Tag: teachers


Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan

June 26th, 2016 — 7:42pm

47762Lois Duncan died last week at the age of 82. Lois Duncan was a major part of my reading life in middle and high school, and I am still haunted by the mystery surrounding her daughter’s death.

To celebrate Lois Duncan’s life and literature, I went to the library to re-read some of her classics, including Gallows Hill, Don’t Look Behind You, and
Daughters of Eve
. I was curious to see if they were as great and suspenseful as I remember.

Daughters of Eve was published in 1979 and reminds me of a twisted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The group of girls being influenced by an older teacher/mentor are a group of ten high school juniors and seniors in Modesta, Michigan, a town that seems to be in a bit of a 1950s time loop, in which women exist only to serve the men — in the opening scenes, Ruth Grange has to rush home to take care of the cooking and cleaning of the house and the care for her younger brother, because her parents are working to save money for her two older brothers’ college funds, while the older brothers in question don’t left a finger to help around the house. Many of the girls have mothers who are subservient to their husbands; or worse, in the case of Jane Rheardon, whose father regularly beats her mother. The name of the town is a reference to modesty, after all, which is how all of the men seem to want the women and girls to live.

The Daughters of Eve, the girls’ club that only has ten members who are pledged to a “spirit of sisterhood — and to the warmth of friendship. I promise to do my best — as a member of the Daughters of Eve — to follow the code of loyalty, love and service — laid out for womankind since time’s beginning — and to divulge to no one words spoken in confidence — within this sacred circle.” All of that sounds pretty great, and the book begins with the girls inducting three new members, Ruth, Jane, and Laura Snow, who is overweight and who the new advisor, Irene Stark, wants included in the club. During their first meetings, one of the girls, Tammy Carncross, gets a premonition of candles dripping with blood and runs out of the meeting, after telling the girls that something terrible is going to happen with the girls this year! Tammy provides the backstory that she gets premonitions and that’s totally normal, even her parents trust her visions. So there’s that.

As the girls meet and attend classes, we find out that each of the girls is somehow a victim to a man — Ruth is a slave to her brothers, Jane’s father hits her mother, Fran Schneider is competing in a science competition that is always won by a boy, Ann Whitten is in love with a local farmer who wants to marry her, which means she wouldn’t go off to college, Kelly Johnson’s parents are getting divorced because her father is having an affair, Paula Brummell is an athlete in a school that spends all of their money on boys sports, Bambi Ellis is a gorgeous model whose boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex, and when Bambi refuses to “put out”, the boy picks up Laura Snow and uses her for sex.

Irene Stark tells the girls that it is indeed a man’s world.

Irene shares a story about a friend that she had who was dating a coach that she taught with at her previous school; her friend got her masters degree to become an assistant principal, but when it came time to hire a new principal, the coach was hired — because after all, what man wants to date a woman who makes more money than him? Spoiler alert — Irene is the friend! Shock! Awe! After she was passed over for the job, she took the teaching job at Modesta and takes it upon herself to let the girls know how terrible men are.

Some of the points that Irene makes are still topical. At one point, one of the girls says, “Not all men“:

“There have been a lot of women in this country who have been sleeping,” Irene Stark said quietly. The low, strong voice broke though the chatter and brought sudden silence as the girls turned to stare at their sponsor, startled by the intensity of her expression. “Like Ruth’s mother, these are nice women, quiet gentle women, who have grown from being dutiful daughters to being dutiful wives and mothers. They’ve laid themselves out flat for men to walk on, because all their lives they’ve been led to believe that this is what women are supposed to do. Back in seventeen seventy-six, when patriots were demanding a Declaration of Independence, John Adams’s wife, Abigail, wrote to him in Philadelphia saying, ‘Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.’ Adams wrote back to her, calling her ‘saucy,’ and saying, ‘Depend upon it we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.’ Times may have changed in many ways, but human nature hasn’t. Today’s men feel exactly the same way. They’re afraid to let the whip slip from their hands.”

“Not all men,” Ann said frowning. “Dave isn’t like that, and neither is my father.”

Ann, you ignorant slut.

Slowly, Irene influences the girls in ways that turns them against the men in their lives. When Ann tells Irene that she is going to marry Dave the Farmer, Irene gets Ann accepted to art school. The Daughters of Eve hold a fundraiser for money for the athletic department and tell the principal that the money can only be used for a girls soccer team. When Laura finds out that Peter has been using her for sex and has no intention of dating her, she takes a handful of sleeping pills; the girls blindfold him and shave off all of his hair. When Fran’s science experiment is passed over for a male student, the girls destroy the boy’s experiment and the science teacher’s classroom — despite the fact that Fran would have been disqualified because she was using mice in her experiment. Kelly’s father leaves her mother for another woman, which turns her very angry towards all men. Laura recovers from her overdose and moves away from the school.

Tammy realizes that the premonition that she had in the beginning of the year is about Irene and all of the negative feelings towards men she has brought out in the girls — her father was the science teacher whose room was destroyed. She confronts Irene, who tells her that all men deserve to be punished for the wrongs that they have committed against women, and Tammy quits the Daughters of Eve.

In the final chapter, Jane returns home from Irene’s apartment, where she’s been staying while her mother is in the hospital. Her father is at the house and interrogates her about where she’s been. Jane tells him that she knows that he hits her mother, which he denies. She tells him that the Daughters of Eve has ways of making men pay for what they’ve done, and he tells her that he’s going to report Irene to the authorities and make Jane quit the club. He then tells her to go to the kitchen to make him dinner. Jane goes to the kitchen, picks up her mother’s cast iron skillet, returns to the living room, where she realizes everything reflects her father — there are no traces of her mother in the room. She picks up the skillet and smashes it with all of her strength on to the top of her father’s head.

The book ends with an update on the girls three years later. Most of the girls are either in college or are housewives — Ann married Dave and didn’t go to the art school Irene picked out for her. Fran, Tammy, and Kelly are attending a university, Ann, Ruth, and Laura are housewives with children, and Paula and Bambi are working. Jane is a patient at the State Mental Hospital of Michigan. Irene Stark is the principal of Modesta High School and is still the advisor of the Daughters of Eve.

As I was reading this, I was trying to think of what the reception of this book must have been when it came out in 1979 — keep in mind that this is a book for young adults, and it has not only feminist undertones, but teenagers having sex and talking about it. At one point, Ann goes to Irene to tell her that she’s pregnant, and Irene urges her to get an abortion so she can go to art school and not throw her life away. Pretty heavy stuff for 1979, considering that in 2016 those are taboo topics for teachers. Lois Duncan had five children (three daughters and two sons) and part of me wonders if this was written with them in mind — not only to her girls but to her boys as well. There is a lot in the media lately about rape culture and the responsibility that we have to teach our boys to respect women, not just teaching our girls how to act/dress to not get unwanted attention and possibly be raped. I was thinking of the Stanford case, especially when the girls retaliated against the boy who used Laura for sex when Bambi wouldn’t have sex with him.

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As Lois Duncan is known for her suspenseful books, this book falls short — Tammy’s premonitions are the only supernatural/suspenseful part of the story, so it’s almost as if she turned in the novel with its feminist message and the editor insisted on some sort of mystery so it can go on the same shelf as I Know What You Did Last Summer. I mean, look at this cover.

You win again, editors.

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76. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

January 6th, 2011 — 3:04pm

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in The New Yorker magazine before being published as a novel in 1961. It takes place at a school in 1930s Scotland and is told through the eyes of the female students under the tutelage of Miss Jean Brodie.

The novel takes place at the Marcia Blaine School and focuses on a group of six girls who are assigned to Miss Brodie’s class. The “prime” of the title refers to Miss Brodie declaring that she is in the “prime of her life.” The narration switches between the chronological story of their schoolhood and a series of flashforwards. The girls are influenced by Miss Brodie, who believes that she is obligated to teach them more than the curriculum. Lessons range anywhere from history to politics (specifically the goings-on of Europe and Spain) to her love life. The flashforwards reveal that one of the girls betrayed Miss Brodie and was a catalyst to the termination of her job, but she never finds out which of the girls it was.

The girls are Sandy Stranger, who is famous for her vowel sounds and “insight but no instinct”, Rose Stanley, who is famous for sex (and in contrast to Sandy is told that she has “instinct but no insight”), Monica Douglas, who is famous for mathematics and her anger, Jenny Gray, who is famous for her beauty, Eunice Gardiner, who is famous for her gymnastics and glorious swimming, and Mary MacGregor, who acts as Miss Brodie’s scapegoat and meekly accepts the blame for whatever is going on.

Throughout the novel, Miss Brodie carries on affairs with two of the male teachers at the school, the singing teacher, Mr. Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed war veteran Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd is a married Roman Catholic man with six children. Oops. Both of the men profess that they love Miss Brodie, while she reveals that she only loves Mr Lloyd. Miss Brodie never acts on her love for Mr. Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica, one of the students. She decides that a bachelor makes a more suitable mate, as a wife and six kids tends to get in the way, so she carries on a sexual relationship with Mr. Lowther. Sandy, one of the main points of view in the story, begins to become disillusioned with Miss Brodie.

The girls move on to the Senior school, though they still stick together and identify themselves as “the Brodie set.” Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. Meanwhile, the headmistress, Miss Mackay, tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. Miss Mackay had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a “progressive” school; Miss Brodie declined to move.

Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose should have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr. Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Mr. Lloyd has taken to inviting the Brodie girls to sit for him to paint their portraits, but each of their faces looks like Miss Brodie. I don’t think there’s a single teacher in this book who maintains a proper student/teacher relationship. Urging your student to have an affair with a man that you love is just creepy.

Another student, Joyce Emily, tries to join the Brodie set but the girls aren’t really having it. Miss Brodie takes Joyce Emily under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side. She does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is traveling in is attacked.

The Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit school before graduating, Mary became a typist and Jenny pursued a career in acting. Eunice became a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy has an affair with Mr. Lloyd the summer after she graduates, while his wife and children are away on vacation.

After the summer, Sandy ends the affair with Mr. Lloyd, but she adopts his Roman Catholic religion and becomes a nun. Before she becomes a nun, she meets with Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Miss Brodie. She suggests Miss Mackay try accusing Miss Brodie of fascism based ont he conversations she had with the girls, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment will Miss Brodie be able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her.

Sandy, who is now known as Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and the author of “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”, maintains that “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, “Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?”

Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) in the 1967 movie

Sandy said: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

The way the narration is set up is rather unique — you know from the beginning of the story that Miss Brodie is betrayed, even though sequentially it happens at the end of the girls’ school years. The novel also doesn’t attempt to hide the flaws of any of the characters, making them appear more human. There isn’t a definite hero to the book.

The affect that teachers have on students is at the centerpoint of the novel. Miss Brodie claims that she is a teacher who states that if she is given a girl at an “impressionable age then she is mine for life.” In fact, she does go on to influence the girls beyond the realm of the classroom, both when they are in school and when they are living their lives. Sandy particularly feels the reach of Miss Brodie beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. She becomes a nun and shuts herself down to anything Brodie-esque, which shows that she is still affected by Miss Brodie. Miss Brodie draws the girls close to herself as Calvinists believe God elects few to salvation, as Sandy observes. This leads Sandy to publicly reject Calvinism in place of Catholicism. A few of the girls die as a casual result of Miss Brodie’s influence on their lives.

I can’t think of any teachers who have had that sort of an effect on me, and I certainly can’t think of any students whom I’ve affected. Influence is a funny thing. Things that you wouldn’t assume to be influential can sometimes emerge later as a large reason as to a significant life choice. However, the major moral of the story : if a teacher tells you to have an affair with someone, just say no. And ew.

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