Edinburgh: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace


I’ve only been to Edinburgh once, for a conference, and I roamed around for days, attended some weird and fabulous plays as part of the Fringe Festival, and nothing bad befell me, unlike my character Anne in Inside.

Edinburgh lives in my imagination mostly as the setting for one of my favorite books of all time, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, a novel whose indelible characters and spiraling narrative energy have inspired me for years.

It is also bracingly funny and smart.  If you haven’t read it yet, you should do so immediately.  There is no other character in literature like Miss Jean Brodie, the Scottish teacher in her prime, and no writer as fearlessly caustic as Spark.

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life,” says Miss Jean Brodie, a testimony borne out both by her effect on the novel’s characters, and on me, as a reader.

The book’s formal inventiveness (it races around in time) taught me a lot about structure.  Even more important, at various dark moments I have reread it and it never fails to make me laugh.  “Who opened the window?” Miss Jean Brodie asks.  “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar.”

If we were all as opinionated and frank as Miss Jean Brodie, the world might be even more terrifying than it already is, but surely it would also be more entertaining.  As she says to a student: “Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.”

This is a picture that Theodora Ziolkowski, daughter of my friend and colleague Lee Upton, took on her own trip to Edinburgh:




Thanks to Theodora for permission to include the photo here.


  • From the highly acclaimed author of The Missing Person and Babylon and Other Stories, a resonant novel of entwined lives and a woman with an unsettling ability to broach the innermost dynamics of the people around her.

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