Monday, July 29, 2019

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' by Muriel Spark

At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me." And they do--but one of them will betray her.

This is my choice for the 20th century classic section of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. Miss Jean Brodie is a progressive, stylish teacher who works at a traditional girl's school in Edinburgh of the 1930's. She's suffered loss in her life, and decides to leave her stamp on the world by hand-picking a select group of girls to mould and shape in her own image. So Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Monica, Eunice and Mary become 'the Brodie set.' They're despised by others because of the blatant favouritism, yet envied because they seem to have a lot more fun.

Miss Brodie scorns conventional lessons and teaches her own romantic life anecdotes as if they're curriculum. She sets out to inspire the girls in elusive traits like panache and flair. One of her mottoes is, 'give me a girl at an impressionable age and she's mine for life.' The predatory sort of connotations from this line aren't far off the mark. She convinces her special six that they're fortunate to enjoy the benefit of her great wealth of worldly knowledge while she's in her prime. And she promises that if they take all her instructions on board, she'll make them into the 'creme de la creme.'

The parents are flattered that their daughters have caught the attention of such a confident and elegant woman, without being aware of a more fishy agenda. Miss Brodie herself is perhaps not fully aware of it. She comes across as a needy narcissist who feels she's missed the boat, and wishes to stamp her own image on each of the six students' special talents. There's a strong sense that her hidden agenda is to make them copies of herself. And as we find out when we're already well into the story, her manipulation arguably crosses into 'whacko' territory, involving a couple of the male teachers.

At times it seems Muriel Spark is inviting readers to weigh up whether Jean's influence is good or bad. Some of her ideas may put her ahead of her time. 'To me, education is a leading out of what is already in a pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay (the headmistress), it is a putting in of something which is not there. I call that intrusion.' But the scale crashes the other way when we consider her plans for a pair of her girls to embody her own fantasy. And also her critical dismissal of other former teacher's pets of hers, in favour of those she's decided can best serve her purpose.

Miss Brodie is certain none of her girls would ever betray her to Miss Mackay, and spends her twilight years trying to figure out which of them did. That girl has finally thought things through and decided she did nothing wrong, since 'betrayal involves the need for loyalty in the first place.'

At first I wondered why Jean Brodie so stubbornly resisted the idea of moving on to teach at a more innovative school, which might have embraced her teaching methods? Then it becomes clear, the 'crank schools' wouldn't have Mr Gordon Lowther and Mr Teddy Lloyd, who are vital players in her weird, kinky plans. It's interesting to see Miss Mackay dig around for solid evidence of malpractise before firing Brodie. Unfair dismissal claims might have been as much a factor in the thirties as now. It surprises me though, that she had to wait for one of the pampered students to rat on Brodie. It appears there was any number of hostile female teachers who might have been able to scrape up something reasonable sounding. Brodie didn't exactly keep her nose clean.

If this is Muriel Spark's most celebrated novel, as the cover says it is, I'm not sure I want to discover more. Her writing leaves a sort of sour aftertaste. I think it's partly because Spark so often pokes snide or cynical digs at her own characters, making me wonder that if even she doesn't really like them, then why should we? Although many characters are clever, none are really lovable. When she delves into their deepest thoughts, we find they're full of varying shades of self interest. And the plot's fascination seems to hinge on a sordid, tabloid gossip sort of factor.

So I'm glad to finish. It's a short novel, but by the end I was fed up with repetitious descriptions of the girls. There were so many statements about Mary's stupidity and awkwardness, Rose's famous reputation for 'sex', whatever that was meant to mean, and most of all, references to Sandy's little piggy eyes. I'm sure she mentioned that girl's squinty peepers every single time she was in a scene? We get it Muriel, okay!

I'd intended tracking down the 1969 movie with Dame Maggie Smith in the title role, since I love her as Professor McGonagall. (Speaking of Harry Potter, 'The Brodie Set' is reminiscent of 'The Slug Club', but probably the other way around for many readers, since Miss Brodie came first.) I was so underwhelmed by the story though, I don't think I'll bother. To sum up my overall impression, there's a great line in the story. 'There was a whiff of sulphur about the idea.' Maybe I'll borrow that descriptive phrase straight from Muriel Spark to apply to her whole book, because the more I think about it, the more everyone in it stinks, to varying degrees.


Monday, July 22, 2019

'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde's madcap farce about mistaken identities, secret engagements, and lovers entanglements still delights readers more than a century after its 1895 publication and premiere performance. The rapid-fire wit and eccentric characters of The Importance of Being Earnest have made it a mainstay of the high school curriculum for decades.

This is my Classic Play category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I remember thoroughly enjoying it as a High School Drama student who got to watch a movie version on TV during a lesson. It's great the second time around too. Fun to read, but a ridiculous load of nonsense. Here's basically how it goes down. Jack and Algernon are a pair of well-to-do young gentlemen in the Victorian era, both in the habit of telling lies to help them wriggle out of tiresome commitments. They've taken the concept of the pretend friend to an expert level, each using one to shirk their duties and help them look good at the same time.

Jack's ruse is a rebellious younger brother named Ernest, who needs frequent help out of jams. And Algy's is a perpetual invalid friend named Bunbury, with a knack of having relapses and needing support just when Algy is expected to attend something boring. But both Jack and Algy play the game so hard, it leads to hilarious clashes (such as Jack mourning his dead brother who Algy is pretending to be).  Eventually two young ladies named Gwendolen and Cecily each believe they're engaged to the same guy named Ernest, who doesn't really exist.

There's also a subplot of Jack's obscure origin. He was discovered at Victoria Street Station as a baby in a handbag, and the bossy autocrat Lady Augusta Bracknell won't let him court her daughter, Gwendolen, until his past is cleared up, which he doubts he can ever manage to do after 28 years. Naturally everything does come together very comically, and Wilde twists circumstances in such a way that all the lies Jack has been telling accidentally turn out to be the truth.

There has been lots of satire written about the Victorian era by modern authors who look back on its more negative aspects in retrospect, but Oscar Wilde was taking shots at it while he was actually living in it. He wasn't a rebel of the 'naughty nineties' for nothing. There are loads of sassy one-liners which keep being volleyed back and forth like a tennis match. And they're all delivered with perfectly straight faces, which probably makes Wilde one of the pioneers of the sort of witty British sitcom we all know and love.

It's such a shame Algernon's term of 'Bunburying' hasn't really taken off in our common lingo, because it deserves to. The truth is, I was brought up in a family of Bunburyists without even knowing it. Making up untrue clashes and prior engagements takes a bit of ingenuity, so they might as well be good ones, that paint us in the best possible light. I guess I've had a go myself over the years, but I've reformed and become more honest. As we get older, our memories aren't so good, so Bunburying isn't really worth the stress it might cause in the long run.

The sneaky duplicity of this sort of behaviour gives the play's title its irony. Both Gwendolen and Cecily have latched onto the idea of marrying men named Ernest, because it's such an honest, straightforward and direct sort of name. Yet we audience know that neither of these two guys are any such thing. They are duplicitous, deceitful fibbers, regardless of their good motives. Maybe it's Oscar Wilde's way of getting us to ponder whether anything is like it seems on the surface.

By the end, I can't help thinking it would be interesting to trace both young couples through married life. Jack and Gwendolen are both trying to play the game set by society. She's got the Victorian polish and sophistication down pat, making her a mini version of her scary mother. And he knows the right moves and the respectable, pompous things to say. But Algernon and Cecily might be another case altogether. He's so mischievous and bright, breezing through life taking nothing seriously, and treating everything like a big game, while she's an innocent and romantic young rustic girl who still chafes at restrictions and lets her imagination run wild. It'd be fun to see how these two egg each on through matrimony. I wonder if they're Oscar Wilde's idea of a new generation of thinkers.

Sadly, the public never really got to find out. He got in deep trouble within four days after this play's first performance on Valentine's Day 1895, when he was unmasked for being gay by his young lover's furious father. It was downhill for Oscar Wilde from then on, leading to his imprisonment, and premature death after hard labour. The fate of the talented playwright gives the comedy a touch of sadness, but keeping on enjoying it is the best tribute to his memory. After reading it, I watched the most recent movie with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, which brought the opulence of the Victorian era to life in a brilliant way, and I recommend that too.

You might also enjoy my review of Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Monday, July 1, 2019

Best Bromances in Literature

Every so often, I see a need to update old lists and reflections, so here goes.This blog post was first prompted because of the popularity of the drama 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,' especially when it was first released. A huge focus in this play is the heartwarming friendship between the sons of two traditional enemies, Harry Potter's son Albus, and Draco Malfoy's son Scorpius. At the time I noticed several fan groups across the internet theorise that the boys' friendship was rich with gay subtext. They expressed crushing disappointment that JKR and her fellow authors decided not to take Albus and Scorpius in that direction. A couple of crushes on females have clearly been written in for each of the boys, but several critics I've come across online call this a cop-out. Fan art and fiction to change this is no doubt still being produced as we speak. The friendship has advocates trying hard to claim it for the LGBTQ community while it claims to be no such thing itself.

I can't help wondering if this highlights a bit of a gap in our culture. Are so many people trying to read romance into Albus and Scorpius' friendship, just because of of its depth and sensitivity? Can't a pair of teenage boys enjoy a strong, affectionate friendship without being gay? Could it be because we see so few intense male friendships of this nature presented in literature and the media that so many people instantly read in what was never intended to be there? Even when I searched through images of friends for this blog post, I found an abundance of close girl friendships (hugging, arms around each other, foreheads together, smiling etc) but hardly any similar images for males. I'm thinking it must be high time to resurrect the 'bromance', which is defined as a close, non-sexual relationship between guys.

These thoughts prompted me to start searching through my mind for good examples of literary bromances. And although I initially felt as if I was scraping the barrel, I came up with quite a few, often in unexpected places. Friends, they are out there if we know where to look. Here is a bit of a springboard.


The hot-off-the-press bromance that started this train of thought will start my list too.

1) Albus and Scorpius
These two boys are a perfect friendship match on many different levels. First, they turn established patterns on their heads. A dark, resentful Potter hits it off with a cheerful, optimistic Malfoy. Their fathers' history of mutual antagonism means nothing to them, because they take people on face value. They discuss sensitive, emotional issues with honesty and are both willing to admit that their life at Hogwarts would be unbearable without each other. When forced apart they are entirely miserable, and aren't afraid to acknowledge that they intend to always be there for each other.

2) Harry and Ron
You can't start with Scorpius and Albus without mentioning the Hogwarts generation that came before. Although they were often part of a trio rather than a pair, Harry and Ron shared a close, best friend relationship. They had their ups and downs, but proved many times over that their manly affection for each other extended to death if necessary. There were moments of misunderstanding, but they were committed enough to their friendship to get through them stronger than ever.

These examples are not even human, but hey, they work, so who cares? 

3) R2D2 and C3PO
There's no reason why we can't look to droids to provide examples of decent bromances. These two are firm friends who travel together, look out for each other, translate for each other, understand each other and hate the thought of being separated.

4) Pooh Bear and Piglet
This is a reciprocal bromance in which each friend supplies input that strengthens the other. That's what makes a friendship rock solid. Piglet is an appreciative and willing listener who offers occasional constructive editing advice when Pooh recites his poetry. And in turn, our favourite bear helps his smaller friend shake off his many fears, and face the world with optimism instead of dread. Eventually, circumstances force them to become housemates, which suits our little pair just fine.

5) Timon and Pumbaa
Since bromances can come in many shapes and forms, why not a meerkat and warthog duo? Wily Timon hijacks his friend Pumbaa's bright ideas, but puts up with a lot of bluster and bad smells from his friend for the privilege. The 'Hakuna Matata' philosophy they cooked up together is one we could all adopt. They face the world together with a 'no worries' attitude.

6) Frodo and Sam
Hobbits get it right too. I wasn't sure whether to include this one, wondering if their relationship is on quite the right footing to be considered a bromance. There is always a bit of servitude in Sam's attitude toward his beloved Master Frodo, but hey, I wanted to grab something. And by the end of their adventures together, the bond between the pair of them gets steadily stronger. Especially when Sam saves Frodo's life on numerous occasions.

If we have to go back to Victorian England to find a good bromance, then that's what we'll do. Because Dickens nailed it! 

7) Pip and Herbert
The awesome mates from Great Expectations make me think Charles Dickens himself would have loved the term 'bromance'. These young men become best friends and housemates with reciprocal concern for each other. Herbert tactfully informs Pip when his etiquette needs a quick tweak. They look out for each others' interests, paint the town together, cook their Victorian dude food, and are totally trustworthy and comfortable together. And by the end, we have to give the nod of approval when they become business partners.

8) Mortimer and Eugene
You can't help loving these two lazy lawyer lads from Our Mutual Friend. They went through school together and eventually share an apartment on their meager finances, where they throw wise cracks, grumble about work, deal with unexpected callers, and always have each others' backs. I love Mortimer's way of telling Eugene he's so silly and ridiculous, when what he really means is, 'You're so cool.' A heavy dose of drama, and near death toward the end of the book helps them both realise even more what their friendship has always meant to each other. Awww!

Now we dig deeper into other works of literature.

9) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
I admit I've never read these American classics. Being an Aussie, they weren't set on our school curriculum. But from reports I've heard all my life, I assume these two lads are inseparable friends on the same wavelength. Should I read them? They are definitely on my radar, and I'd appreciate any recommendations or deterrents.

10) Holmes and Watson
They are both intelligent, professional gentlemen who at least give lip service to a relationship of equality. Watson is always keen to tag along on Holmes' detective escapades to see what his friend will come up with next, and so he can say, 'You're incredible, Holmes!' And he never seems to find that smug, 'Elementary, my dear Watson,' at all condescending. Maybe not a perfect bromance either, but once again, I grab them where I find them.

11) Darcy and Bingley
These two seemed to be unlikely friends because of their different temperaments, but I guess they tick the bromance boxes. They enjoy hanging out with each other, they travel together and make sure to synchronise the plans in their calendars. And they've been friends for long enough that they make allowances for each others' foibles in a good-natured, eye rolling sort of way.

12) Hamlet and Horatio
The moody Prince of Denmark always had his best buddy to try to make things easier for him. Sadly Horatio's best efforts didn't make a whole lot of difference in the end, but at least he was always there for his friend, and Hamlet appreciated him.

Okay, it's definitely no classic, but I'll drop it in.

13) Michael and Jerome
I'm referring to one of my own published novels here, A Design of Gold. I worked really hard on this bromance between two young men who had nothing in common on the surface, yet felt thrown together in several different ways, until they realised they were more alike than either of them would have imagined. And it takes a life or death sort of situation for them to come to this point. I didn't realise I was adding to the sparse bromance literature, but I'm glad to have worked it out.

I guess this Biblical example has a lot to live up to, when we consider all these guys went through out of loyalty to each other.

14) David and Jonathan
The ancient bromance sets the bar high for all future bromances. These two were devoted to each other to such an extent that David declared Jonathan's love superior to that of a woman, and King David was definitely a red-hot male who loved his women. Jonathan's actions proved that David's opinion was justified. He was the Crown Prince at the time of the friendship. Even though David's rising popularity jeopardised his own chances of someday becoming King of Israel, that didn't matter to Jonathan. He helped his best friend escape from his father, who was set on murdering him. He remained devoted to David and his cause all his life. And in turn, David was loyal to Jonathan's direct line of descent after his death in battle.

If you can think of any more good bromances, please let me know. It's high time boys were free to celebrate their BFFs, as girls do. My sons have a number of fairly close male friendships, so we all know they are out there in reality. We just need to see them reflected as often as possible in stories and art.