27 May 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Oh the joy of a second-hand bookshop, in close proximity to a university, once a term is complete.  And so there we were, a couple of weeks ago, browsing the shelves of BMV Books on Bloor, stuffed with required reading that had been swiftly sold off.  There were at least sixteen copies of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in three different editions creating a visual banner screaming 'Read Me!'.

My impression of this story was formed by the images usually associated with it...a teacher surrounded by her pupils.  I was expecting childhood hijinks admonished by stern words from a Scottish authoritarian who would shape the young ladies into stellar examples of womanhood.  This feeble theory of alchemy couldn't have been more wrong.

   'By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth forn, 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.'

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls employs Miss Brodie to educate young girls of an impressionable age.  The world is full of mystery to eleven year old children during the 1930s, so they are in thrall to their teacher.  Miss Brodie's tales of romance with a soldier who died in Flanders Fields during the Great War, religion, art and politics (particularly Fascism) are conducted in court-like sessions.  Books are placed at the ready in preparation of a surprise visit by the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, who would like Miss Brodie to resign in favour of a 'progressive' school.

At the beginning, I felt Miss Brodie's adoration by her pupils was understandable, but as the girls grew into their teen years the situation became more sinister.  Miss Brodie covets the adoration of those who are easily manipulated.  When she slyly plants the idea that one student, being the sort who is 'full of sex', is capable of an affair, my image of Miss Brodie was turned upside down.  In an arrangement that would be something of an affair by proxy, as Miss Brodie considers Mr Lloyd to be the love of her life, Jean Brodie also sets up another young pupil to report back any news surrounding any trysts.

The term 'prime' is applied many times by Miss Brodie and, through imitation, by her pupils.  I can only imagine the meaning intended is that you are at the top of your game, and a dangerous game is being played by Miss Brodie.  But then there comes a fall when Miss Brodie is betrayed.

I have to admit that early in the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Why was this seemingly benign story so highly esteemed?  Then the realization that Miss Jean Brodie could be economical with the truth and capable of manipulating those under her care sank in.  I was gripped.  And steering girls in their middle teen years toward sex and collusion is only part of the horror, another student eager to please Miss Brodie joins the conflict of the Spanish Civil War with devastating consequences.   

Muriel Spark has accomplished much in what is barely more than a novella, and left me just a tiny bit unsettled.  Read it!

Poise by John Duncan Fergusson (1874 - 1961)


  1. Unsettling is a good word for this one. It's by far my favourite thing that Spark wrote for just that reason.

  2. Like a sunny drive in the countryside that takes you into a tornado! I worked with a woman from Scotland yesterday and brought up the topic of this book. She laughed and gave me a wink when I mentioned how the turn of events caught me off guard. It's her favourite Spark novel as well!

  3. Thanks for the nudge. I'll add it to my teetering TBR pile.

    1. You're welcome, Susan! It's a slim book so your tbr pile shouldn't be in too much danger....