The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to say, I was expecting to find that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was the original idea for Dead Poets Society. After all, iconoclast teacher shapes students to be exceptional certainly sounds like that. I thought was going to find that Muriel Spark had anticipated Dead Poet Society by twenty years, and that it was a story of young women not young men. However, though there are a number of similarities and there may have been an influence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more complicated than that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for A.L. Kennedy and 3rd for Alexander McCall Smith.)

After all, Miss Brodie is not pursued by students eagerly coming towards the world, ending up then dramatically shaping who they become as people. Rather, she seeks them out…intending to cultivate a select few into the “crème de la crème.” She’s unconventional and individualistic, but she’s also somewhat blindly opinionated and has highly subjective views of what is cultivated or not, far from perfect. She’s also a bit ridiculous in endlessly talking about how she’s working “in her prime” (the phrase “her prime” must be referred to hundreds of times within the space of this relatively short novel, both by Miss Brodie and the girls) to lead these young women out of themselves:

Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. “Hail Caesar!” she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. “Who opened the window?” said Miss Brodie dropping her arm.

Nobody answered.

“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the time-table. Get our your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain. Here is a picture of Dante meeting Beatrice—it is pronounced Beatrichay in Italian which makes the name beautiful—on the Ponte Vecchio. He fell in love with her at that moment. Mary, sit up and don’t slouch. It was a sublime moment in a sublime love. By whom was the picture painted?”

Nobody knew.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”

“A painter,” said Jenny.

Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

“And a genius,” said Sandy, to come to Jenny’s rescue.

“A friend of—?” said Miss Brodie.

“Swineburne,” said a girl.

Miss Brodie smiled. “You have not forgotten,” she said, looking round the class. “Holidays or no holidays. Keep your history books propped up in case we have any further intruders.” She looked disapprovingly towards the door and lifted her fine dark Roman head with dignity. She had often told the girls that her dead High had admired her head for its Roman appearance.

She’s also a fascist.

She molds her girls as she wants them, even trying to get one of them to become the lover of the art teacher, whom she herself loves but cannot have because he is married. The school wants her out and relentlessly tries to force her retirement, but she skillfully avoids this until one of her own students deliberately betrays her…simply to overcome Miss Brodie, to put a stop to her seemingly unstoppable influence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful novel for both the characters and the interpersonal complexity. You have to love how vivid and differentiated each of these people are. More than that though, you have to adore how they interact across time. It’s certainly not all good, but it is rich and complex. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a marvelous book, and unsettling in many unexpected ways.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The name Robert Louis Stevenson is familiar to me, if for no other reason than I’m a longtime fan of Treasure Island. However, I don’t really know much about his other works. I hadn’t ever even heard of his novel Kidnapped. However, fond as I was of Treasure Island, I thought I’d take a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Alexander McCall Smith.)

Similar to Treasure Island, Kidnapped was originally written as a historical boy’s novel. That, more often than not, means adventure. However, there are no pirates here.

The book begins when David Balfour’s parents both die and he gets mysterious instructions to seek his fortune with his uncle. Unfortunately, it turns out that David is actually the rightful owner of his uncle’s fortune and his uncle is a miser. These two facts do not combine well. David soon finds himself a captive aboard a ship that intends on selling him into servitude in the Carolinas.

Personally, I had to wonder a little bit about David and his family. For one thing, I thought David’s parents might have given him a little warning about his uncle. Granted, he may not have been quite as bad when David’s father last saw him, but still. I mean, his uncle tries to get him killed fairly early on in the book:

“Well,” he said, “let’s begin.” He pulled out of his pocket a rusty key. “There,” says he, “there’s the key of the stair-tower at the far end of the house. Ye can only win into it from the outside, for that part of the house is no finished. Gang ye in there, and up the stairs, and bring me down the chest that’s at the top. There’s papers in’t,” he added. 

“Can I have a light, sir?” said I. 

“Na,” said he, very cunningly. “Nae lights in my house.”  “Very well, sir,” said I. “Are the stairs good?” 

“They’re grand,” said he; and then, as I was going, “Keep to the wall,” he added; “there’s nae bannisters. But the stairs are grand underfoot.”

*****

The tower, I should have said, was square; and in every corner the step was made of a great stone of a different shape to join the flights. Well, I had come close to one of these turns, when, feeling forward as usual, my hand slipped upon an edge and found nothing but emptiness beyond it. The stair had been carried no higher; to set a stranger mounting it in the darkness was to send him straight to his death; and (although, thanks to the lightning and my own precautions, I was safe enough) the mere thought of the peril in which I might have stood, and the dreadful height I might have fallen from, brought out the sweat upon my body and relaxed my joints. 

But I knew what I wanted now, and turned and groped my way down again, with a wonderful anger in my heart. About half-way down, the wind sprang up in a clap and shook the tower, and died again; the rain followed; and before I had reached the ground level it fell in buckets. I put out my head into the storm, and looked along towards the kitchen. The door, which I had shut behind me when I left, now stood open, and shed a little glimmer of light; and I thought I could see a figure standing in the rain, quite still, like a man hearkening. And then there came a blinding flash, which showed me my uncle plainly, just where I had fancied him to stand; and hard upon the heels of it, a great tow-row of thunder.

*****

I set him on a chair and looked at him. It is true I felt some pity for a man that looked so sick, but I was full besides of righteous anger; and I numbered over before him the points on which I wanted explanation: why he lied to me at every word; why he feared that I should leave him; why he disliked it to be hinted that he and my father were twins–“Is that because it is true?” I asked; why he had given me money to which I was convinced I had no claim; and, last of all, why he had tried to kill me. He heard me all through in silence; and then, in a broken voice, begged me to let him go to bed.

Now, given that his uncle tried to get him killed, don’t you think that David would be a bit wary when visiting a ship’s captain who does business with his uncle? I certainly would think so. However, apparently David does not:

“Ay, ay,” said he, “he passed me word of that. But, ye see, the boat’ll set ye ashore at the town pier, and that’s but a penny stonecast from Rankeillor’s house.” And here he suddenly leaned down and whispered in my ear: “Take care of the old tod; he means mischief. Come aboard till I can get a word with ye.” And then, passing his arm through mine, he continued aloud, as he set off towards his boat: “But, come, what can I bring ye from the Carolinas? Any friend of Mr. Balfour’s can command. A roll of tobacco? Indian feather-work? a skin of a wild beast? a stone pipe? the mocking-bird that mews for all the world like a cat? the cardinal bird that is as red as blood?–take your pick and say your pleasure.”

By this time we were at the boat-side, and he was handing me in. I did not dream of hanging back; I thought (the poor fool!) that I had found a good friend and helper, and I was rejoiced to see the ship. As soon as we were all set in our places, the boat was thrust off from the pier and began to move over the waters: and what with my pleasure in this new movement and my surprise at our low position, and the appearance of the shores, and the growing bigness of the brig as we drew near to it, I could hardly understand what the captain said, and must have answered him at random. 

*****

“But where is my uncle?” said I suddenly. 

“Ay,” said Hoseason, with a sudden grimness, “that’s the point.” 

*****

It was the last I saw. Already strong hands had been plucking me back from the ship’s side; and now a thunderbolt seemed to strike me; I saw a great flash of fire, and fell senseless.

Of course, perhaps I’m judging this a little too harshly, considering this is supposed to be a boy’s novel. Still, even naïve David might have showed a little better judgment

After all, the book is fun. Personally, I didn’t find it to be quite as gripping as Treasure Island, but maybe that’s just me. Also, as you can get a taste of from the above, this is all set in Scotland and Stevenson goes a bit overboard at times, in my opinion, with the dialect.

Regardless, though the dialect makes things difficult to read sometimes and Kidnapped wasn’t quite as fun for me as Treasure Island, it was still fun. I wouldn’t exactly put this with the greatest books of all time, but it was fun to read. As long as that is all you are looking for then Kidnapped should be enough.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.