one of Miss Brodie’s own set betrays her. It likens her to Christ, who was betrayed by one of her own flock – only Jean Brodie is hardly Christ-like. As the story progresses, the reader sees how her perception is sometimes not as keen as she thinks it is, and her charm is superficial. Underneath it lies someone who is incredibly self-centered, someone whose idea of education is indoctrination.
In the beginning, Miss Brodie paints a certain picture of the school and of her particular place within it that soon begins to unravel, as most narcissist narratives tend to do. They’re not good at tying off ends, or being consistent. Like many, she creates an ‘us vs. them’ environment, but these sorts of binaries are made to be collapsed. And Spark collapses them cleverly, yet realistically, as the girls age and begin to break away from Miss Brodie.
All, that is, except the one who betrays her. It’s interesting how the ones who betray us are usually the ones who are closest, the ones we hold above all suspicion (as Miss Brodie tells her own betrayer), the ones we just didn’t see coming.
As someone who has tangled with narcissists, who has danced that delicate ‘us vs. them’ tango, who has tip-toed through the elaborate choreography and stuttered through the scripts and incantations that are required when one shares space with such a person, I appreciate how subtly, how easily and how beautifully Miss Brodie is undone.
When I first read the book as a child, I thought it odd and a bit unfair. Now, on the edge of forty, I think it absolutely perfect. It’s the sort of book that fulfills the fantasies all of us who have been abused have of undoing our abusers.
But this time around, I also go something else from the story.
I am now around the age that Miss Brodie is in the beginning of the novel. I am, I suppose, in my prime, as she tells her students over and over throughout the book. I’ve often had the thought that the next decade of life will be my best; I’m old enough now that I have real insight and experience, and that’s such a solid and sturdy place to be. I spend a lot of years feeling like I was never steady, and now I feel calm.
I think there’s something to be said for indicating that one’s prime isn’t necessarily something that coincides with youth. I wouldn’t be a young adult again for anything in the world; I value the knowledge that time has given me way too much for that. And so I walked away from this book with not only a feeling of satisfaction, but a feeling that the world is all wrong in the belief that middle age is the start of some sort of slow decline.
I feel like it’s an awakening. When you have to spend a lot of your young years crawling out from underneath someone else’s narrative, shattering someone else’s label and rewording the story to fit your own truth, this weird duality emerges: In some ways, your development is slower than others, but in other ways, it’s accelerated.
And then, eventually, the faster parts slow up, and the slower parts catch up, and you start to feel like all the pieces of you are finally exactly where they should be.