The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961)
What it’s about: Jean Brodie, a charismatic and unconventional teacher at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh, forms a close bond with six girls in her junior class, whom she dubs “la crème de la crème” and regales with stories of her love affairs, her “prime” and her admiration for Fascism. As the Brodie Set reach adolescence, Miss Brodie encourages the beautiful Rose to sleep with the school’s art teacher, and the hapless Mary McGregor to join the Spanish Revolution, with mostly disastrous results. Sandy, the cleverest and most trusted of the group, decides to put a stop to Miss Brodie and tells the school headmistress of Miss Brodie’s Fascist leanings. Dismissed from the school and alone, Miss Brodie dies soon afterwards, never knowing which of her girls betrayed her. Sandy becomes a nun, reflecting later that Miss Brodie’s influence, while often dangerous, was instrumental in her own development as a free-thinking woman.
Why it’s a classic: Small but perfectly formed, Spark’s novella is a satirical masterpiece: a vivid portrait of an eccentric, funny and complicated woman, a deeply unsentimental female coming-of-age story, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked romanticism and malign influences on the young. Though it’s now impossible to separate the fictional Jean Brodie from Maggie Smith’s magnificently over-the-top portrayal in the 1969 film, Spark’s text is still a thoroughly absorbing read. Miss Brodie is a singularly strange creation – part Fascist, part anarchist, the resident rebel teacher in a conservative school whose lessons are a strange mix of self-determination (she makes a memorably witty critique of “team spirit”) and narcissistic projections of her romantic fantasies. From some angles, Miss Brodie could be a tragic Eleanor Rigby figure: terminally single and fatally misplaced in a hostile environment, wittering away about her “prime”, and eventually the victim of her own self-delusion. She resists our pity by her enthusiastic contempt for her middle-class environment, and some spectacularly withering assessments of the mere mortals in her orbit. “Where there is no vision,” Miss Brodie had assured them, “the people perish. Eunice, come and do a somersault in order that we may have comic relief.”
While neither Spark nor her heroine would have defined themselves as feminists, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie should be hailed as a feminist classic, for its forensic focus on power dynamics between women, its strategic disinterest in men (who hover around the margins of an all-female environment) and especially for its portrayal of women who are complicated, flawed and not conventionally “likeable”. Though most of Miss Brodie’s talk is putatively about men, the true interest of the girls – at least as demonstrated by Sandy -is the development of an independent point-of-view, and a woman’s right to determine her own destiny, even if it leads to ruin – or a convent.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet bigger than Mussolini’s goose-stepping Fascisti. What a deliciously funny and deeply strange book this is. Despite its comedy, this is a very dark story, and as with many satires, it’s often difficult to know exactly who or what Spark’s target is. Miss Brodie stands in glorious defiance to the Calvinist primness of middle-class Scots society, but she’s hardly the cheerily inspirational teacher of stories like To Sir With Love or Dead Poets’ Society. Spark strategically repeats Miss Brodie’s sayings about her “prime” until they become clichés, exposing the character’s romantic silliness and her unreliability as a moral vantage point. This leaves Sandy as the book’s “heroine”, but even she is viewed unsympathetically (again, Spark repeats descriptions of her “abnormally small eyes”), and her decision to become a nun is suggested as a cowardly retreat from the world of sex that Miss Brodie so dangerously inhabits. The true heroine is Spark herself – her prose tart as lemon juice, and an expertly-steered narrative that careers back and forward in time, giving everything away in advance but strangely pulling us closer to her wittily-observed world.
Quotable Quote: “These are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that. Here is my tram car. I daresay I’ll not get a seat. This is nineteen-thirty-six. The age of chivalry is past.”