The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

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42 thoughts on “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

  1. What a fabulous review, FictionFan. And I agree; Jean Brodie is such a brilliantly fleshed-out character. I think that’s part of what makes her so appealing, even though she is, as you say, badly flawed. And it’s so interesting to see how her students feelings about her change over time. Not that I have the time, but I ought to re-read this one…

    • Thank you, Margot! 😀 Yes, I think the pupils are in some ways more interesting than Miss Brodie herself. And I loved the way she told us what happened to them in their future – an odd device, but it worked in this one. Oh, it’s only short – you could fit it in easily… 😉

    • Thank you! Interesting – I was wondering whether this, as her best known, would be better than the rest, so it’s good to know you think some of the others surpass it.

    • Thank you! 😀 I rewatched the movie a couple of nights ago after I’d finished the book. It’s a film I’ve always loved, but actually it misses quite a lot of the subtlety of the book. Still great, though!

  2. Fantastic review made extra special by the appearance of Maggie Smith. I haven’t read any Muriel Sparks yet, but I know I should, the sooner the better. And this seems like the perfect place to start.

    • Thank you! 😀 Maggie Smith was born to play Miss Brodie! So much so that I still think she’s Miss Brodie in whatever she plays, poor woman. 😉 For some reason, I haven’t read Spark before either – shameful given her status as a Scottish great – but I’m certainly looking forward to reading more now. Hope you enjoy this one, when you get to it.

  3. What a great review! So much in such a slim novel. I have this in my possession and intend to get to it sooner rather than later. I’ve never read Spark before so I know I have a treat in store for me. And then I’ll watch the film!

    • Thank you! 😀 Oh, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, then! I’ve always loved the film, and rewatched it a couple of nights ago after I’d read the book. It’s still great, but it misses some of the subtlety of the book – definitely read the book first!

    • Thank you! 😀 It’s quite short, so probably only takes about twice as long to read the book as watching the film. The film is great, too, though – I recommend either… or both! 😀

  4. What a brilliant review, I completely agree with you! I loved the film, but the book is really clever with its timeline and the characters so much more complicated. As you say no-one is fully likeable and yet we sympathise, to some extent, with them all.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I rewatched the film a couple of nights ago after reading the book, and though I still think it’s great (especially Maggie Smith) it doesn’t catch all the subtleties of the book. If I manage to fit it in, I might do a film/book comparison.

  5. Oh my gosh – I can’t wait to read this! It’s on my classics list too and with this being Muriel Spark’s centenary, I have every reason to get it read this year. I saw the film not all that long ago – long ago enough that it’s blurred slightly and the book, courtesy of your exhilarating prose, comes across quite differently. Which makes me want to read it all the more. Another stonking review FF, thank you! 🙂

    • Aw, thank you, Sandra! 😀 Oh, good, I’m glad it’s on your list! I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I rewatched the film a couple of nights ago after reading the book. I’ve always loved it and still think it’s great (especially Maggie Smith), but it doesn’t quite catch all the subtleties of the book, I felt. I’m kinda intending to do a film/book comparison if I ever catch up with myself!

  6. Great review FF, I hadn’t considered before that Miss Brodie’s isn’t quite unconventional enough but I think you’re right. Like Ali, there are other Sparks I like even more, so I hope you enjoy any further reading of her!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I felt in the end she felt she had to cling to her respectability, whatever the personal cost. Oh, that’s good to hear! When an author is so well known for a particular book, I’m always a bit worried her others might not match up. I’m looking forward to exploring further…

  7. I suspect I haven’t heard of this book before because I’m Canadian, but it does sound like a great read so I can see why it’s a classic on your side of the pond. I find it’s difficult for authors to successfully pull off the whole ‘jumping backward and forward in time’ thing, in fact I’m reading a book right now that is currently failing at that.

    • It’s one of those books that everyone knows over here, even if they haven’t read it (like me!), mainly because of the great film version. But I’m glad I finally read the book because it has lots of subtleties the film doesn’t quite catch. Yes, she does it really interestingly – she kind of slides around in time, even within a paragraph – looking ahead to the future or revealing a bit of the past. It’s hard to describe – you’ll just have to read it… 😉

  8. Alrighty, then. A review can’t get much better than this. And Maggie Smith? Well, perhaps I’ll need to see the movie, too. Another one to add to the pile.

    As an aside, I just saw Andrew Goldsworthy’s latest film, Leaning into the Wind. The man’s work is stunning. We are lucky to have some of his sculptures here in San Francisco. But when he’s crawling through the shrubbery, he does seem a bit mad—in a good way, though.

    • Why, thank you! 😀 The movie is excellent too, but loses a few of the subtleties of the book, I think. However… Maggie Smith!

      I’m ashamed to say I don’t really know his work, but the trailer looks fascinating. I must look out for it…

    • The role was made for Maggie Smith! I can’t think of Miss Brodie except as her. I thought I had read the book before but realised as soon as I started it that I hadn’t – just seen the movie a million times…

  9. You’ve made me want to run out and get this book right away! But with great restraint, instead, I looked it up at the library and found just the one book by Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in the backup collection. Does this mean no one ever asks for it anymore? Anyway, I will be the one to ask someone to go down into the basement and scrounge it up for me!
    Also, I didn’t know Muriel Sparks was from Scotland! Have you read any of her others? She seems to have quite a few!

    • What a shame it’s hidden away, but I suspect the same might be true in Scottish libraries. Though this year is the centenary of her birth so all her books are being reissued and there’s been some hype which might get more people reading her again. No I’m ashamed to say this was my first – I’m ridiculously under-read in Scottish literature. Trying to do better, though! I do hope you enjoy this one – I think you will! 😀

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