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Disorder and Transfiguration: Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)



A reading of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean (1961). I attempt to show how Spark's aesthetic presuppositions converge with many of those expounded by Thomist aesthetics. ( (Chapter Three of "Postmodern Or Post-Catholic? A Study of British Catholic Writers and Their Fictions in a Postmodern and Postconciliar World.")
Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of
disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of
self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time
Sandy had already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave.
Muriel Spark (1961; 1986rpt:86)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961; 1986rpt) is probably the best-known of
Muriel Spark’s books. Part of its success can be attributed to the film version
which starred Maggie Smith in the title role. The book has also been popular with
critics and has proved to be fertile ground for many contradictory critical
interpretations. Critics who have approached the novel as a formalist work have
praised Spark’s artistry, Frank Kermode (1967 & 1970) and David Lodge (1971)
being the better known. For Ruth Whittaker Spark’s earlier novels, which would
include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “were basically realistic” (1982:12). It is
as a realist work that Spark’s novel tends to be approached. Hers is seen as a rather
thin realism. Frederick Karl calls her “light to the point of froth” (1963:280). For
Richard Mayne this ‘thin realism’ has to do with Spark’s religious faith: “Perhaps
if the next world’s the truly real one, it seems to her legitimate to be fairly
summary with this” (1965:66). Patrick Parrinder calls her a “reactionary allegorist”
(1983:25), by which he means her realism lacks the substance of lived reality and
is used as propaganda for her version of Catholicism. It is almost axiomatic to say
that defined by the yardstick of realist fiction Spark’s novel is inevitably found
The approach of most critics suggests a realist interpretation of the novel: the
characters in the novel ‘stand for’ real people and they ought to be judged as
representations of real people. One critic has even said that Miss Jean Brodie
‘stands for’ Muriel Spark herself: “Miss Jean Brodie is Muriel Spark’s clearest
conception of herself to the present” (Hoyt, 1965:141). Such a realist-oriented
approach does not do justice to Spark’s artistry. While it is true that she explores
some complex issues at a representational level the book can be read as a study
in the burden of spiritual disquiet which suggests a continuation of the realist
line of earlier Catholic novelists, her interests are also formalist. Her novel under-
mines an unproblematic conception of realist representation; it also interrogates the
nature of narrative authority.
Spark’s immediate predecessors were Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of
whom recognized her as an important new writer. Greene supported Spark in her
early years; Waugh refers to her as Greene’s “protégée” (1981:576). Waugh spoke
of her first novel as “brilliantly original and fascinating” (1981:477). This means
nothing more than that there was a very real appreciation of her work. But it is not
with these writers she belongs. A writer who shares many of her formalist
assumptions is Christine Brooke-Rose, now vedetted as an ‘experimental’ writer.
Spark, Brooke-Rose and Gabriel Fielding were members of a Catholic intellectual
circle that used to meet at Aylesford Priory (Woodman, 1991:34). Brooke-Rose
has since disowned her earlier Catholic satires; Fielding, on the other hand, has
never received the sort of critical attention lavished on Spark. If we forget these
early formative associations of Spark then it is easy to see her as an idiosyncratic
latter-day practitioner of the Catholic novel, one who arrived on the scene ex
nihilo. Bernard Bergonzi writes: “There is a case for regarding Muriel Spark as a
later practitioner of the Catholic novel” (1980: 46; my italics). The inevitable
comparison is with Greene and Waugh.
The Greenian point of departure could be a useful one, if only to show how
different the Sparkian novel is. It is easy to read the Sparkian novel as surface. Her
novels work however at various levels, of which the realist text is merely the
obvious (surface) level. The Catholic realist text Greene or Mauriac’s novels
is the type that represents the idea of an ordered whole or microcosmic world
viewed from a certain altitude and which exhibits, though its actions, the kind of
spiritual radiance or transfiguration called claritas. It is with that kind of text that
we shall start.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which we will hence abbreviate as The Prime) is
about Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher at a private girls’ school in Edinburgh in the
1930s, a spinster in her ‘prime’. The word ‘prime’ is the one she uses to refer to
the period of life she finds herself in: “... I am a woman in my prime of life”
(1986rpt:43). The ‘prime’ probably also signifies menopause, in which case Jean
Brodie’s choice of word points to the creative transformation of an otherwise
traumatic experience.
Jean Brodie is described as “beautiful and fragile” (111). The duality continues.
She claims also to be a descendant of Deacon Brodie, the respectable
eighteenth-century councillor who was a robber by night. We are reminded of
Hogg’s Justified Sinner, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as other
antinomian characters in Scottish literature. Antinomianism here refers to belief
held by certain Protestant sects that Christians are beyond moral law. In Scottish
literature it has become something of a literary convention. In her fusion of oppo-
sites Jean Brodie embodies that Caledonian antisyzygy23 that occurs again and
again in Scottish literature. We are also warned not to read her portrait in terms of
easy polarities: good/bad, moral/immoral.
Miss Jean Brodie’s approach to teaching is unorthodox. The five girls under her
care learn about Giotto and the interior decoration of Milne’s house, Mussolini’s
fascisti and the fighting in Flanders where Jean Brodie’s lover is supposed to have
died; they also learn to do arithmetic with their fingers. Jean Brodie also teaches
the five girls about truth, beauty and goodness. We are told that “the girls went to
study the Gospels with diligence for their truth and goodness, and to read them
aloud for their beauty” (1986rpt:36). The reference to the Aristotelian conception
of the artwork from which the Thomist one is derived, even if it is not
identical should alert us to deeper concerns at work.
The headmistress at the school is aware of Jean Brodie’s unusual teaching methods
and of the excessive influence she wields over the girls under her care. Her
23 The term Caledonian antisysygy was first used by Gregory Smith. It has been applied to Spark’s
work by Hart (1967) and Kennedy (1974).
attempts to have Jean Brodie dismissed are always foiled by lack of concrete
evidence. Jean Brodie’s concern with her girls’ welfare goes beyond the purely
educational. She continues to show an interest in the girls long after they have
moved to secondary school. When a new girl, Joyce Emily Hammond, joins the set
she convinces her to join in the fighting in the Spanish Civil war, on Franco’s side;
the girl later dies. She instigates Sandy Stranger to conduct a love affair Teddy
Lloyd, the one-armed, Catholic art teacher, details of which she takes pleasure in
hearing about. Before the start of World War Two, Sandy in a conversation with
the headmistress gives her the reason that will serve as a pretext for dismissing
Jean Brodie: fascism. Sandy joins the Catholic Church and later becomes a
contemplative sister. She acquires a certain notoriety for a treatise that she writes.
That, briefly told, is the bare outline of The Prime. The story is not however told in
a linear fashion. It jumps back and forth in time. We move from the past into what
may be called future since it has not yet occurred at the time that the central action
takes place. The ground, the temporal order of defined tenses, keeps shifting and
time becomes one endless relativization. Added to these flashforwards and
flashbacks are many anticipations of the future, hints to the future, often dropped
mid-sentence. There are no surprises. We know that Jean Brodie was betrayed on p
27, we are told that Sandy became a nun on p 33. (The Penguin edition has 128
The traditional suspense of the novel is substituted by a more reflective attitude to
the ordering of events. Patricia Waugh says that in Spark the hermeneutic code is
“ultimately a metaphysical one” (1984:83). The hermeneutic code is one of the
five narrative codes identified by Roland Barthes in his analysis of Balzac’s
“Sarrasine”. It includes “the various (formal) terms by which an enigma can be
distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense, and finally disclosed”
(1990: 19). The hermeneutic code is thus concerned with the unfolding of an
enigma: it answers the question ‘What happens next?’. In Spark the hermeneutic
code functions differently. It is not possible to answer the ‘What happens next?’
question in an anti-linear narrative that tells the future early in the narrative.
‘What happens next?’ is subordinated to a ‘Why did it happen?’ question. “The
hermeneutic”, Waugh writes, “is thereby translated into the terms of a
metaphysical or moral enquiry ...” (1984:83).
The older Sandy, the one who had betrayed Jean Brodie, writes a psychological
treatise on moral perception. The name Sandy takes on when she becomes a
religious is Sister Helena of the Transfiguration. The name of the treatise is ‘The
Transfiguration of the Commonplace’. There is a connection between Sandy’s
name and the nature of the treatise, although critics tend to gloss over this fact.
One critic has even said that the information should not have been included in the
novel, and that Spark includes it so as to tease the reader. It is these incomplete bits
of information that make her art disordered and fragmentary. Bernard Harrison’s
comments are what we typically expect from Spark’s detractors; the motive seems
more to denigrate than to elucidate, which probably explains why they excuse
themselves from the need to analyze the text. We read:
Why does she become a nun in an enclosed order? What about her strange book of
psychology, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (‘on the nature of moral percep-
tion’)? Why put any of this in at all?
There are two answers, which are at first sight contradictory. The first is that the
enigmatic and incomplete fragments of information which the novel drops causally
concerning Sandy are meant to puzzle and irritate; to create in the reader a spirit of
nervous dissatisfaction, of not knowing quite where he is going or what he is supposed to
see when he gets there ...
The second and more important answer ... is that the enigmas are there to obstruct the
establishment of that systematic and unblemished unity of conception which it is of the
essence of Jane Austen’s genius to create and of her readers’ pleasure to explore, and
which makes possible the liberating, constantly surprising play of wit and moral
perception which informs the interior of the novel precisely by the very rigour with which
it restricts the range of what can enter the bounded, though not finite, world which it
creates. The technique of a Muriel Spark novel is exactly the opposite to Jane Austen’s ...
(1976:237-8; my italics)
Moral perception is the recognition of what is moral. It relates to moral or ethical
standpoint, a point from where it is possible to decide what is ethical and the extent
to which the moral imperatives of conscience are the norms of perception. The
ethical is closely related to artistic ‘transfiguration’, a word which appears in diffe-
rent contexts of the novel. The form of the novel, the transfigured whole, with its
moral self-reflections conspires to reinforce this ethical dimension. We shall look
more closely at the relation between the ethical and the artistic form.
Sandy betrays Jean Brodie. In response to a letter she had received from Jean
Brodie announcing her retirement and the betrayal (which happened in about
1938) Sandy writes her a reply:
Sandy replied like an enigmatic Pope: ‘If you did not betray us it is impossible that you
could have been betrayed by us. The word betray does not apply.’ (1986rpt: 126)
This is told towards the end of the book. Earlier in the book, seven years after the
betrayal, that is, in 1944, Sandy’s reaction to Jean Brodie’s consistent ‘whining’
about her betrayal is more ambiguous: the “whine in her voice ‘ ... betrayed me,
betrayed me’ bored and afflicted Sandy” (60). There has been a shift, in time,
from the absolute certainty of Sandy’s position Sandy as an ‘enigmatic pope’
to the more bore ‘bored and afflicted’ response seven years later. Fourteen
years later still, in 1958, Sandy’s response to the betrayal is even more afflicted:
‘Oh, she was quite innocent in her way,’ said Sandy, clutching the bars of the grille. (127)
There has been a clear temporal progression, from indifference to an unsettling
indifference and then to an unsettled state, although the order in which these states
are presented in the book is different. Half-way through the novel we are told that
Sandy Sister Helena —recognized (“perceived”) Jean Brodie’s qualities as a
teacher, that her “defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its bene-
ficent and enlarging effects” (86). The clutching of the grilled bars is a sign of that
recognition. The image, repeated four times (34, 35, 127 & 128), is an index to
Sandy’s burden of spiritual disquiet and also to the claritas within the represen-
tational space since the understanding of the past follows on and is viewed
retrospectively from the act of clutching the convent bars. All the sub-codes cohere
around this image. It is both the end and the point of departure. The image which
ends the novel is literally at the centre of the work. We shall understand why as we
The perspective of the novel is largely Sandy’s perspective. The novel is in many
ways Sandy’s attempt to make sense of her past. We are told that Sister Helena
“had recovered from a creeping vision of disorder” (86). In looking back into the
past she imposes order on the events. The events acquire the ‘form’ of art, not as
they would have been but as ‘economy’ (a favourite Sparkian term) demands it.
They are subject to a ‘magical transfiguration’ (111), ‘magical’ being another
favourite Sparkian term.24 Sister Helena’s ‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace’
is the claritas that flows from the ordered whole. It results from the attempt to see
that ‘creeping vision of disorder’ within a larger framework. There is a larger
order. For Sister Helena it is her religion, the ethical standpoint, moral perception.
It is within this moral order that the disorder is contained. It is only within a
perspective of order that the past actions may be understood. To impose order on
the past is to allow for the artistic transfiguration of that past. ‘Transfiguration’ is
also a spiritual quality: the transfiguration of the commonplace’ is the light that
shows forth from within. But only when things are ordered is there transfiguration,
Thomist claritas, because order ordering comes with knowledge, a matter of
moral rightness, the ‘purity of vision’ Maritain spoke about (1927:125). Moral
perception underlies order; to impose artistic order on events is an ethical
imperative, it allows these things to be seen for what they are (Maritain, Ibid). This
is not a simple question of deciding what is good and evil. Sandy Sister Helena
acquires a sense of order only when she recognizes that a moral understanding
of Jean Brodie would needs be ambiguous. She was both “innocent” and “guilty”;
she was guilty insofar as she had no guilt and had “elected herself to grace” (109).
The statement is paradoxical. The younger Sandy was too dogmatic too full of
‘Knoxian fury’ (125). A clear moral stance is not the negation of a subtle
understanding of events, a sense of nuance, of fine detail.
When we say that Sandy’s ‘vision of disorder’ acquires coherence through the
ordering of the past we can of course apply the same aesthetic aim to Muriel
24 We see the word ‘magic’ in the description of the writer Emma Loy in A Far Cry from
Kensington (1988): “Along came Emma ... with her magic and her charm ... Opinions varied about
Emma Loy, but nobody could deny that she was a marvellous writer” (98). Emma’s surname seems
to be a tribute to the poet Myrna Loy but also, and I think especially, to Rosetta Loy, grande dame
Spark’s art. This is not to suggest, as does Charles Alva Hoyt, that Sandy is a
version of Mrs Spark (1965:141-2). Sandy is a scholar and an artist figure. We are
told that as a child Sandy “was fascinated by ...[the] method of making patterns
with facts” (1986:72). Sandy functions therefore as the embodiment within the
narrated space of Spark’s self-reflexive interest in the act and nature of
story-telling. Sandy’s moral transfiguration is a metafictional reflection on the
production of art. What occurs at a representational level explores what occurs, in
a much more complex manner, in the authorial level.
The Prime is constructed around three levels. We could call them tiers. We are
using a spatial metaphor, whereas a story is not ‘space’. The novel is constructed
as though it had three tiers, as though it were a dense surface; the tiers approach
underlies the logic of construction (itself a metaphor to do with ‘filling in’ space).
The top tier is the surface or representational level. It is the story of Miss Jean Bro-
die’s rise and fall, Sandy’s conversion and her more enlightened vision. It is on
this level that transfiguration shows itself: Sister Helena’s burden of disquiet, the
past distilled into its essence by an economic ordering of events, the ambiguity that
results from the act of knowing as opposed to the moral uprightness (‘the Knoxian
fury’) of not knowing. This is the level of claritas.
The tier above the first level is that of altitude. ‘Above’ is an inevitable metaphor
when speaking of a narrative perspective that is lofty and haughty. Both words are
dead metaphors which originally referred to height. Spark’s narration is achieved
from an elevated position. Anthony Burgess remarks that she writes from on high,
from the heights of the Church Triumphant (the church in heaven): “Muriel Spark
is a Catholic convert and already seems to have joined the Church Triumphant.
This means that she can look down on human pain and folly with a kind of divine
indifference” (1984:88).
This second level, the high narrative perspective, the lofty poise, the haughty
manner, cannot of course be separated from the first level; it is integrated with it,
sets it in motion, and is understood only with reference to it. (The first tier is
of Italian letters, author of Le Strade di Polvere (1987). The word ‘magical’ is obviously associated
with Rosetta Loy’s ‘economy’ of style.
likewise better understood with reference to the second level, the altitude with
which it is narrated: we ought not to separate Sandy and Jean Brodie’s story from
the manner in which it is told.) We can see this second level in terms of Thomist
consonantia or proportio; it functions as the motor of the narrative, it links the
claritas of the first tier to the integritas of an eventual third tier. Consonantia,
claritas and integritas ultimately function as one, not as separate entities. The
three-tier metaphor is a metaphor, it is useful to the point that it can be used to
deconstruct Spark’s integrated art. The approach is necessarily reductionist
because it provides a only bare outline of what Spark is doing and thus does not do
justice to Spark’s artistry. The only valid critical dialogue with Spark’s novel
would be a creative work, not the breaking of the toy to-see-how-it-works
approach of literary-critical discourse. David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go?
(1980) is an example of such a creative dialogue with Spark’s novel.
Viewed as kind of proportio, this second level would be what makes everything in
the novel (representation, structure) proportionate to its eventual shape in the
artwork. Altitude of perspective is necessary to the complete artwork. It is also
integral to the story. It is at the centre of the novel.
Many critics have recognized this altitude of presentation. The words they use to
refer to it ‘intrusive’, ‘obtrusive’, ‘didactic’ suggest that it is alien to the
narrative, has been imposed on it for ‘shock effect’ or as a show of moral (ie,
Catholic) superiority. Richard Mayne writes: “[I]t’s a matter of moral absolutism
which can’t be finally separated from the fact that Muriel Spark is a Roman Catho-
lic novelist” (1965:62). The objection to Sparkian altitude which could also be
called ‘omniscient narration’ is that it denies contingency within the narrated
space. The narrator knows all, she announces the future before its time, the
characters are not free to change their destiny since their futures have already been
set. It is a humanist objection. It is as if the novel were a playground of real-life
dramas and choices, as if the contingency in the novel were real and not
‘represented’. Spark has been called “a notoriously anti-humanist novelist”
(1983:25). The charge is that she denies ‘human’ freedom in the novel. Parrinder
also talks about her “manipulating her characters’ destinies for a dogmatic
purpose” (Ibid). Hoyt talks about this narrative control as being akin to a
“magician’s efforts to make demons do his bidding” (1965:130). For these critics it
is obviously important that Spark should preserve the novel’s illusion of contin-
The novel is non-contingent. Even Sartre recognized this Sartre the one who
had attacked François Mauriac for his authorial interventions and denial of human
freedom within the narrative space. Sartre was aware of a deeper crisis: the
contingency represented in the novels exists within a form that destroys
contingency; the novel has a priori limitations. He observed that if men were
entirely free they could walk out of the story (Kermode, 1967:138). The freedom
of characters within such a non-contingent form cannot be unproblematic. What
Frank Kermode praises in Spark is the fact that hers is “a radically non-contingent
reality to be dealt with in purely novelistic terms” (Ibid: 131). Needless to say,
Kermode does not approach Spark as a realist.
The novel’s non-contingency also provides a useful theological frame of reference:
contingency (freedom) within a non-contingent form (a design, a plan, an ordered
structure) is likened to freedom within a providential plane. The character in a
novel is thus free, within the limits of a greater order. The theme of free will versus
providence appears throughout the Sparkian œuvre in The Driver’s Seat
(1970), Not to Disturb (1971) and Symposium (1992), especially. Spark herself has
said, in a interview, that she believes that events are “providentially ordered”
The function of narrative altitude, and in particular the narrator’s daring
time-shifts, is to allow events to be seen in the light of Providence, which is also an
ordering pattern that makes ‘sense’ of events. Early in the novel we are told that
one of the characters, a ten-year-old girl, will die at the age of twenty-three. Mary
Macgregor is the scapegoat of the Brodie set. We read:
‘ ... Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary, are you listening? What was I saying?’
Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman,
who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of
twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden.’
‘What did I say was golden?’
Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, ‘The falling leaves.’
‘The falling leaves,’ said Mary. (1986rpt:13-14)
Mary’s future death is a clause in a sentence about her stupidity. This may be an
example of what Mayne calls Spark’s “moral absolutism” (1965:62); she disposes
of characters at the drop of a clause.
Mary Macgregor’s death is mentioned again in Chapter Two. Previously her death
had been anticipated by means of a reference to the future made in the same tense
as the rest of the sentence. This second reference actually goes into future time; it
makes also an anaphoric reference to the anticipation of her death in Chapter One,
thus making the transition from present time to future time more discreet. We read:
“Mary, who later, in that fire, ran hither and thither till she died” (1986rpt:28; my
italics). The phrase “hither and thither” and the image of fire are again used with
reference to Mary in Chapter Four, but in a different context. We are in the autumn
of 1932 and Mary is twelve. We read how she took fright during a science
experiment with magnesium flames:
Mary Macgregor took fright and ran along a single lane between two benches, met with a
white flame, and ran back to meet another brilliant tongue of fire. Hither and thither she
ran in panic between the benches until she was caught and induced to calm down, and she
was told not to be stupid by Miss Lockhart ... (76)
The panic and the flames in the science experiment prefigure Mary’s death.
Because the reader knows in advance that Mary will die by fire, the experience in
the science laboratory is meaningfully understood as a sign of her death. Her death
is rendered natural. Add to this the comment, soon after the first anticipation of
Mary’s death, that her years with Miss Brodie “had been the happiest time in her
life” (15), and the death becomes more ambiguous still. The narrative play with
time places Mary’s life within a wider temporal context where death is not the end
itself, where it has no sting (Rm 6:5-11). Her death, the prefiguration of her death
in the science laboratory, are seen as part of a broader ambiguously providential
Human acts, Spark would insist, are subject to providential patterns of order. The
concept is a theological one. Providence is of God’s making. Human beings cannot
create providence. In utilizing narrative altitude, by allowing events to be seen in a
providential light, she is hinting at another kind of providence at work in the
world. Her novel is not a substitute for that other providence. It is rather a
theological exploration into the nature of providence within a non-contingent
creative medium. Art is not life. The erasing of those boundaries is also one of the
themes of The Prime.
The portrait of Miss Jean Brodie is a metafictional study in the poise of altitude, in
a God-like perspective on events and in the usurpation of providential thinking for
illicit ends. The portrait becomes a study of the limits of omniscience, pointing to
the danger of a wanton application of omniscience in a situation not framed by
some ordering principle.
We are told, through the perspective of Sandy, that Jean Brodie “thinks she is
Providence” (1986rpt:120). Throughout the narrative Jean Brodie assumes for
herself the right to decide what is right. What is right is what corresponds to her
own private notion of what right is. It is what suits her temperament or her artistic
taste. When she asks the girls under her care who the greatest painter is the
inevitable response is “Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie”. Jean Brodie responds:
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite” (11).
The egotistical core around which her sense of self has developed is again evident
when she tells the girls: “... Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is
mine for life” (9). The line, repeated later in the book (112), quotes the
well-known statement attributed to the Jesuits. The difference is that her intention
is not merely to form or educate, but also to impose her own designs on the girls.
The most dangerous example of this is when she suggest to the new schoolgirl,
Joyce Emily, who had joined, or rather was a hanger-on of, the Brodie set in
secondary school, that she should join the fighting in the Spanish Civil war, on
Franco’s side. The girl dies in an accident. Jean Brodie also predicts how things
will turn out. She foresees, for example, that Rose Stanley, one of her girls will
become the lover of Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher. As it turns out it is Sandy, the
future nun, who becomes Teddy’s lover. By thwarting Jean Brodie’s plan, Sandy
undermines the providential logic of Jean Brodie’s thinking.
It is also through Sandy that we see a developing critique of Jean Brodie’s attempt
to play at God. From the perspective of Sandy, later Sr Helena of the
Transfiguration, we are told that Jean Brodie “thinks she is the God of Calvin, she
sees the beginning and the end” (120). Miss Brodie’s claims to Providence, more
precisely, a Calvinist notion of providence, contrast with the orthodox Catholic
understanding of providence which maintains that God’s providence works itself
through human free will. (This, one assumes, was the rationale underlying Muriel
Spark’s own use of narrative altitude: freedom within order, contingency within
the non-contingent form of the novel.) The Calvinist idea of predestination is, from
a purely Catholic understanding, a false theory of providence. It is false insofar as
it allows no space for human free will. Miss Brodie appropriates for herself and
secularizes the Calvinist conception of providence (or predestination). The point is
not that Miss Brodie secularizes predestination, but that her frame of reference
remains a Calvinist one. The novel, so ambiguous about so many of the concerns it
brings to the surface, is curiously and unambiguously critical about the Calvinist
idea of predestination:
... when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of
Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was
but a mild understatement of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in
certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end
might be the nastier. (108-109)
The criticism of Miss Brodie lies not only in the fact that she acts as Providence,
but that she has appropriated a Calvinist sense of election, the idea that election is
of those whom God has chosen and that others are predestined to perdition. We are
told that “Miss Brodie ... elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with
more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other
spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more” (109). Calvinism has been secularized,
but the frame of reference remains Calvinist.
It is clear that the novel’s theological sub-text does not endorse Miss Brodie’s
playing at God and Providence. Yet the novel also points to the fine aspects of
Miss Brodie’s teaching, “its beneficent and enlarging effects” (86). This makes for
ambiguity. It means that readers cannot make a categorical moral condemnation of
Miss Brodie’s behaviour when it is viewed in its full range of effects. The same
ambiguity is applicable to Sandy Stranger who, in betraying Miss Brodie, also
plays God and is thus guilty of the same thing she repudiates. Interestingly,
Sandy’s act of betrayal is described in appropriately Calvinist imagery. We are
informed that she “was more fuming, now, with Christian morals, than John
Knox” (125). This once again reinforces the identification of playing at
omniscience with Calvinism, applicable both to Miss Brodie and to Sandy. The
idea is that, like Calvinism with its Knoxian moralism, playing at omniscience
implies a denial of human freedom. Evidence of this narrative condemnation of
Sandy’s behaviour is the rather ironic fact that Sandy, whose betrayal of Miss
Brodie consisted of the accusation that her former teacher was a fascist, found in
the ranks of the Catholic Church “quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable
than Miss Brodie” (125).
The rather disparaging reference to the Catholic Church should not obscure the
fact that what is posited as an alternative to Calvinism or any other false theory of
providence is the Catholic system. We are told that the older Sandy Sister
Helena of the Transfiguration had recovered from her earlier “vision of
disorder” (86), which suggests that the older Sandy has moved away from the
Knoxian dogmatism, and that her new vision, according to Joseph Hynes, “swings
opposite to narrow theocratic absolutism, and now occupies a ground that, in the
opinion of the narrator, allows individualism within law and system” (1988:77).
The criticism of Miss Brodie lies precisely in her inability to contain her individual
spirit within a system; she becomes the system itself, the law. The passage that
articulates this most forcefully relates this to the fact that Jean Brodie would have
been ideally suited to the Catholic Church:
She was by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church; possibly it could
have embraced, even while it disciplined, her soaring and divine spirit, it might even have
normalized her. (1986rpt:85)
The passage does more than speculate “that Miss Brodie herself might have been
saved by Catholicism”, as David Lodge says (1971:142). Catholicism provides a
vision of order that does not obliterate but contains the disorder. That at least is
how Catholicism has often been perceived. Antonia White writes that it “is in
practice, flexible while maintaining a rigid outline” (1983:137). The Catholic
system is seen as the via media between predestination (a false theory of provi-
dence) and excessive freedom; it does not deny providence, but allows free will to
act within it. Miss Brodie’s fault rests precisely in her inability to allow for or to
accept the freedom of choice of others. Her vision, enlarging as it was, was
disordered in outline; it lacked the frame of reference that would have tamed and
‘normalized’ it.
The idea of disorder contained within order is of course also one of the aesthetic
principles underlying Spark’s art. Narrative altitude is a means of surveying the
disorder; it is also the means through which the order is created. Proportio was the
generator of the order, it was not the order itself, it was through it that the order
was created. Altitude functions in this sense as a kind of proportio.
It is through the altitude in presentation, the loftiness of manner, the omniscient
poise, that the narrative shifts back and forth in time. Altitude creates the norm
from which all is observed. It is the vantage point from which time may be viewed.
Past, present and future events are narrated in the same tense, the historic past
tense. (When Spark goes back into the past from a present, narrated in the past, she
has to resort to the past perfect tense, the ‘had been’, which in a sense undermines
the logic of construction but which is also inevitable to avoid confusing the present
narrated in the past with what had come before it. Spark is working with language,
a convention, and in that sense, she has to retain the conventional markers of time.)
When the future itself is narrated in the past tense I am not thinking of the
anticipations of the future, told in the future tense, but of the actual telling of future
occurrences in the past tense the future loses its distinction as a future and
becomes part of a large temporal backdrop. Past, present and future are rendered
similar when measured against the eternal, that which is outside time.
Narrative altitude hints at, even if it does not (or cannot) replicate, the eternal
order. The distance between narrator and narrated action suggests the littleness of
actions, the fact that they fit within a larger (providential) order whose real form is
outside the novel but whose order is glimpsed at through narrative altitude. The
form, the altitude of presentation, thus acquires a very definite representational
significance: it is the backdrop against which actions are judged, the scale against
which they are measured.
The eternal is suggested by narrative altitude. But Spark, as if to alert the reader to
its importance, also hints at it in one of the narrative passages:
They looked out of the wide windows at the little Braid Burn trickling through the fields
and at the hills beyond, so austere from everlasting that they had never been capable of
losing anything by the war. (56)
The passage makes an allusion to the Book of Genesis and it was Lodge
(1971:144) who first pointed out the reference where we read of the “blessings
of ancient mountains;/bounty of the everlasting hills” (Gn 49:26). Here we should
also note that the change of register, the shift from Spark’s usual terse style to a
more sublime lyricism, signifies a foregrounding or affirmation of what is being
said (Whittaker, 1982:137). What is being suggested here is the immanence and
interpenetration of the other-worldly on this world, and the other world as the scale
against which all is measured.
Narrative altitude hints at a sense of order outside the novel. It also suggests a
sense of order within the novel. The novel is a constructed whole, it is an ordered
artwork. The novel is akin to an architectural structure. Let us look more closely at
the architecture of The Prime.
Narrative altitude defines the novel’s continual flashbacks and flashforwards.
According to Ruth Whittaker there are fourteen flashbacks and fourteen
flashforwards (1982:131), which suggests a highly stylized approach to fiction.
Whittaker however does not define exactly what she means by a flashback or
flashforward, so it is difficult to know how she arrived at those figures.
In my reading of the novel I have arrived at very different figures. I have perhaps
defined flashback and flashforward differently from Whittaker, which accounts for
the disparity. By flashforwards I refer to what Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, following
Genette, has called proplepses and which she has defined as “telling the future
before its time” (1987:48), the narration of an event before it has occurred.
Rimmon-Kenan distinguishes a prolepsis the narration of the future from
presages of or hints to a future yet to be (Ibid). Similarly, an analepsis (a
‘flashback’) refers to the “narration of a story-event at a point in the text after later
events have been told” (46).
The novel, in terms of my understanding, is organized around time in a highly
stylized and formalistic manner (which is also the point made by Whittaker); I
count 43 discrete units of time.25 (A segmentation of these time units is appended
as an annexure.) Each of these units reflects an event or events that occurred at a
particular time during a particular year. A year is constantly used to delineate time.
We read, for example: “In the summer of nineteen-thirty-eight” (1986rpt: 122) or
“It had turned nineteen-thirty-one” (25). Some of these units occur in the present
(narrated in the past), others are flashbacks or flashforwards from the vantage
point of the present identified in that chapter. The present tense is different for
every chapter. The present tense in each of these chapters is usually identified by a
year, although often this is not the calendar year but the European scholastic year
25 The number of units might itself be significant from another point of view. Forty-three is the
Cabbalistic seven (4 + 3 = 7). Jean-Yves Tadié in his chapter on the structure of the modern novel
(1997:81-124) talks about the arithmetical structure underlying much of the construction of the
‘modern’ [ie, modernist and postmodernist] novel. He cites, among others, the works of Queneau,
Proust, Kundera. Writing about the number seven he has this to say: Le nombre trois, c’est la
Trinité. Le chiffre quatre est celui des éléments, symbole de la matière, du corps, du Monde. Sept,
c’est quatre plus trois, le corps plus l’âme, le nombre humain par excellence, l’union des deux
natures. Il y a sept âges de la vie, sept vertus, sept demandes du Pater, sept péchés capitaux. Dans
le cosmos, le nombre sept renvoie à sept planè-tes qui commandent la vie humaine, aux sept jours
durant lesquels Dieu a créé le monde. «Les sept tons de la musique grégorienne sont, en dernière
analyse, l’expression sensible de l’ordre universel» [E Mâle]” (106). Proportio was also the
proportion of numbers. The idea that beauty could be reduced to numbers is found in the writings
of St Augustine and Hugh of St Victor. Eco writes that “number, order, proportion are principles so
much ontological as ethical and aesthetic” (1989b:50; my translation).
which begins in the autumn and ends in the summer of the next calendar year. The
years which define the present tense in each of the chapters are as follows:
Chapter One = 1935/6
Chapter Two = 1930/1
Chapter Three = 1931/2
Chapter Four = 1932/3
Chapter Five = 1935/6
Chapter Six = 1938
The first obvious thing to notice is that the ‘present tense’ does not follow a strict
chronological order (for instance, 1930/1 follows 1935/6). But the temporal
structure is still more complex: what is the past tense, a flashback, in Chapter One
the events which occurred in the year 1931 becomes the present tense of the
Chapter Two, and the other narrated events become the future. In Chapter Four a
flashforward to the betrayal of Miss Jean Brodie (in 1938) becomes the present
tense of Chapter Six. If we schematize these temporal units, starting from the point
where they are first introduced, we observe how they constitute a rather complex
pattern. Units move away from and return to where they start. New units are
interlocked with previously introduced units. A schematized diagram of these units
would look something like this:
1 [1935/6]
2 [1932/3]
3 [1935/6]
4 [1930/1]
5 [1935/6]
6 [1930/1]
7 [1935/6]
8 [1930/1]
9 [1944]
10 [1930/1]
11 [1958]
12 [1930/1]
13 [1958]
14 [1930/1]
15 [1931/2]
16 [1958]
17 [1946]
18 [1931/2]
19 [1946]
20 [1931/2]
21 [1946]
22 [1931/2]
23 [1932/3]
24 [1958]
25 [1946]
26 [1932/3]
27 [1958]
28 [1932/3]
29 [1958]
30 [1932/3]
31 [1938]
32 [1932/3]
33 [1935/6]
34 [1938]
35 [1935/6]
36 [1938]
37 [1935/6]
38 [1938]
39 [1958]
40 [1938]
41 [1946]
42 [1938]
43 [1958] .
Schematized in this manner the novel ends literally at the centre, Sandy’s act of
clutching the convent grille, the moment of transfiguration, the claritas of the
novel. The structure determines how the novel is read: when the reader finishes the
novel he or she will have reached the heart of the novel.
The temporal organization constitutes the architectural (or perhaps musical)
structure of the novel. This would be the third tier of the novel, the level of
integritas, of wholeness. The three levels of the novel do not function separately,
they play off against each other and are integrated in a unifying structure. To speak
of three levels is to speak metaphorically. All the same, to read the novel as
surface, as a faulty realism, never tells the whole story. The Thomist criteria of
beauty can be usefully applied to Spark’s novel insofar as they allow us to
apprehend the formal complexity of the artwork. Malcom Bradbury is correct
when he says that in a Sparkian novel “we read backwards and forwards, for
integritas, consonantia, claritas” (1972:250).
Integritas, proportio and claritas are artistic criteria for Order. A vision of order
underlies the construction of The Prime; it tells us also about Spark’s
understanding of life as providentially ordered. Order is also identified with the
Catholic faith. While it is true that the novel should not be seen “as a kind of
Catholic tract” (Lodge, 1972:142), it is equally true that the novel interprets the
world from a decidedly dogmatic Catholic position.
The novel was published in 1961, the year before the start of the Second Vatican
Council. Spark’s aesthetic, more self-reflexive than it was realist, points to the
metafictional developments in the ‘postmodern’ novel. In so many ways Spark’s
early novels are precursors of the metafictional novel. Metafiction has been linked
to the self-reflexive postmodern novel (Waugh, 1988), but in Spark’s novel meta-
fiction is inserted within a normative structure of order and it is not yet fair to
speak of postmodernism. Spark’s Catholic novel has transformed the realism of
her predecessors, but it is still committed to the aesthetics of order.
Postmodernism, as we shall have occasion to study in more detail, exists only at
the level of appearances. In many ways the highly formalistic nature of her art is
closer to the geometrical spirit of classical Thomism.
Umberto Eco has asked an interesting question about the relation between this
theoretical purity proposed by the Thomist system and the society that produced
the theory:
... scholastic aesthetics seem to represent to us a world that does not entirely correspond to
the daily reality in which those formulae were enunciated. How to reconcile the sense of
geometric regularity, the limpid rationality ... with the so many manifestations of cruely,
of misery and inequality suffered daily? (1989b: 154-5; my translation)
The relation between Thomist theory and the world of today would be no less
problematic. Spark’s answer would seem to be that art can only provide answers in
its own domain. Art hints at an eternal order, formally it can be an ideal order. It is
not fiction’s business to reproduce the suffering of the world. There is a vast space
separating lived reality from words, those “names which betokened a misty region
of crime and desperation” (1986rpt:32). The disorder of the world, the novel seems
to say, will always be out there.

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