The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark (1961)
Penguin (1985)
128 pp


I‘ve been casting glances across the room at Muriel Spark for some time now. Thanks to Bookmooch (more on the joys of reading this book used later), however, I found a nice copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). It was first published in The New Yorker‘s October 16, 1961, issue, extending over 100 ad-plastered pages (I just found out that my subscription to The New Yorker gives full access to digital editions of all past issues — as if one doesn’t get enough for the $40).

When I picked up the book, I was a bit afraid I would be reading the inspiration for movies like Dead Poets Society or Mona Lisa Smile or any number of films and stories lauding an inspiring teacher. Perhaps Miss Brodie’s is a bit of an unconventional life, helping the students think outside of their roles. Happily (though I enjoyed Dead Poets Society), this was not the case.

Miss Brodie sees herself as the ideal teacher, approaching “education” from its original meaning: “to lead out.” She teaches her all-girl students about art and history and broaches the subject of sex, though mostly by allusion. Miss Brodie is unconventional, but she isn’t necessarily a beacon of light for her drifting students, known in the school as “the Brodie set.” She has sparked their imaginations, but perhaps not in the way intended.

After Miss Brodie tells the girls about her lover, killed in World War I, a few of the girls imagine Miss Brodie’s love life, writing melodramatic stories and expostulate on their growing awareness of sex. Their naïve perspective on sex is pleasantly comic (“He must have committed sex with his wife.”). In the girls’ lives, Miss Brodie becomes a looming personality. The thrill of the novel is in watching the girls grow older trying to work their way under her disturbing shadow. All becomes more complex when the girls discover Miss Brodie’s love triangle with two of the other teachers.

Though I found the book intriguing, I think I was distracted while reading it. I could sense the depth of psychological insight and I could capture some of the themes, but nothing came to life. I didn’t care about the characters, neither wishing them well or ill, though I enjoyed watching them interact in their terribly flawed lives. While the “why” was intriguing, neither the who nor what compelled me to keep reading.

This is not to say it wasn’t enjoyable. The details about the characters do make the characters come to life. As I mentioned above, some of Spark’s perceptive prose is very comical. Some of it is very sad. Here is an example of sadness. Early in the novel, we get a glimpse of one of the bullied girl’s grown-up life. Miss Brodie constantly picks on poor Mary, and things don’t get better for her.

On one occasion of real misery — when her first and last boy-friend, a corporal whom she had known for two weeks, deserted her by failing to turn up at an appointed place and failing to come near her again — she thought back to see if she had ever really been happy in her life . . . .

The narrative structure is another interesting aspect of the novella. Here, the narrator knows everything that has happened and that will happen to the characters. We get snippets of the future while we read about the past. For example, we know early on that one of the girls betrays Miss Brodie, causing her termination at the school. It does not take much longer before we find out which one did it. Much of the book is focused on why.

I promised to bring up Bookmooch, the online book swapping site I joined a couple of months ago to get rid of some of my old books while acquiring some others. Generally, I’m not thrilled with the results. Books I read still look new (and I get a lot of snarky comments about that, from jealous people obviously). Most of the books I got came to me in pretty terrible shape.  Some are unreadable, frankly. This book, however, brought some unexpected joy. A prior owner had annotated it for me, marking every time fascism was brought up and linking it (I’m not sure quite how) to Hitler’s army. Sure, fascism plays a role in the book, but this person skipped over most everything else and made some flying leaps of inference. It added a nice bit of color to my time with Miss Brodie.

I’m fully aware that my misgivings with the novel can be summed up in one phrase: it’s just me. Thankfully, my wife, who is much more perceptive to female psychology than I, has also read the book — and she liked it, may have even started re-reading it. Hopefully she’ll make some comments spelling out some of the other intriguing aspects of the book and pointing out how many ways I missed the boat. I’m already shifting my attention to Memento Mori.

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