#100WomenNovelists: Barbara Pym

Blog Post 21: Excellent Women (1952)

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‘Ah, you ladies! always on the spot when there’s something happening!’ The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our church wardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my front door.

I first discovered the simple joy of Barbara Pym a few years ago and I even blogged about my first impressions. Which haven’t changed at all. I adore her. So I am cheating this week and I’m going to repost the blog post from 2012 below:

Excellent Woman.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’

Why has it taken me all these years to read the magnificent Barbara Pym?

I’d certainly heard of her, believed her to be a novelist who was of a certain era, one that has changed so much that she is not longer relevant. Well, I was most definitely ill-informed and it took a review, comparing This Holey Life to Excellent Women, to put me right.

Set in dreary post-war London, Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman,‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather.’ (from blurb of Virago Modern Classics edition, 2012). Mildred, whose mother and clergyman father have passed away, lives the ‘spinster’ life, alone, in a flat. She works part-time for the wonderfully named Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund, helps out at the vicarage, attends church and reads novels. When a married couple, the glamorous Napiers, move into the other flat in the house, she worries about how they will co-exist. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.’

What follows is a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant telling of the way things go over the next few months as Mildred faces disruption to her ordered life. I was completely absorbed and won over.

Beware these excellent women. My great aunt is one such excellent woman. Like Pym she served in the WRNS. After  the war she looked after her ageing parents. Marriage never happened. She put her energies into the church, Greenpeace, Christian Aid and composting. It wasn’t until fairly recently, with the passing of the Official Secrets Act, that that we discovered she worked on the Enigma Code as a young woman.  She might not have been an Oxford Mathematical genius. She didn’t even know what was going on, the bigger picture, but she knew her small part made the whole machine work and who knows how the war would have turned out without the Code breakers. 

Pym’s excellent women may be consumed with the smallest things of life but these are the biggest things of life. As Alexander McCall Smith says in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition of Excellent Women, it is ‘a novel that on one level is about very little, (but) is a great novel about a great deal.’

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#100WomenNovelists: Alison Lurie

Blog Post 20: Real People (1969)

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Imagine a deserted estate in northern New England. Five hundred rolling acres, mainly forested with hemlock and white pine. Imposing stone gateposts; long sloping velvet lawns brocaded with the moving shadows of clouds; a thirty-five-room stone mansion in Victorian-baronial style: picturesque old stables and outbuildings; two Italian marble fountains, one indoors; three large artificial ponds stocked with fish and water lilies; and a once-famous rose garden. 

This opening paragraph is a description of Illyria, once a grand old private home which is now run as an artists’ colony. Writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, critics stay there for ‘extended visits of from a fortnight to several months’. The narrator is a short story writer called Janet Belle Smith and we see the action through her eyes, through the form of her journal which she keeps during her stay.

Janet yearns for her summer weeks spent at Illyria. The retreat gives her time off from her husband, their children, and the demands of home and enables her to focus on work, a job that her husband sees as a hobby. But this year, she has writer’s block. She believes her stories are too safe and predictable, writing as she does about small town family life which is too identifiable with her own life. She doesn’t want to offend. But over the course of her stay she realises she will have to dig deeper, ruffle some feathers, to be able to produce more profound work.

You can’t write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. . . . I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.

‘Real People’ examines what it means to be a creative person. (In fact a boy is overheard asking a question: ‘are those artists or are they real people?’) This is something Janet needs to work out and it is the unlikely catalyst, Anna May, who makes her – and the rest of the group – face some difficult truths.

Anna May, a pretty college student and niece of the owner of Illyria, comes to stay for a few days and brings mischief and havoc into the tranquillity that the artists need to work. One by one, the men fall for her charms and, as far as Janet is concerned, behave like teenage idiots. But she too is affected. She questions her own femininity, her relationships with the other residents are tested, and she even wonders whether she should give up her writing. Her usual peaceful, productive retreat is spoiled but she goes on an emotional journey and is quite changed, as a writer and a woman, by the time she leaves.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice.

This is a novel to be enjoyed by writers and anyone who has been on a retreat. Well-observed, astute, witty stuff. And it leaves the question: Just who am I writing for?

#100WomenNovelists: Isabel Colegate

Blog Post 19: The Shooting Party (1980)

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It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people’s memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it. You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps; perhaps with flickering sidelights thrown by a log fire burning brightly at one side of the room, a big Edwardian drawing-room, full of furniture, tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing: and then a fierce electric light thrown back from a room beyond, the next room, into which no one has yet ventured…It was an error of judgement which resulted in a death, It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War.

My previous post was Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’, another story of the great country house, only ‘The Shooting Party’ is set before the first world war, rather than the second. And whereas Mitford’s novel was written a few years after the events, Colegate’s novel is written from the distance of nearly seventy years. When you read this novel it will come as no surprise that it was the inspiration for Julian Fellowes’s ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’.

It is a curious short novel, set over the course of a weekend in 1913, revolving around a shooting party at the estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a traditionalist who loves the land, and despises industrialisation and who longs to keep the status quo of feudalism because he believes it to be the best system for everyone. He certainly can’t abide the idea of ‘striking industrial workers, screaming suffragettes, Irish terrorists, scandals on the Stock Exchange, universal suffrage’.

Everything’s against us now. The politicians are determined to turn this country into an urban society instead of a rural one and in the course of the change they think they’ve got to take away the power of the landed proprietor. So they fling Acts of Parliament at our heads, set up town councils…do nothing to help agriculture out of its terrible problems—and now the Liberals are crippling us with taxes.…It will be the ruin of rural England.

This will be the biggest shoot of the year and amongst the lords and ladies, and the Hungarian royal, and the rich Jewish merchant, is one of the greatest shots of England who is in competition with a young barrister. And then there are various members of Sir Randolph’s family, including his wife Minnie (said to have had an affair with King Edward himself who was frequently a guest), his daughter and granddaughter, and his two sons.

Then there are the gamekeeper and his son, the beaters, the servants. This is a massive cast that Colegate handles with great deftness. She does not judge the aristocrats or tug at the forelocks. She treats each character, whether upstairs or downstairs, with the same authorial voice, with a sweeping omniscience, which carries the very essence of the Edwardian era, so that we could be in a Forster novel. This is not parody or pastiche though it is maybe somewhat satirical. Soon the shooting will not be of pheasants on a country estate in Oxfordshire; the killing will move to the trenches of Europe and a generation of young men will be wiped out. And though the novel could be seen as one whopping metaphor, it is much more than that.

…heavy birds, a flight of more than a few feet exhausts them — forced up and out to meet a burst of noise and a quick death in that bright air.

The increasing sense of doom is handled brilliantly. We are told from the outset that there will be death this weekend, but we have to anticipate whose death.  The child? His pet duck? Or will it be protestor and pamphleteer, Cornelius Cardew, (played by Gielgud in the film of 1985). Cardew with his ideas on vegetarianism and a new society is the outsider, the fool who shows us the ridiculous truth of the situation. He is powerless to do anything other than to wish he could ‘tell the players not just that they were using the wrong rules but that they were playing the wrong game.’

But thank goodness for Ellen, one of the maids, who gets herself wet and filthy helping Osbert look for his duck. She is perhaps the most likeable character of all.

Ellen knew as well as anyone that the last day of a big shooting party ended with a duck shoot by the river at dusk. She also knew that the rules of sport and the rules of entertaining were both inexorable. Even Sir Randolph could not be expected to refuse to offer his guests the opportunity of shooting at wild duck just because a child’s tame duck might have chanced to be among them.

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Nancy Mitford

Blog Post 18: The Pursuit of Love (1945)

There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs…There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

‘The Pursuit of Love’ is narrated by Fanny, the cousin of the children in the photograph, the daughter of Aunt Sadie’s sister, otherwise known as ‘the Bolter’ who abandoned Fanny as a child and has lived her life bolting from one disastrous lover to another. Fanny is brought up by another of the sisters, Aunt Emily, but spends her holidays at the ancestral home of the Radlett family. Her closest friend and confidante is the beautiful, outrageous Linda who dreams of nothing but love and the story revolves around her. Will she be another bolter?

This is classic Mitford: Her cutting wit, her appalling but loveable characters, her portrayal of the interwar years in upper class society with its debs, distrust of foreigners, and hunting (lots of hunting). The backdrop of a country recovering from the first world war and the possibility of anther war to come, the education of girls, the peerage, marital dowries, the coming out season, all these issues are taken for granted. It is the individuals that matter, their hopes and dreams and their pursuit of love.

The fictional Radlett family are clearly related to the real life Mitford family and Alconleigh is surely based on Asthall Manor, the childhood home of the Mitfords. In fact the freezing cold pile of a house is a character in itself, just as Brideshead is in Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same year, ‘Brideshead Revisited’. The tone of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ is perhaps more like Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ but with more wit to soften the brittle edges. For this is not just a comedy of manners; there is a much darker undercurrent, highlighted with Linda’s attitude to baby Moira. But like Waugh, Mitford doesn’t comment or pass judgement on the behaviour of her characters; she leaves that for the reader to do.

My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

To try and reach an understanding of the complicated Mitford sisters, you’d do well to read this novel and then follow it up with ‘Love in Cold Climate’. (Though it is very hard to understand Unity Mitford’s friendship with Adolf Hitler. That is quite another story.)

#100WomenNovelists: Jane Rogers

Blog Post 17: Mr Wroe’s Virgins (1991)

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Leah: ‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.’

Seven? They say his wife is sickly, but seven? Judith touches my elbow, I know, I am trying not to giggle. It is so quiet, it seems no one breathes in the whole of Sanctuary. I must not laugh. I must not. Will he really? Will they let him? Who?

This is the story of nine months in the life of charismatic, self-proclaimed prophet, John Wroe – born in Bradford in 1782, the son of a woolcomber – as seen through the eyes of four of the virgins chosen from his congregation to live with him, ‘for comfort and succour’. He is the preacher of the Christian Israelites in Aston-under-Lyne, the New Jerusalem, a loosely Christian denomination who believe that the end of the world is nigh and that they are the chosen ones who will live through the end times and on into eternity.

Rogers tells the story deftly using four first person narrators, four of the seven virgins. Their perspectives overlap and intertwine and as a reader we have to put the pieces together and work out the truth. Though this novel throws up the questions: what is the truth? What is faith? What is real?

There is Leah, sarcastic and flirty, with an illegitimate baby who she passes off as an orphan so he can live with her in the house.

Hannah, sensible and competent, is a socialist who believes in a New World Order where everyone is equal, who fights against the inequalities brought into focus by the Industrial Revolution, and teaches the millworkers to read.

Sometimes a candle is set on the window-ledge. The little flimsy light against a world of darkness: what is it but an invitation? Here, it says. here I am, see my frailty, see how easy I may be extinguished. A breath of air, the touch of a finger and thumb will do it. And even if you leave me, at eh last I shall put myself out, guttering and flickering to death amongst my own shapeless melted remains. As those who live out their natural life span must go at the end, spread huge with dropsy or eaten to the skeleton wick by wasting. Better to show no light, than to clutch at the false comfort of a candle.

Pious, saintly Joanna desires nothing more than to do God’s will and yearns to be a preacher.

Have not we been despised and cast down from the first? Just so low as women were cast down, shall we now be raised up high. And those of the other churches, who believe women not fit to speak and preach and pass on the word of God, but that they must sit and listen with the children (for even the Wesleyans are against women preachers now): may they hear, and mark, how God’s favour has passed to women.

And Martha, horrifically abused and mistreated by her father, who comes with ‘a circle of sores around her neck, as from a chain. It is not hard to believe that whoever kept her before, kept her like a dog’. She has no speech, eats with her hands, appears to be stupid but it is Martha who evolves into someone extraordinary, achieving a sensitivity and mysticism denied the others.

There are new worlds. I grow to accommodate their size, as if I swallowed eggs that hatched and grew within.

And why does Brother Wroe require seven virgins? Well, really, there can only be one reason, but he is so manipulative that we never know if he is good, bad, deluded, or a mixture of all of these.

This really is a gem of a book and reminds me of the slightly later novel, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ (1998), by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’ was brilliantly adapted for the BBC in 1993 with a script by Jane Rogers and directed by Danny Boyle. It is also a timely reminder of the way women are used in religion, with echoes of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

Powerful stuff.

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Smart

Blog Post 16: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

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I am standing in a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire. Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten minute intervals all through the five-hour wait.

This extraordinary short work is based on Elizabeth’s Smart’s long term relationship with poet George Barker (they were on/off for eighteen years and she had four of his fifteen children). Smart first heard of Barker when browsing in a book shop on the Charing Cross Road as a young woman. She found a collection of his poetry and from that moment set about meeting the man, which would take her a few years to accomplish. She was from Canada, he was British but living in Japan. With his wife. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Second World War was raging. But Barker was the one she had ‘picked out from the world’. It is as if from this moment, Fate had decided; Smart was bound to Barker through hell and high water. ‘The trap is sprung, and I am in the trap.’

I hardly know where to begin with this one. How can you define ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept?’ Prose-poetry? Poetic prose? A novella? A short story? A lament? Whatever it is, it has most certainly divided opinion. Feminists question why an educated, intelligent, talented woman would need a man so utterly and desperately. Others have called Smart a marriage wrecker (despite the fact that George was the one with so many wives and mistresses). Some believe the writing over-wrought and melodramatic. Some are changed forever when they first read it. Others, like me, cannot quite decide. The reader response I have depends on where I am and how I am.

One thing for sure is that Smart’s work has a cult following. Morrissey’s lyrics are littered with homages to this text. I even found two from ‘Father Ted’ – ‘Down with that sort of thing’ and ‘Careful Now’! This is one of those books you carry around with you as a student, referencing it to your own life, wondering if you will ever know the ecstasy and despair and physical longing of love like this.

Its language is drawn from myth and legend but mainly from the Bible, in particular the Song of Solomon, but also from the Psalms which were often David’s lamentations, his cries out to God. Psalm 137 (celebrated by Boney M, no less) is the origin of the title of this extraordinary piece of work.

Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.

Like ‘Wuthering Heights’ (also referred to) this is not necessarily a story of love, but of jealousy and obsession and betrayal. And yet, somehow, love seems to win through despite its huge emotional cost and long-ranging fallout. In the words sung by Paloma Faith: Only love can hurt like this.

Whatever you think of this book, you’ll be certain to want to talk about it.

#100WomenNovelists: Michele Roberts

Blog Post 15: The Wild Girl (1984)

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I was born and grew up in Bethany, a large village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about fifteen furlongs south-east from the holy city of Jerusalem, on the road to Jericho.

‘The Wild Girl’ (since renamed ‘The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene’) is another of those novels I read as a student as part of the Women Writers unit. This novel was held up as an example of how women’s voices have been silenced in the Christian tradition. If Mary Magdalene could have spoken, this is what she might have said.

We don’t really know who Mary Magdalene was. Roberts shows her as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but mixes her in with other Mary figures who appear in the Gospels. And although it is no longer believed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, here Roberts portrays this in a believable way – after all, there weren’t many ways for women to be able to live independently.

It has also been said that Mary was perhaps a woman of means, able to help financially support Jesus and his followers as they moved around. One thing for sure is that she is a pivotal character in the Gospels. We know Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus, that she stood at the foot of the cross, and that she anointed his dead body.  But most importantly it is to Mary Magdalene that the resurrected Jesus first appears. It is Mary that he sends to tell the others the good news. She is the first evangelist. Through Mary, we know Jesus valued women as equals. We know that he authorised women to preach, evangelise, and lead.

The stories that were canonised in the Bible in the early church were written from the male perspective. Women were second class citizens, without rights, seen as property and unable even to give witness in court. So Mary’s story would not have been chosen to go in the Bible. (Another interesting fact is that we don’t know who wrote the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament and I like to think this could have been written by a woman.) Roberts’ re-imagining is important.

I didn’t fully understand Jesus’ purpose in coming to us. He talked a great deal, on themes such as justice and the rights of the poor, and the love of the Most High whom he called our Father and Mother. But he was also often silent, and into this welcoming space people entered, pouring out their hearts, telling him all their thoughts. It was this, I thought, that made him different from our other visitors, and it was this which constituted him as a threat to the way of life our priests and rulers urged on us. Jesus was teaching us new ways. And so I began to fear for him.

Mary Magdalene, whoever she might have been, was a key figure in the life and teachings of Jesus. And while this novel has been see as blasphemous by some Christians, I believe it is an important book because it reclaims the good news for all. It reminds us that Jesus is what a feminist looks like.

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Margaret Drabble

Blog Post 14: The Garrick Year (1964)

While I was watching the advertisements on television last night I saw Sophy Brent. I have not set eyes on her for some months, and the sight of her filled me with a curious warm mixture of nostalgia and amusement.

‘The Garrick Year’ is Margaret Drabble’s second novel written when she was 24. She was drawing from her experience from her marriage to Clive Swift who was a member of the RSC. Drabble followed him to Stratford where she too had some minor roles.

I’ve read Drabble’s 80s novels but this is the first time I’ve read ‘The Garrick Year’. As a writer she is a social realist and here she shows an honest view of early motherhood at a time when gender roles were clearly defined, even within the more bohemian lifestyle of a theatrical marriage. Emma struggles with the demands of breastfeeding, lack of sleep, boredom, and a loss of self, made far worse when her actor husband, David, ups and moves them from London to provincial Hereford. Under-stimulated and lonely, she seeks some solace in a half-hearted affair.

We were not separate, at that point: we were part of the same thing still. I like things to be orderly and distinct, I do not much like the mess of union, it made me angry that his ash should be in my ashtrays, that his movements should be my movements; and yet that was how it was. He said that he would go to Hereford, and I, self-willed, distinct, determined Emma Evans, I said that I would go too.

They have two very young children and David is working anti-social hours. Emma does have a live-in French nanny but parenting and domesticity is driving her to death by isolation. But what stops Emma being one of those moany women of fiction is her cutting edge. There is a sharp banter between husband and wife. She might give in to him, but inside she is fighting, striving for perfection, even though she is not quite sure why.

The novel has an array of exasperating and exasperated characters, bit-part players, but the star of the show is Emma’s young daughter, Flora. She is a delight.

Interesting Fact: Margaret Drabble is the sister of AS Byatt. What a family.

#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Toni Morrison

Blog Post 13: Sula (1974)

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In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighbourhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

I first read ‘Sula’ as an undergraduate back in the 80s. It was one of the texts studied as part of the Women Writers unit that I took, standing alongside ‘A Room of One’s One’, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, ‘The Awakening’, ‘The Wild Girl’, and ‘Ariel’. It was utterly mesmerising and so different to anything I had ever read.

Morrison’s language is lyrical, outspoken, surprising; the subject matter disturbing, violent, joyful. ‘Sula’ is a short novel, spare and yet dense, packed with vivid imagery and epic wonder, forty-five years covered, back and forth, in a flash.

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the rivers with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

This is the summer the main characters, Nel and Sula, turn twelve. The summer that ‘they became skittish, frightened and bold – all at the same time.’ The story revolves around their friendship. They are so close they are like one, two halves – Nel, the conformer and Sula, the free spirit. Their bond sets them apart. 

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for. 

Set in rural Ohio from the First World War to the Second, this African American community has to live off the less fertile and more exposed hills than their richer white neighbours down in the valley. In a society of segregation, we are shown the reality of this systematic oppression. Sula and Nel, their mothers and grandmothers, are doubly oppressed. To be a woman and black is something Nel ‘gets on with’. But this is not an option for Sula. She leaves town, travels across America, and ten years later returns. And maybe there is only one way this can end for the friends? Especially where Nel’s husband, Jude, is concerned.

A breathtaking read.

 

#100WomenNovelists: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Blog Post 12: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

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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.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ often appears in Top 100 lists of must-read literature. It is technically a novella, 128 pages in my 1969 Penguin edition, with Maggie Smith on the cover, Jean Brodie herself in the film of the book, with her unforgettable cut glass Edinburgh accent. But it certainly deserves its place.

Jean Brodie is from the generation of women who lost fiances, husbands, and the possibility of a married life and children. The First World War claimed so many lives and its effects echoed on for decades. Miss Brodie is a victim of that war and in the run-up to the next war, she is hell bent on achieving immortality through her girls, the ‘Brodie set’.

Monica, Sandy, Mary, Eunice, Jenny, and Rose, all ‘famous’ for something, all encouraged to be individuals by Miss Brodie, make up the set, her ‘creme de la creme’.  In reality, they are as one, kept together due to the herd mentality sparked by this increasingly manipulative teacher, who admires Mussolini and has pictures of fascists goose-stepping across her classroom walls.

Miss Brodie is their teacher for two years, when the girls are aged between 11 and 12, still children but with puberty fast-approaching and inquisitive about adult life. The set is separate from the other girls at Marcia Blaine School, even when they move up to the seniors and have different teachers. They only exist as a group because of Miss Brodie; even the art teacher who paints each of the girls sees them as inseparable from each other and from their leader. (In the portraits they all creepily look like Jean Brodie.) She is the only thing they have in common and once she has been ‘betrayed’, the set falls apart.

Miss Brodie, based on one of Spark’s own teachers, is a snob. She is the epitome of hubris. She constantly bigs herself up, telling the girls that she is in her ‘prime’. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age,’ she boasts, ‘and she is mine for life.’ In the run-up to the outbreak of war in Europe, we can see that she is a dictator, like her beloved Mussolini . Her girls are her chosen ones but we see her nasty side in her bullying and scapegoating of Mary (who dies in her early twenties in a hotel fire). It is Miss Brodie’s political leaning, not her love affairs or grooming of the girls, that finally give her nemesis, headmistress Miss Mackay the munition she needs to dismiss her.

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. she ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor- was it you, Mary?’

But we never really know Miss Brodie as a character. We see her through the eyes of the girls, especially Sandy. The narrative is a third person authorial voice, which jumps back and forth in time, sometimes even within the same paragraph – from the 30s, to post-war, to the 50s, and back again. This narrative device is so effective. We know early on that Miss Brodie will die young and that her ‘prime’ is over too soon. But strangely there is no lack of suspense. Knowing what will happen before it happens somehow piles on the tension. Kate Atkinson uses this technique and I think she must thank Muriel Spark for this.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ also has a firm sense of place, and is one of the best stories set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie might see herself as European, teaching the girls about the classics and art. But when she takes them around the Old Town to observe her city’s history we can see that the Calvinist influence of pre-destination is something she hasn’t managed to escape. She says that her raison d’etre is to inspire her girls but she is unable to avoid the fate that awaits her: a lonely, early retirement and cancer.

This is a cuttingly funny, disturbing book, not a word out of place, and one where the reader must work out what makes Miss Brodie. We never really know and this is its genius.