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Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Nasty Little -----

Paolo Veronese 1528-1588
The Vision of St Helena 1575-78
Oil on canvas
198 x 116 cm
National Gallery, London

In Arete Magazine, Adam Thirwell said of the work of the Catholic novelist Muriel Spark
"The subject of all Muriel Spark’s novels is Original Sin. And this is not an original subject, not in itself. ... She offers no explanation. She offers no lesson. She simply describes how people behave. Spark’s great achievement is to show how accurate religious descriptions of psychology are – how congruent they are with the facts.  
Before Hannah Arendt, Spark knew about the banality of evil. But Spark goes further. Evil is not just banal, evil is opaque too – flat, simply there.."

The character of Miss Jean Brodie is one of the most powerful iconic characters in twentieth century Scottish literature.

She is an extremely attractive character - especially for some teachers.

She has attitude.

And as Spark herself said of the model for her character "her dazzling non-sequiturs filled [the] heart with joy."

She sees herself as a rebel of her times but she is not

With regard to religion, Miss Brodie "was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master."

She is the archetypal Justified Sinner

At the beginning of the novel, Brodie appears to be  a character of intense light in a city of grey . She proclaims "Art" and teaches her children about Italian painting (Giotto) and art but in a rather superficial way.

But as the novel progresses this seemingly attractive character gradually shows the dark side of her nature and the disastrous effects of her character and ideas.

All her charges, male and female, do not turn out as Brodie has envisaged and for whom she has planned and engaged in her machinations. Even before her betrayal by her "chief disciple", the portentously named Sandy Stranger, it is clear that she is all surface, shallow and without depth

Filled with the assurance of false pride and egoism, she lacks self knowledge

The setting of the novel is 1930s Edinburgh. 

Due to the First World War, women outnumber men and Brodie is one of the many in ‘war-bereaved spinsterhood’

Edinburgh has always prided itself in being a European city rather than merely a British city.

But the images of Europe which Brodie imports for her charges are the strutting images of Italian Fascism, one of the forms of totalitarianism in inter-war Europe which led to the almost total destruction of the Continent.

We are told that it was  a time of confusion.

For many in that time of Economic Depression, it was a time of seeking to survive in grinding poverty. But Brodie is middle class and comfortably off financially and socially. She has  no dependents,  For her life is not a struggle. There is time to dream.

She is part of that a class of women in their ‘war-bereaved spinsterhood’  that had their own comfortable flat,  took guitar lessons, caravan-holidays, foreign language lessons, and who indulged in spiritualism and advanced  arguments for birth-control

That class are mindful of their privileges and realise that these privileges are precarious.

One of the spinsters says to a grocer in the novel:
 ‘I tell you this, Mr. Geddes, birth control is the only answer to the problem of the working class. A free issue to every household’

It is significant that it is the problem of the working class and the poor and not the problems of the working class and the poor  that birth control is  deemed to be the magic solution

It is the unself-conscious language of fear, envy and jealousy

Arrogance and hypocrisy couch in utilitarian terms a description of a device designed originally for selfish pleasure.

Worse, she presumes  to control life and the very existence for others.

She was heading for the Fall even before Sandy pushed her over the edge.


Why did Sandy betray her ?

The reasons she gives in the novel do not ring true. Brodie was not particularly dangerous. Apart from Mary Macgregor (and then it was not the fault of Miss Brodie)  no one got hurt. They ignored Brodie and got on with their lives.

Perhaps Spark gave the answer in a BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub in 2004 when she discussed the novel with James Naughtie and an invited audience at The British Library

Spark simply said that Sandy was "a nasty little bitch"

Sandy at the end of the novel is a cloistered nun (Sister Helena of the Transfiguration) having converted to Roman Catholicism, perhaps for her another but necessary form of totalitarianism.

It is a rebellion from Calvinism and from Miss Brodie Of her dedication and vocation, Miss Brodie in her splendid egotism (and ignorance that it is Sandy who has betrayed her) carps:
"That is not the sort of dedication I meant, ...Do you think she has done this to annoy me?"
Sandy`s  change of name is significant. Her name Sandy Stranger becomes Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.  It is in honour of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine who erected a church on Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration of Christ when Christ, the First of the Elect, revealed himself to his closest Apostles as the bridge between the Divine and Man

St Helena, by legend, was of course also the  finder of the True Cross in Jerusalem, the means of Redemption by Christ for all men`s sins  including Original Sin

But she is not like the other nuns. She has written a famous book.

People visit her in the convent. But she sees them behind bars. She clutches the bars to see her visitors, her admirers, her followers more closely.

Her famous book is on psychology. The title of her book is The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

The name of her book is not without significance. It is simply the definition of "Art". She has written a psychological treatise on the subject of Art

The early twentieth century was the great age of psychology and psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalysis was in vogue. Freudianism was the great totem which claimed that it could answer any question. It was a new religion. Freud himself wrote on art: his essays on Michelangelo`s statue of Moses and on the dreams of Leonardo da Vinci were regarded as particularly noteworthy.

Now the essays read as the most tremendous claptrap ever published. But then people only believe what they want to believe.

Sandy is simply the daughter of her progenitor, Miss Brodie, smitten with her Sin, the sin of Pride, the original sin. But Sandy is different from her spiritual mother
"Miss Brodie's masterful features becomes clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman's folly, and she never felt more affection for her in the later years than when she thought upon Miss Brodie silly."
In a brilliant review of the novel by Martin Price in The New York Times (January 21, 1962) Splendid by Destructive Egotism, the conclusion of the book is summarised concisely:
"Each of [the Brodie set] has her distinctive promise, but in some it is never realized. Miss Brodie becomes the memory of that restless and imperious spirit which may be buried or split, tamed or transfigured. It is a dangerous and destructive spirit at worst, and it can be "beneficent and enlarging." "
Sandy realises that nasty little bitch that she is, her restless and imperious spirit can only be transfigured if tamed and confined  within  the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church,  the home and refuge of all sinners who cling to the Cross