October 14: On this day in 1961 Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” was published in The New Yorker, an expanded version appearing in book form the following year. In her 1993 autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, Dame Spark confirms that Miss Christina Kay, one of her teachers at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls in Edinburgh, was the model for her flamboyant and domineering Miss Brodie. Spark reprints and agrees with this letter from her best friend, one of many classmates who wrote to her when the novel appeared:
Surely 75% is Miss Kay? Dear Miss Kay! of the cropped iron grey hair with fringe (and heavy black moustache!) and undisputable admiration for Il Duce. Hers was the expression crème de la crème — hers the revealing extra lessons on art and music that stay with me yet. She it was who took us both (who were especial favourites of hers? — part of the as yet unborn Brodie Set) to see Pavlova’s last performance at the Empire Theatre. Who took us to afternoon teas at McVities.
However, as far as the crème knew, Miss Kay did not have an affair with the singing master, and so the girls did not imagine sending him, on her behalf, notes which read, “Allow me to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.” Also, Spark remembers, the real teacher would have overmatched Miss Brodie even in her prime: “If she could have met ‘Miss Brodie,’ Miss Kay would have put the fictional character firmly in her place.” Miss Kay also put Spark in her place: Spark began to write while still one of Miss Kay’s students, and when she showed her teacher her work she was pronounced a writer in such emphatic terms that “I felt I had hardly much choice in the matter.”
Maggie Smith won an Oscar for her Jean Brodie role in the 1969 movie. Sixteen years later, she was nominated for her supporting role as Miss Bartlett in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, published on this day in 1908. As the very British and pushy chaperone to Lucy Honeychurch in Florence, Miss Bartlett, too, is formidable, but she is overmatched. In Chapter 1, young George Emerson sets Lucy thinking with the large question mark he has hung over the washstand; in the next chapter (“In Santa Croce, with No Baedeker”), George’s father urges Lucy to befriend his son, and un-British herself:
But let yourself go. You are inclined to get muddled, if I may judge from last night. Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them. By understanding George you may learn to understand yourself. It will be good for both of you.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.