The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Published in 1961, Spark’s delicious tale of a teacher who lives vicariously through her selected pupils was our book group’s choice this month.
Our discussions were wide-ranging, but we started off by chatting about how real Miss Brodie was – and it turned out that most of us – certainly the older members of our group who were educated in the later 60s through 80s had had a teacher at some stage that refused to conform, one that strayed off the curriculum and was a source of inspiration, or maybe ridicule amongst others for it; however none were quite as much of a character as Miss Jean Brodie.
This short novel tells the story of a small group of girls selected to be Miss Brodie’s for what would be year 6 these days – the last year of their junior education, (this was another surprise to us – the girls appear old for their years on the page, yet they are only ten when the story begins). Miss Brodie’s educational methods are unconventional to say the least. A Calvinist, she eschews mathematics in favour of classical studies, art history, her own life experiences in love and travels and her flirtation with fascism – she admires Mussolini and his black-shirted men (it’s 1936). She wishes to lead them out (from the Latin verb educere) into the world, she believes ‘Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science’. In one of her first lessons to the girls, they are walking past the headmistress’ study and she stops to consider a poster on the wall:
It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words ‘Safety First’.
‘This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister at the last election 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.’
This was the first intimation, to the girls, of an odds between Miss Brodie and the rest of the teaching staff.
The school board, of course, would love to be able to let her go, but need an excuse and evidence to proceed.
The narrative flashes back and forwards – between that year Miss Brodie taught them, their subsequent years at senior school and later, after her death. Early in the narrative we learn that one of the girls betrayed her – but it is not until later that it becomes clear which one it was.
The girls are all given labels by Spark, from Rose who was ‘famous for sex’ and Eunice who was a cartwheeler supreme, to Mary McGregor who was the scapegoat of the set. Brodie picks Sandy however to be her special confidante. Sandy is an imaginative girl, and is always daydreaming, adding herself into her favourite novels – she’s in love with Alan Breck in Stevenson’s Kidnapped. She and Jenny also write stories in secret about Miss Brodie.
Spark cleverly reinforces each of the girls’ prime characteristics all the way through the novel – you will never read the name of Rose without being reminded of what she is famous for – and Spark, who never wastes her words makes us wonder each time she does this how the girls will turn out – a clever device of reinforcement.
The copy I read from was the Folio Society’s edition, which has been illustrated by the wonderful Beryl Cook. Famous for her rounded ladies with big hands and noses, nevertheless she has taken all the details from the text and captured the characters perfectly, (right).
Brodie is famously Bohemian in her love-life. She’s the apex of a triangle with the one-armed art teacher Teddy Lloyd (a Roman Catholic, married with six children) and the singing teacher Mr Lowther. Both love her, but she only has eyes for Mr Lloyd, and apart from one stolen kiss (witnessed by one of the girls), that love is never requited. She adopts Mr Lowther, but just ends up using him and rejects him. Instead, she urges one of the girls, now teenagers, to have an affair with Mr Lloyd so she can get her fix vicariously.
She has a fondness for quoting from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott during her lessons, which is a loose retelling of the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, who dies of her unrequited love for Lancelot – how fitting, we thought.
Although short, this novel is wonderfully complex, as well as funny and sad (especially for poor Mary McGregor). It made for a really good book group discussion about sex and politics and sexual politics for that matter. We also enjoyed reminiscing about our school days. It’s not my personal favourite of Spark’s novels (that’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye), but it certainly is la crème de la crème. (9.5/10)
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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark. Paperback, other editions available.