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[518] The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

“Her prime of life. A teacher of mine, she was full of culture. She was an Edinburgh Festival all on her own. She used to give us teas at her flat and tell us about her prime. ” (Ch.2, p.26)

Early 1930s, in Edinburgh, at the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a teacher named Miss Jean Brodie is truly different from the rest of the faculty. SHe is unmistakably and outspokenly in her prime. She has a passion for art and culture, proclaiming that “safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.” (7) She is a preposterous woman who selects her elite group, seizes upon these docile, impressionable 12 year olds (whose parents she trusts will not lodge complaints) and influences them with her over-romanticized worldview. She spins tales about everything irrelevant to the curriculum. Her unorthodox teaching method without doubt raises many eye-brows and sets her at a disadvantage with the headmistress.

There were two exceptions on the staff, who felt neither resentment nor indifference towards Miss Brodie, but were, on the contrary, her supporters on every count. One of these was Mr. Gordon Lowther, the singing master for the whole school, Junior and Senior. The other was Mr. Teddy Lloyd, the Senior girls’ art master. They were the only men on the staff. Both were already a little in love with Miss Brodie . . . (Ch.3, p.49-50)

The six girls Miss Brodie singles out for her special pruning are known as the Brodie set. They are the most remarkable and brightest girls in spite of their aloofness. Under the calculating scheme of the headmistress, who sets her heart in breaking the set with a single stroke, the girls are assigned to different houses when they reach Senior school, for team spirit will cut across their individualism. Although these girls have little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Miss Brodie, later in life they would reflect that the first years with their progressive teacher have been some of the happiest time of their life.

Thus the narrative communicates back and forth in time, in sparing but brief omniscient interruptions, informing readers what will become of the Brodie girls: Mary will die young; Monica becomes a mathematician; Sandy, Miss Brodie’s betrayer, will become a nun; others will marry stolidly.

It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover, and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair. (Ch.5, p.116)

Obviously Spark’s characterization is devoutly starved. Miss Brodie, outlandish and eccentric, is reduced to a collection of aphorisms throughout the novel. She is, in other words, not really known to readers, who are no more than her pupils in terms of knowing her. What they know about her—her attraction to the married art master, whom she renounces, and the affair with the bachelor music teacher, is what the headmistress craves to glean in order to discredit Miss Brodie.

This is a brilliant novel, funny and poignant at the same time. Brodie is a rebel, her influence malign. But the novel leaves the feeling that something unfulfilled and even desperate about her—for she is obviously ahead of her time and her progressiveness renders her alone. In spite of her folly, she has indubitably left her mark in the girls. Her defective sense of self-criticism has not been without its beneficient and enlarging effects.

137 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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5 Responses

  1. Hi there, Matthew..

    I just stumbled upon your blog a few days ago. I like the way you review books. Now, I’m going to make you blog as a reference to be a better book blogger.

    This is not a popular book, but it sounds really interesting.

    -CJ @ Coffee N Crackers
    My Latest Review
    My Latest Post

    • Thank you so much for the kind words. I apologize for the late response. It always makes my day when readers would be spurred by reading more or writing about books. :)

  2. Have you seen Dame Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie version over four decades ago, anyway?

  3. […] [518] The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark […]

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