Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

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