The Legacy of Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Category: Reading

Muriel Spark famously attended James Gillespie’s School for Girls, which she immortalised as Marcia Blaine School for Girls in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The school could not be more proud of its distinguished alumna, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year – following its recent refurbishment, it even has a Muriel Spark Building.

It was not always thus… I too went to Gillespie’s, and was there when the play of the book came to the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. The school was horror-stricken. Muriel Spark had modelled Miss Brodie on her real primary teacher, Miss Christina Kay, who called her pupils “the crème de la crème,” loved Italian art, and admired Mussolini. Gillespie’s felt it had been brought into disrepute and although we were often taken in class groups to see plays at the Lyceum, there was no way this play was going to be on the curriculum. But my mum took me, and just in case anybody had missed the link, there was a Gillespie’s maroon-and-gold scarf prominently displayed on stage.

The next thing I did was seek out a copy of the book, with the thrilling feeling that I was doing something illicit

The next thing I did was seek out a copy of the book, with the thrilling feeling that I was doing something illicit. I enjoyed it right from the start, and I’ve re-read it many times. In all Muriel Spark’s books, she writes with wit, economy and elegance. There’s often a mystical, otherworldly quality to her work – she was hugely influenced by the Border ballads when she was a girl. Miss Brodie is her best known work, but my favourites also include The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Memento Mori, and The Abbess of Crewe (set in a Catholic convent, but actually an incredibly clever farce about Watergate).

She is a literary superstar, and nobody could hope to emulate her glorious prose. But I was definitely influenced by her in writing my debut novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar.  

My heroine, Shona McMonagle, who works in Morningside Library, went to Marcia Blaine School and remains outraged by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks is a foul calumny on her alma mater. She spends her time trying to stop people reading it, which of course only makes them more determined to seek it out. (Although unfortunately Muriel Spark did get some details wrong: she says Marcia Blaine was the widow of a book-binder whereas my book clarifies that Miss Blaine is a single lady.)

Muriel Spark plays a lot with time, and is the mistress of the flash-forward. The play and the film have a linear narrative, but the book is much more complex and challenging. That inspired me to make my heroine a time-traveller. She is visited in Morningside Library by Marcia Blaine herself, who sends her on a mission to Imperial Russia. It can be read as a straightforward romp, but it contains a fair amount of historical accuracy, as Miss Brodie did with the rise of Fascism and the scourge of unemployment.

I hope those who only know the film and TV versions of Miss Brodie will be inspired to read the book

It’s serendipity that my book has been published at the start of these wonderful centenary celebrations, but I couldn’t be more proud. I hope those who only know the film and TV versions of Miss Brodie will be inspired to read the book, and those who only know Miss Brodie will be inspired to read her other novels and poetry.

Her most famous book is small but perfectly formed – it was published in its entirety in a single issue of the New Yorker Magazine. There is also a small but perfectly formed exhibition, The International Style of Muriel Spark, at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. If you possibly can, see it before it ends on May 13. It includes a letter written to her by Gore Vidal, who addresses her as “Beloved Sparkles!”. I hope she becomes many more people’s Beloved Sparkles in the course of the year.

Click here to find out which iconic Scottish poet influenced the work of Muriel Spark in our guest post by professor Willy Maley. 

Inspired to watch the film adaptation of Jean Brodie? Check out our 17 books to read before they become films blog too. 

Olga Wojtas

Olga Wojtas was born and brought up in Edinburgh, where she attended James Gillespie’s High School – the model for Marcia Blaine School for Girls, which appears in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Olga won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2015 and has had more than 30 short stories published in magazines and anthologies. Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is her first novel. 

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