Het is vandaag honderd jaar geleden dat de Britse schrijfster Muriel Spark in Edinburgh in Schotland werd geboren als Muriel Sarah Camberg. Ze schreef meer dan twintig boeken, zowel fictie als non-fictie.

Haar eerste roman, “The Comforters”, verscheen in 1957, maar met “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1962) trok zij wereldwijd de aandacht. Het boek gaat over haar eigen jeugd in een Schotse meisjesschool in de jaren dertig van de vorige eeuw, de vraag is alleen: in welk van de zes meisjes moeten we de auteur situeren. Ikzelf heb zo mijn idee, maar ik laat het liever aan uzelf over om daarover na te denken. “Denk eens na,” zou mijn kleindochter Lucy zeggen. De lerares die model stond voor Jean Brodie daarentegen was Christina Kay.
De sfeer van de jaren dertig en het fascisme is voelbaar aanwezig. Daarom is het merkwaardig dat men al op p.2 kan lezen: “At that time they had been immediately recognisable as Miss Brodie’s pupils, being vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorised curriculum, as the headmistress said, and useless to the school as a school. These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word `menarche’; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Brontë and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less. By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth form, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakeably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking. They had no team spirit and very little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Jean Brodie.”
De tekst in vetjes is uiteraard door mezelf zo eruit gelicht, maar op p.55 blijkt dat het geen toeval was. Over haar vakantie in 1931 vertelt miss Brodie: “In London my friends who are well-to-do – their small girl has two nurses, or nannies as they say in England – took me to visit A.A.Milne.”
In hoeverre A.A.Milne past in het “fascistische” plaatje van miss Brodie wordt nergens duidelijk, maar dat zijzelf fascistisch is des te meer: “When Sandy returned, as was expected of her, to see Miss Mackay that autumn, the headmistress said to this rather difficult old girl with the abnormally small eyes, ‘You’ll have been seeing something of Miss Brodie, I hope. You aren’t forgetting your old friends, I hope.’
‘I’ve seen her once or twice,’ said Sandy.
‘I’m afraid she put ideas into your young heads,’ said Miss Mackay with a knowing twinkle, which meant that now Sandy had left school it would be all right to talk openly about Miss Brodie’s goings-on.
‘Yes, lots of ideas,’ Sandy said.
‘I wish I knew what some of them were,’ said Miss Mackay, slumping a little and genuinely worried. ‘Because it is still going on, I mean class after class, and now she has formed a new set, and they are so out of key with the rest of the school, Miss Brodie’s set. They are precocious. Do you know what I mean?’
‘Yes,’ said Sandy. ‘But you won’t be able to pin her down on sex. Have you thought of politics?’
Miss Mackay turned her chair so that it was nearly square with Sandy’s. This was business.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘what do you mean? I didn’t know she was attracted by politics.’
‘Neither she is,’ said Sandy, ‘except as a side interest. She’s a born Fascist, have you thought of that?’
‘I shall question her pupils on those lines and see what emerges, if that is what you advise, Sandy. I had no idea you felt so seriously about the state of world affairs, Sandy, and I’m more than delighted —’
‘I’m not really interested in world affairs,’ said Sandy, ‘only in putting a stop to Miss Brodie.'”
(p.166-167)
“Miss Brodie was forced to retire at the end of the summer term of nineteen-thirty-nine, on the grounds that she had been teaching Fascism. Sandy, when she heard of it, thought of the marching troops of black shirts in the pictures on the wall. By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie.” (p.167-168)
In 1969 werd ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ verfilmd door Ronald Neame met Maggie Smith in de titelrol. It is an amazing achievement for a movie to make you love the protagonist at the beginning, then hate her at the end, and this film does that. It is not because Smith’s character changes that we start to dislike her, but rather because our perception changes in the film.
On the surface Miss Brodie appears to be an affectionate, caring woman who is fun to be around. But we eventually sink beneath the surface, and realise how manipulative she is. As Goebbels’ favourite pupil, she is stereotyping and confining her girls when she praises them on their individual virtues. “Team spirit?” she remarks witheringly at one point. “Where would team spirit have got Pavlova? The corps de ballet has ‘team spirit’.”
She doesn’t care for the girls as children of her own, but more so her own tools. As Sandy points out in the final confrontation, Miss Brodie sees an individual function and narrow objective with each of her pupils.
The film explores ideas about love too, but it is actually more so manipulation in the end. The way that Miss Brodie draws men into her, like she is using them when she sees fit. She says that she is in her prime because she is at a stage in her life when she can control all elements – including the headmistress. She likes being around young minds because they are so easy to influence, and with the male teachers at the school, she uses her ‘feminine charms’ to entice them. She does not however have any means by which to control the female adults, and therefore she is not on friendly terms with any of them.
The acting in the film is excellent by all concerned. Maggie Smith is cunningly brilliant as the heroine/villain combination of friendly wit and below surface ideas that are almost sickening (like trying to create a younger version of herself in Jenny to satisfying her lovers). But, it is really Pamela Franklin’s film. Her character matures in the film, defies stereotyping and sees beneath the surface. There are not words to describe how perfectly she plays Sandy, and considering that she was 19-years-old at the time, she plays a 12-year-old girl with amazing realism. She justly won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress.
The technical side of the film is not strikingly amazing, however some shots in the film are very carefully composed, and it seems more as if the director has decided to emphasise the script and performances, rather than try to create a visual feast. And there are deeper reasons for this too, because the film is about things on the surface not being as they seem. On the surface, the film has the look of any typical 1960s drama, but, if you look beneath, you should find a stunning, thought-provoking film that will stay in your mind long after the final credits.
Opmerkelijk: in 1966 kwam er een Engelse toneelbewerking met Vanessa Redgrave in de hoofdrol en Olivia Hussey in de rol van één van de meisjes (Jenny). Franco Zeffirelli zag haar aan het werk en bood haar meteen de rol van Julia aan in zijn verfilming van “Romeo and Juliet”.
Andere romans van Muriel Spark zijn “Memento Mori” (1959), “The Girls of Slender Means” (1963) en “The Public Image” (1968). In 2004 verscheen haar laatste roman, “The Finishing School”.
Spark, die in 1993 in de Britse adelstand werd verheven, ontving een aantal onderscheidingen voor haar werk, dat ook studies over de schrijfsters Emily Brontë en Mary Shelley omvat.
Muriel Spark is op 88-jarige leeftijd overleden in een ziekenhuis in de Italiaanse stad Florence. Zij werd begraven in het Toscaanse dorpje Civitella della Chiana, waar zij de afgelopen 26 jaar woonde, samen met haar vriendin Penelope Jardine.

Ronny De Schepper

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