Spark of Miss Brodie and Dougal Douglas still resonates
For many people, the literary reputation of Muriel Spark rests primarily on her 1962 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The short novel, set in 1930s Edinburgh, and dealing with a strong-willed charismatic primary teacher in a girls' school and her influence on a set of impressionable pupils, has found enthusiastic readers over the two generations since it appeared.
Reinforced by a stage adaptation, a film and a television series, its appeal shows no sign of diminishing as it approaches its half-century.
By contrast, Spark's 1961 novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is virtually forgotten, unjustly so. Also a short novel, it is set in Peckham during the 1950s, a period before large-scale immigration from Commonwealth countries changed the traditional English working and lower-middle-class community into the ethnically mixed area it is today.
The character Dougal Douglas is an Edinburgh University arts graduate, hired by a firm manufacturing nylon textiles as an assistant personnel manager to bring vision into the workers' lives. How Dougal goes about his task and the drastic, even tragic, influence he has on individual people's lives makes up the plot.
It is easy to see parallels between the two books on the levels of theme, plot and character. The idea of vision bulks large in both. "Where there is no vision, the people perish," quotes Miss Brodie. For her, "Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science."
Dougal sees research as the key to his success: "Research into the real Peckham. It will be necessary to discover the spiritual well-being, the glorious history of the place, before I am able to offer some impetus."
Where Miss Brodie is single-minded and energetic in her task of making her special set of primary girls the creme de la creme, providing a wealth of out-of-the-ordinary experience and rich, if dogmatic, instruction, Dougal is soon revealed to be indolent and apparently neglectful of his charge, promoting his own interests in a private agenda.
Jean Brodie is an idealistic Fascist, who ultimately has to be betrayed and ruined by one of her own followers; Dougal Douglas is an opportunistic conman who, by the end, has to be found out and to make his escape from Peckham. Yet each has done damage along the way. Miss Brodie sends Joyce Emily Hammond to her death in Spain on the way to fight for Franco. Dougal stirs up discontent and distrust among the factory staff, causing a wedding to be called off and the murder of his lover by the manager.
Neither protagonist has much enduring influence on other people's lives. Miss Brodie's girls shake off her teachings and direction of their lives as they grow up, leave school and disperse. The workers of Meadows, Mead and Grindley sink back into their limited lives and narrow perceptions as soon as Dougal escapes down the underground tunnel to a succession of new lives, as a tape-recorder salesman to African witch-doctors, as a Franciscan monk and as a successful author.
In both works, Spark makes significant use of religion in the prevailing discourse, the interplay of ideas underpinning the action and characters. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie holds in play a balance between the Calvinism of Brodie's Edinburgh and the Catholicism of Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher, and of the adult Sandy Stranger, the faith that Spark embraced. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Peckham is a materialistic place with no visible religion on offer, apart from the Biblical outcries of the crazy bag-lady, Nelly Mahone, against the sins of the people. This is the void within which Dougal can play his diabolic game.
Separately and in tandem, these novels repay classroom study. Their brevity makes the reading by pupils not excessively demanding. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is written in a straightforward style, making much use of direct uncomplicated dialogue. The humour in the novel is wry (no pun intended), and the ironies are obvious. Many of the characters are young and their way of life is recognisable and immediate for adolescent readers.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an altogether richer, more humorous and rewarding read. More difficult in construction, packed with period and local detail, it requires a more intensive approach by the teacher, but it is well supported by teaching materials and critical commentaries. The most useful critical survey for pupils remains the ASLS Scotnote No. 7, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by David Robb.
Alan MacGillivray is a former lecturer at Strathclyde University.