December 15, 2017
Muriel Spark, Miss Brodie, Miss Kay
On this day in 1961 Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in The New Yorker, an expanded version appearing in book form the following year This is one of Spark's earliest novels -- there are some two dozen -- but it remains her best known, due to the film, stage and television series versions. In her 1993 autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, Dame Spark confirms that Miss Christina Kay, one of her teachers at James Gillespie's High School for Girls in Edinburgh, was the model for her flamboyant and domineering Miss Brodie, up to a point. She reprints and agrees with this letter from her best friend, one of many classmates who wrote to her when the novel appeared:
Surely 75% is Miss Kay? Dear Miss Kay! of the cropped iron grey hair with fringe (and heavy black moustache!) and undisputable admiration for Il Duce. Hers was the expression creme de la creme -- hers the revealing extra lessons on art and music that stay with me yet. She it was who took us both (who were especial favourites of hers? -- part of the as yet unborn Brodie Set) to see Pavlova's last performance at the Empire Theatre. Who took us to afternoon teas at McVities.
But, as far as the creme knew, Miss Kay did not have an affair with the singing master, and so they did not imagine sending him, on her behalf, notes which read, "Allow me to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing." And it sounds as if the prime of Miss Brodie would have met its match in Miss Kay: "If she could have met 'Miss Brodie,'" writes Spark, "Miss Kay would have put the fictional character firmly in her place." Spark began to write about Miss Kay while still one of her students, and Miss Kay pronounced her a writer in such "emphatic terms" that "I felt I had hardly much choice in the matter." As had not Miss Brodie's Sandy:
"I am summoned to see the headmistress at morning break on Monday," said Miss Brodie. "I have no doubt Miss McKay wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word 'education' comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul.... Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads. What is the meaning of education, Sandy?"
Sandy correctly defines education, but then excuses herself from tea in order to go home and add "a chapter to 'The Mountain Eyrie,' the true love story of Miss Jean Brodie."
In a 1999 interview, Spark said that her prime came late: "I'm now 81 and I think the happiest years started between sixty and seventy. Apart from illness and pain with my back and a few things like that, I am much happier now. For one thing, I know how to handle life. Up till the time I was sixty I was never very capable of saying no, of really saying this is the way I do it and being absolutely firm.... Now I do."