Caught on a thorn of liberty

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
David Limond finds a historic theme when he compares a bunch of literary Roses. Here is a particularly Scottish version of "name the seven dwarfs". How many people can name the Jean Brodie set and their individual claims to fame? For the record, there were Rose Stanley, famous for sex; Monica Douglas, famous mostly for mathematics; Eunice Gardiner, famous for her gymnastics, Mary Macgregor, a silent lump; Sandy Stranger, famous for her vowel sounds ; and Jenny Gray, Sandy's best friend.

Sandy Stranger is the narrator, but I have always liked Rose - Rose Stanley who became famous for the sex she did not have the one-armed art master Teddy Lloyd. Thinking about her recently reminded me of another Rose, Rose Weipers in George Friel's 1972 novel Mr Alfred MA. Like her namesake, Rose Weipers does not have sex with a teacher, though the malicious allegation that the eponymous Mr Alfred might have been unprofessional in his dealings with her is enough to wreck his reputation, ruin his career and send him on the downward descent into alcoholic decay.

This inadvertently disruptive Rose reminded me in turn of The TES Scotland's monthly School Diary. John Mitchell's character Rose McShane is a quite maliciously disruptive and destructive pupil, though her social worker mother and psychologist father insist on redefining her behaviour as creative.

In each of these cases - Rose Stanley, Rose Weipers and Rose McShane - a Scottish schoolgirl character features as emblematic of her times. It is through exploring the relationship between Rose, the other Brodie girls and their self-appointed leader that Muriel Spark discusses the relationship between personal and political Fascism. Trailing her half dozen junior disciples in her wake, including Sandy Stranger by whom she will be "betrayed", Miss Brodie ("a born Fascist") marches round 1930s Edinburgh. She even has her own version of the Fuehrerprinzip, the absolute correctness of the leader.

"Who is the greatest Italian painter?" "Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie".

"That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite." From such personal Fascism, Spark tells us, does political Fascism grow.

George Friel used his Rose to emphasise the degree of dislocation in time and space experienced by many in the ever more urbanised world of the 1970s. The teacher, Mr Alfred, has no malign intent towards Rose, who has "a graceful trinity of good intelligence, good clothes and good looks", but he does want her to be both his daughter and his lover. There is certainly sexual desire implied when Friel tells us: "Tired of living unloved, unloving Mr Alfred fell in love." But there is something quite different at work when Mr Alfred himself says to Rose: "If you were an orphan I'd adopt you."

Clearly he cannot have it both ways. Rose cannot be these two things to him and in fact she can be nothing in his life except a pupil just as he is nothing in her life other than a teacher. She does not belong in his life, he does not belong in her young world, just as he does not belong at all in the new world of housing schemes and comprehensive schools in which he finds himself. In the book's last, most bitter pages, Mr Alfred steps out of time and space for a hallucinatory encounter with Todd, the Lord of Misrule, the spirit of entropy. There is no place in this world now for Mr Alfred, only the next awaits.

When John Mitchell created Rose McShane he too was evidently intent on using her to discuss larger themes though his interests are certainly more concentrated in the educational sphere. Regular readers will recall that, shortly after we first meet her, it is explained to us that "Rose is the daughter of some fairly important parents. Her mother's in charge of the area social work department, and her dad's chief educational psychologist . . . paid telephone numbers for sorting out the problems of the lower orders, and all the while they have got a vicious little bitch of their own running riot."

The characterisation of this latest Rose as a "vicious little bitch" may be a little less subtle than that of Spark's Rose Stanley or Friel's Rose Weipers but the continued tradition of using schoolgirl characters to discuss general themes is there. In Mitchell's case Rose serves the purpose of allowing him to discuss the often sour and occasionally bitter relations between teachers and educationists of one sort or another and the larger theme of the social disorder to which such people have apparently contributed.

Three different Roses plucked from their literary roots tell different stories about life and learning. By taking all three together we can see the endless debate, present in education as elsewhere, over the degree to which we can allow children liberty and licence. The quantity and quality of control over children which teachers such as Miss Brodie enjoyed, in state and independent secondary schools, might well be envied by many teachers today. Its loss certainly was mourned by the generation of teachers who, like Mr Alfred, survived from those times into the 1970s.

However, the power Miss Brodie exercised could easily be abused. Losing the disciplinary methods of the past should not have involved losing the disciplinary standards. The trick of substituting self-discipline in children for the imposed discipline of teachers and parents is one which we have not yet learnt as a society. But, as William Blake (who knew a thing or two about roses himself) once said, "only believe and try". That is, the teaching profession, in Scotland and elsewhere, must have the faith to believe that self-discipline is morally preferably and psychologically possible.

Running riot as she does, Mitchell's Rose may be sick at heart (another coincidence in Mitchell's choice of name?). She may not smell as sweet as the well-kept Rose of Spark's day or Friel's Rose whose parents at least struggled, amid increasing social decay, to inculcate self-discipline in her, in a way that Rose McShane's parents (and increasingly many like them) seem not to. But in the face of a reactionary onslaught, with new ways and means of imposing discipline continually being advocated we must believe that the much maligned purpose of most postwar school reform until 1979, social and personal change through education, is possible and we must try to make it real. No one ever said it was going to be a rose garden.

David Limond is in the department of Scottish history at Glasgow University.

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