Novel Pairings - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Great books deserve great wine. And what’s a book club without a bottle or three? Every month Damian Barr, author and Sunday Times Drinks Critic, suggests surprising and delicious #NovelPairings: Would Bridget Jones choose Chardonnay now? Which Champagne does James Bond prefer? How tipsy is Ulysses? Helping Damian make the #NovelPairings are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and our own Simon Heafield from Foyles. This month it's the turn of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Jean Brodie is a maverick teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, infamously in her prime. Helping Damian choose this month's #NovelPairings are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is as outwardly modest and inwardly seething as the bourgeois Edinburgh Muriel Spark depicts so acutely. Only just long enough to count as a novella, you can read it in a morning yet it’s so densely packed with theology, art and psychology you’ll be mulling over it for years.
The story follows the infamous Brodie Set – five girls each handpicked by Brodie to be her confidants in matters of romance and school politics. We meet them when they’re sixteen and the story flits backwards and forwards as the Set, still bound by events at school, recall her influence. They are Monica ‘famous mostly for mathematics’; Rose ‘famous for sex’; Eunice ‘famous for her spritely gymnastics; Mary ‘whose fame rested on her being a lump’; and, finally, Sandy ‘notorious for her small, almost non-existent eyes and famous for her vowel sounds’.
The magnetic Brodie is a spinster, engaged to young man killed on Flanders Field. Both fragile and indestructible, she is forever fending off plots by Miss Mackay, the headmistress, who suspects (rightly) that Brodie is leading the Set astray. Maggie Smith won an Oscar for capturing Brodie’s prim perfection: “She wore her loose brown tweed coat with the beaver collar tightly buttoned, her brown felt hat with the brim up at one side and down at the other.” Her curriculum consists of art, sex and fascism: “She was full of culture. She was an Edinburgh festival all on her own.”
Brodie gets all the best lines: “My girls are the crème de la crème”, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’ and (repeatedly) “I am in my prime.” But she’s more than a series of zingers. Her lessons lead to the death of one girl and her betrayal by another – no spoilers.
“I can’t work out if she’s the best teacher ever or the worst,” says Simon from Foyles. “Probably both. She can be read in so many ways: funny and threatening and ultimately quite sad.”
“She’s so complex,” says James from Corney & Barrow. “And the book is so rich although it’s got almost no drinking in.”
Certainly not - drinking wouldn’t be seemly for the staff or pupils at Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Sherry is the only tipple mentioned. “Fino sherry is made over several years in a series of barrels called the solera system,” explains James. “It drips from barrel to barrel, the way the Set absorbs Brodie’s words and ideas.”
“It’s definitely an acquired taste,” says Simon. “It’s so dry, almost savoury.”
Miss Brodie, who says “Hitler was rather naughty”, leans decidedly to the right. “So I’ve gone for a classic Bordeaux from the village of St Emilion” says James. “On the Right Bank.”
Simon and I are smitten by all the Merlot fruit but is it perhaps too voluptuous, too much for Edinburgh?
James’s final suggestion is a Bourgogne Chardonnay by Domaine Francois Carillon: “It’s crafted from young vines that are heavily trained to get the perfect fruit for this classic yet modern wine.”
Young vines, young minds. “I love it,” says Simon. “The oak is really buttery and you get this great vanilla too but isn’t it a bit too likeable, a bit too easy?”
For all its finesse, the Chardonnay is probably too bright and accessible— Brodie would dismiss it. The St Emilion is delicious but not nearly modest enough – famous for sex, even! The Fino sherry, like Miss Brodie, is ferociously dry and incredibly multi-layered. She’s an acquired taste and it is too making it the perfect #NovelPairing. In fact, the crème de la crème!
Bibulous-o-graphy for ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark.
A book remarkable for its paucity of bottles - perfectly in keeping with the abstemious upper crust of Edinburgh, where the novella is so memorably set.
S is for Sherry
Every year Miss Mackay, the headmistress of Marcia Blaine School For Girls who is bent on bringing down Miss Brodie, invites the Set to tea. In her study she quizzes them for any evidence she can use to rid her school of Miss Brodie who she suspects (rightly) of being a malign influence.
“She likes her wee drink, I’m sure. After all, it’s nobody business, so long as it doesn’t affect her work and you girls.”
“She doesn’t drink,” said Sandy, “except for sherry on her birthday, half a bottle between the seven of us.”
Miss Mackay could be observed mentally scoring drink off her list of things against Miss Brodie.