The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark
This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!
I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.
Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.
Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.
Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.
Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.
Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.
Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.
The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.
I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.
First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.