Book Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 
by Muriel Spark 
1961
Audiobook narrated by Nadia May 
3 hours, 58 minutes

We’ve all had a teacher like Jean Brodie.

You know the type: the kind of teacher who you remember more for his or her personality and style (usually unconventional) rather than the academic lessons that were actually taught in the classroom.

The sort of teacher whose love life is gossip fodder.

The one who is considered a bit of a troublemaker by the administration.

That’s Miss Brodie, who is fond of frequently reminding her “set” (a group of six students at the prestigious Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland) that she is “in her prime” and that they are the “creme de la creme.”

She also has a penchant for informing Mary, Rose, Eunice, Jenny, Monica, and Sandy

“on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorised curriculum, as the headmistress said, and useless to the school as a school. These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word ‘menarche’; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Bronte and of Miss Jean Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results, more or less.

“By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth form, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking. They had no team spirit and very little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Jean Brodie. She still taught in the Junior department. She was held in great suspicion.” (pg. 1-2)

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in 1930, but has quick flashbacks in time – sometimes within the same paragraph. (I listened to this in audio, which made these flashbacks extra confusing, but having a print copy as reference definitely helped.) In one sentence, we’re reading about one of the adult girls visiting Miss Brodie in the retirement home or taking flowers to her grave – and in the next, we’re right back in the classroom where Miss Brodie is reminding her students on what subject they’re supposed to be studying if “an intruder” (i.e., the headmistress – not the type of intruder that we so tragically equate with schools these days) comes into the room.

“Hold up your books,” said Miss Brodie quite often that autumn, “prop them up in your hands, in case of intruders. If there are any intruders, we are doing our history lesson…our poetry… English grammar.”

The small girls held up their books with their eyes not on them, but on Miss Brodie.

“Meantime I will tell you about my last summer holiday in Egypt…I will tell you about care of the skin, and of the hands…about the Frenchman I met in the train to Biarritz…and I must tell you about the Italian paintings I saw. Who is the greatest Italian painter?” (pg. 7)

Yeah, you can see why Miss Brodie would be a memorable teacher – and also why she would hold the belief “[g]ive me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” (pg. 6)

Published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is considered a classic. I can see why. For starters, Jean Brodie is a fascinating, complex, and narcissistic character – but also a sad, lonely, and paranoid one. She’s obsessed with youth – hence the constant emphasis on being in “her prime.” (We don’t get an exact age that this is supposed to represent. We do know that her prime ended a year before she turned sixty.)

“I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” (pg. 8)

Miss Brodie is also obsessed with sex – particularly in regard to her students. She speculates on whether they’ve had intercourse and congratulates them on such, whether or not the deed has been done. (Mind you, they are only tweens and teens throughout the years that the novella takes place.) One of the students, Rose, is repeatedly characterized as “famous for sex” and Miss Brodie even refers to her as such.

Miss Brodie would have been all over Facebook (and most likely, the front page news).

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an intriguing – if not daring and shocking for its day – back-to-school read that looks at several societal issues, both in the context of the 1930s, the 1960s and now. It leaves the reader with many questions, the least of which is wondering just how fast Miss Brodie would be fired today.

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