1961. HarperPerennial. Paperback. 187 pages.
From: the public library
In a nutshell:
Miss Jean Brodie is a charismatic teacher of Juniors at an all-girls’ school in Edinburgh. Most of the book’s events takes place in the 1930’s although the book jumps around in time. Miss Brodie has cultivated a group of six girls, nicknamed the Brodie set by other disdainful teachers. She inculcates the girls with her own opinions, takes them on outings, and tells the girls that the administration is trying to kick her out. Early on, the book tells us that Miss Brodie was, in the end, betrayed by one of the Brodie set and it’s not until near the end that the reasons for the betrayal are made clear. (The identity of the betrayer is revealed about a third of the way through.)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a book whose play and film versions have made it a pop culture reference. So I knew, even without having seen the film or play, that the book was about a charismatic teacher and her special group of students and that she was betrayed in some manner. But really, other than that, I was a blank slate going into my reading of Muriel Spark’s book.
The writing in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is very economical. At first, I thought that maybe it was too slight, especially in the way that Spark describes the six girls. Each girl is assigned one or two signature traits by which she is introduced at the start of the novel. For example, one is known for sex-appeal, another for her stupidity, and another is known for her small eyes. Each girl and her signature trait are forever coupled together for the rest of the story, repeated again and again. This could be annoying, but by the end of the book, I was convinced that what Spark was portraying was the reductive nature of others. Sandy Stranger is the girl with the small eyes, which physical trait is mentioned constantly. But the story is told mostly from her perspective, and so the reader is privy to her interior life in a way that the other characters are not. The other characters may have reduced her to “the girl with the small eyes” but the reader knows better.
What I also liked about Spark’s economical writing is that the crucial reason for the betrayal of Miss Jean Brodie is mentioned just once and not in a “big reveal” sort of way. Several strands of the story come together in the moment of the betrayal but Spark isn’t showy about it, because she doesn’t need to be. I felt rather respected as a reader in that way. The betrayal scene is definitely my favorite part, because the slow burn of the rest of the novel so nicely comes to fruition.
The tone of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is slightly aloof, but also funny. The following excerpt is from Sandy’s tenth birthday tea party with her best friend Jenny. (When the conversation mentions “prime”, it is referencing the fact that Miss Brodie often asserts that she is in the prime of her life.)
“Yes, they are always saying that,” Jenny said. “They say, make the most of your schooldays because you never know what lies ahead of you.”
“Miss Brodie says prime is best,” Sandy said.
“Yes, but she never got married like our mothers and fathers.”
“They don’t have primes,” said Sandy.
“They have sexual intercourse,” Jenny said.
The little girls paused, because this was still a stupendous thought, and one which they had only lately lit upon; the very phrase and its meaning were new. It was quite unbelievable.
[The girls have some more conversation on the subject which I’m skipping so that the excerpt is not quite as long.]
Then Jenny said, “You do it on the spur of the moment. That’s how it happens.”
Jenny was a reliable source of information, because a girl employed by her father in his grocer shop had recently been found to be pregnant, and Jenny had picked up some fragments of the ensuing fuss. Having confided her finds to Sandy, they had embarked on a course of research which they called “research,” piecing together clues from remembered conversations illicitly overheard, and passages from the big dictionaries.
“It all happens in a flash,” Jenny said. “It happened to Teenie when she was out walking at Puddocky with her boy friend. Then they had to get married.”
“You would think the urge would have passed by the time she got her clothes off,” Sandy said. By “clothes,” she definitely meant to imply knickers, but “knickers” was rude in this scientific context.
“Yes, that’s what I can’t understand,” said Jenny.
As they get older, this cute naivete does slowly slip away, not just about this subject but other aspects of life as well.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a good and quick read. I’m not sure it’s a book I love necessarily and I wonder if I’ll think much about it in the future, but I went in with no expectations one way or the other and was left impressed.
Excerpts of others’ reviews:
Bibliographing – “This novel has some of the most effective flash-forwards I’ve ever read. But this chronological omniscience is tempered by impressive control over perspective.”
Booking in Heels – “Miss Brodie herself, a middle-aged individual with romantic ideals and mildly Fascist leanings, is an extraordinary feat of characterisation. I fully expect to see her walking down the street towards me tomorrow, she seems that real.”
The Mookse and the Gripes – “I could sense the depth of psychological insight and I could capture some of the themes, but nothing came to life. I didn’t care about the characters, neither wishing them well or ill, though I enjoyed watching them interact in their terribly flawed lives.”
9 responses to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark”
This one is on my wishlist but it’s also a book I consistently forget to want. Thanks for a wonderful review to remind me. 🙂
I wasn’t overly keen on this book. It was okay, but not enough to make me read more of Spark’s work.
Love your observation about the reductive nature of others. I also think that was Spark’s purpose in what could be misconstrued as a simplistic tool for character exposition. One of the things I love about Spark’s writing is the unsaid. So powerful.
I really admire her prose as well; it’s not always the kind of writing that I crave, but when I do, Muriel Spark’s writing fits the bill exactly. This is one that I would like to re-read, just to see what I missed the first time.
I read this a few years ago after reading some of Spark’s other works, and really liked it. She has such a unique style and worldview, and sometimes can be downright creepy. Have you read The Driver’s Seat?
Nice review, Christy! Glad to know that you liked this book. I have read mixed reviews of it, but after reading your review, I am getting tempted to read it. In some ways the story reminds me of ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt. Have you read this book?
Andi – This one wasn’t even on my official to-read list, but I saw it on the library shelf and thought, maybe I should find out what this well-known title is really about.
sam – I don’t think you’re alone in that reaction. I’m not even sure I know the titles of any other Spark book, but if I liked this one, I guess I should see what others are out there.
Frances – “the unsaid” is exactly what I liked – that’s the right way to put it.
Buried in Print – It’s a book that I think would reward a re-read.
Kerry – This was my first Spark book and I actually don’t know that I knew any other titles, so thanks for mentioning the Driver’s Seat. You mentioned Spark could be creepy and I like creepy.
Vishy – Yes, I read The Secret History last year and actually think I read someone comparing Tartt’s book to Spark’s, in terms of plot similarity – although they are different in a lot of other ways. I think that comparison planted the seed of my interest in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
There’s a ‘Muriel Spark’ week coming up in April and I have not read her yet so on the lookout for one of hers to begin with. Thanks for the timely review.
Great review! DO see the movie; it was well-done. Maggie Smith was perfect.