David Robinson reviews this witty new novel inspired by Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
We are now well into the Muriel Spark Centenary, and for those who, like the First Minister, have ordered the complete set of all 22 of her novels being published this year by Polygon, last month will have seen the delivery of the sixth and most famous of them: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or, as Olga Wojtas refers to it in her debut novel, That Book.
“That book purports to be about my school, but never has a school been so traduced under the veil of fiction,” her central character laments. “It is nothing but a distortion, a travesty, a betrayal.”
In Wojtas’s novel, Shona Ferguson is a librarian in her fifties and possibly in her prime, and a former pupil of the Marcia Blaine Academy for Girls, which she believes was traduced in Spark’s slim classic. At work in Morningside Library, she tries hard to keep all copies of it off the shelves. It must be very popular, one visitor suggests. “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like,” Ferguson replies.
She takes exception to That Book because it suggested that not all of the school’s pupils were exceptional, that only a select few Miss Jean Brodie’s class were la crème de la crème and not (as implied in the school motto: Cremor cremoris) all of them.
Readers who are Edinburghers by formation will already have guessed that a novel calling itself Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is probably, at least in part, a homage to Dame Muriel. They will also know that the Marcia Blaine Academy was the fictionalised version of James Gillespie’s School for Girls, which is where Bernard and Cissy Camberg sent their daughter Muriel and where, as a bookish 11-year-old (all those trips to Morningside Library), she fell under the spell of her teacher, Miss Christina Kay. The rest is literary history, and one of the lithest, blithest, and truest comic novels ever written on these islands.
Anyone attempting to write another novel featuring a pupil of the Marcia Blaine Academy must surely, you might think, be half-mad with chutzpah, as anything they wrote could only lose from the comparison. Spark, after all, is a writer whose pithy precision and unexpectedness extends even to the way she describes the mundane (“The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letterbox and there was suddenly a six o’clock feeling in the house”). No-one can possibly out-spark her, and it’s foolish to even try.
Except let’s get back to that title again. “The Golden Samovar” sounds like a far cry from Morningside, and so indeed it is. “Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar” hints at a wacky adventure, and that turns out to be right too. (And if you wonder about why there are so many books with 11-syllable titles, here’s a six-word answer: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) Finally, Wojtas’s sub-title “A Murderous Mission in Imperial Russia” takes us still further away from Edinburgh and That Book. That’s right: we’re talking time travel.
And comedy. Not the sharp comedy of character that Spark gave us, but the blunter stuff of absurdity. Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is like being trapped inside a Marx Brothers’ film. Once you accept the premise – that Marcia Blaine herself, who rates just a solitary sentence in Spark’s novel, could materialise at Morningside Library and command Shona Ferguson to travel back to imperial Russia and set about righting wrongs – it’s a hoot. It’s also a relief: any book that stuck too closely to the Brodie bunch would exasperate Spark fans beyond measure.
Instead, as Shona Ferguson sets about solving a series of murders in nineteenth-century Russia, absurdities multiply. She is, for example, a twentieth century feminist, right down to the soles of her Doc Martens, yet the serf-owning nobles she moves amongst have somehow got it into their head that she is really a princess, and their serfs cannot even begin to imagine the independence of thought she tries to inculcate in them. This sounds dangerously radical: surely Shona must be a Decembrist [the radicals behind the failed 1825 uprising]. Not all, she replies: the only ‘ist’ she is, is a feminist. “‘What is a feminist?’ I heard someone whisper to their neighbour. ‘It must be someone who upholds the highest virtues of womanhood: humility, obedience and flower arranging’ came the reply.”
Although as Princess Tamsonova (the egalitarian title she chose because we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns) she helps spread a taste for ceilidh dancing, tea with milk, and tablet to her fellow aristocrats, they don’t always understand her. “Do you think I came up the Dvina in a banana boat?” she asks them. “No, of course not,” one of them replies. “No-one has ever come up the Dvina in a banana boat.”
Books about humour and how it works are invariably deeply dull, and the same goes for comedy lit crit, so I’ll spare you the metafictional analysis of Wojta’s absurdist textuality. Yes, there’s a small Sparkian overlay for those who care to seek it out, but that’s not what drives this madcap comedy. More important by far are Wojta’s own flashes of confidence and originality, not least her deliberate omission of the one element of time travel that most writers would put in: the year – or even the decade – in which time-travelling Shona Ferguson has actually arrived. Daringly, she spins comedy out of that – and her protagonist’s endlessly frustrated attempts to buy a newspaper to check on its date – right to the end. Such repeated jokes – and the wonderfully farcical scene in which Shona teaches a count and a general how to play animal snap – owe nothing at all to Spark, but are funny nevertheless.
There is, however, one link to Spark in her work that is true, deep, and unarguable. Olga Wojtas might not be a reliable guide to the Marcia Blaine Academy for Girls, but she knows everything about the school on which it was based. She, like Spark, was a Gillespie’s girl. She even had an inspirational English teacher there – Iona Cameron. When Miss Cameron died last April, Wojtas was quoted in a Scotsman obituary as saying that she was her greatest influence on her writing. Until recently, she wrote, she still sent Miss Cameron stories she had worked on so they could be checked for syntax and grammar.
Jean Brodie, for all her faults, would surely have done that for her pupils too.
Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas is out now published by Saraband priced £8.99.
Olga Wojtas appears along Mandy Haggith at the Ullapool Book Festival on Friday 11 May.