The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

This is the second time I’ve read this book, and I’m delighted to be revisiting it for Muriel Spark Reading Week. I read it quickly and perfunctorily before, not really remembering an awful lot apart from the charisma of Miss Brodie and the atmospheric depiction of the windswept, slightly menacing streets of pre-war Edinburgh. This time around, I was amazed at the brilliance and complexity of Spark’s portrayal of an intelligent, passionate woman, robbed of her future by the death of her fiancé during WWI and instead becoming devoted to the cause of educating Edinburgh’s girls. Miss Brodie is unconventional and daring; she gets the girls to hold up their textbooks in case another teacher peers into the classroom during their lessons; instead of teaching them what is inside its pages, she is telling them the story of her doomed fiancé, or of her latest European holiday, or of the rise of Mussolini in Italy. Miss Brodie’s methods of teaching – she doesn’t believe in a curriculum of study – puts her at odds with the rest of the school staff, apart from Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd, the singing and art masters, who are both in love with her. Her charismatic style has inspired the unquestioning devotion of a select group of girls, called the ‘Brodie set’ by the other teachers, who are invited to tea and taken to the theatre, and confided in about Miss Brodie’s love affairs and her problems with the other teachers at school. Even when they have gone up to the senior school and left her classroom for good, the ‘Brodie set’ remain Miss Brodie’s special favourites, and she demands their unswerving loyalty as a result.

We know from the start that one of her ‘set’ will betray Miss Brodie; the narrative is cleverly constructed, with a present, past and future all happening concurrently. The ‘present’ is of the girls in their senior school, no longer taught by Miss Brodie, but there are regular flashbacks to the past, as well as glimpses of the future fates of the ‘set’ and Miss Brodie herself. At first Miss Brodie appears a wonderful teacher; she refuses to teach just the facts and instead focuses on enlightening the girls in her care of the finer side of life; of goodness, truth, and beauty; of art, and travel, and culture. She doesn’t talk down to them; at ten years old she deems them perfectly old enough to discuss complicated issues with, such as sex and the rise of Fascism in Europe, and she always encourages them to be individuals and true to themselves. However, slowly, as the story moves forward, back, forward, back, we see a more detailed and disturbing picture coming into focus. As much as Miss Brodie encourages individuality, she only encourages it if the individual sentiments being expressed tie in with her own. The facts she teaches are her own opinions and tastes; whatever she likes is right and has value and meaning; whatever she doesn’t is wrong and not worth notice. She discourages ‘team spirit’, and doesn’t want the girls joining Girl Scouts or team games at school, not because it will diminish their individuality, as she claims, but because it will take them outside of her control. This is where Miss Brodie’s trips to Europe and her admiration of Hitler and Mussolini become worrying; the photographs of black shirted men all marching in a line that she pins to the noticeboard in her classroom is what Miss Brodie wants to create with her ‘set’. She wants clones of herself, and this is reflected in the art teacher Teddy Lloyd’s slightly creepy portraits of each of the girls; the only true likeness that can be seen in their painted faces is that of Miss Brodie. As time goes on and Miss Brodie starts to use the girls to play games and live out her own fantasies, some of them start to drift off as they resent her control and have begun to see her true colours. Eventually she will be betrayed by one of them, after the consequences of Miss Brodie’s controlling ways claim a life. This betrayal costs Miss Brodie her job, but ultimately so strong was her power that her influence over the lives of her ‘set’ will never truly wane, even after she is dead.

I found this such a fascinating, clever, funny and also somehow moving novel. As disturbing as Miss Brodie’s desire for control was, her passion, creativity, intelligence and independence were inspiring and Spark  brings her so vividly to life. I couldn’t help but think of her with compassion when I read of her fiance’s death; like so many others, she was a ‘surplus woman’ after the war, and had to forge an independent life for herself with little hope of the husband, children and home she was brought up to expect. She is the embodiment of a mid century spinster, throwing herself into teaching, hobbies and travel, developing an eccentric and forceful personality; she probably would have been someone entirely different had she married as planned. I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ –  but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

No review of mine could hope to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of this novel, which is a real work of art. I haven’t even touched on the intense religious atmosphere that reigns throughout, and of how Miss Brodie herself is a sort of High Priestess of her own religion; it’s no surprise that one of her set ends up a Nun when you think about the almost religious devotion they had for their teacher in their youth. In fact, the path of unswerving devotion, followed by disillusion and betrayal, and then a reconnection later in life is a fairly typical religious narrative, echoed in many Bible stories, and this turns out to be the story of the most prominent of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’. I found reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a real intellectual challenge; it was stimulating as well as entertaining, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’m looking forward to reading more Spark in future, and am delighted that Simon and Harriet are doing such an excellent job of promoting her brilliance this week. I must also thank the lovely Lija at Penguin for sending me this gorgeous new edition of the novel; it’s part of the Penguin Essentials series and the covers are all very striking; do check them out!

45 comments

  1. I’ve read this so many times and she’s so real to me that whenever I’m in Edinburgh, I half expect to see her walking down the street.

  2. I have read this three or four times, although not in quite a while. It is one of the most brilliant novels ever IMHO. Each time I have read it I have come away more and more convinced that Miss Brodie is one of the most evil characters in literature and not becasue of her affinity with Facism. It is because of her total disconnect from the results of her actions, actions that result is a death. Her words to and manipulation of those girls on the brink of adulthood, but in many important ways still children, so hungry for “specialness”, so eager to be a part of something important, is a truly evil thing. I don’t believe evil exists separated from an individual. It takes a human being to create evil and Jean Brodie succeeds. What a genius, our Muriel.

    1. I didn’t think of her as evil when I was reading it, Ellen, but I can see what you mean. I’m not sure if I read her as being quite as bad as you do – I think in her mind she thinks she is doing a good thing – but she is definitely a malevolent and controlling force and yet somehow I found her mesmerising…Spark was truly amazing in being able to bring such a character to such vivid life.

      1. Yes, absolutely mesmerizing. I don’t necessarily think that she was self-aware enough to perceive her own nature as evil; but, that as you point out is the genius of Spark. She brings this woman to life and illustrates how evil can operate in less obvious ways and have unexpected consequences. Hitler probably thought he was doing a good thing.

  3. Indeed, an endlessly brilliant book – a terrifying, beguiling, funny portrait of a glittering egoist – but this is also perhaps the very best review/analysis of it that I’ve ever read. Apropos of nothing, it was the film of this book (1969), and the original film of The Wicker Man (!) (1973) that first filled me with a longing to visit Scotland. I was not disappointed.

  4. That is a stunning cover! I think it goes without saying that your review is excellent, Rachel, but I’ll say it anyways.🙂 I have a tough time with Spark. I’ve enjoyed most of her novels that I’ve read but I’ve never really felt any strong emotion towards them. She does clever and cruel and bizarre better than most but when I’m finished reading I always think “that was well-crafted” rather than “that was enjoyable”. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the exception. I am always mesmerised by Miss Brodie, both attracted and repelled by her passion and egoism.

    1. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? I love it! Thanks Claire, glad you liked it🙂

      I haven’t tried any other Sparks, I have to say. As much as Miss Brodie fascinated me, I’m not that enamoured at the thought of reading more…strange that. I think there is a lack of an enjoyment aspect for me – I appreciate her writing but it doesn’t make me want to linger in it. Does that make sense?!

  5. I adore this book. I also remember being totally in love with the series many years ago with Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie. Thank you for sharing….

  6. Rachel so happy that you have joined in, and delighted with this truly excellent review. I am just finishing one of my own on the same novel and I absolutely agree with all you say here — it is a fantastic, brilliant, complex novel and as you say very hard to do justice to — however you seem to have managed anyway. Many thanks!

    1. Thank you Harriet – your review was marvellous! I am grateful for all I have learned about Spark during this reading week so thank you for your time and effort!

  7. Sounds fascinating, disturbing, and brilliant! Another must read, oh my! And I must say, I love books which feature a school setting😉

  8. We have just read this book in my reading group. Miss Brodie provoked much lively discussion. She’s certainly a one-off and yet her character is so enduring. She belonged to that lonely generation of women whose men were lost in the Great War. But it is because of her spinsterhood that she shines so brightly, often misguidedly. In a way, the loss of the mysterious fiance has made her int what she is – a total maverick amongst the stiff Edinburgh society in the closeted walls of the schoolroom. A total classic. thanks for the review Rachel – I’ve sent it on to my group

    1. I bet this was a fantastic book club read – so much to talk about! Glad you enjoyed it and could sympathise with her – I do think she had her reasons and I like that Spark makes her so three dimensional in that way.

  9. Fantastic review, Rachel, delighted to have you on board for MSRW!
    I read this years ago and I definitely didn’t appreciate it as I ought to have done – so I will revisit one of these days.

    1. Thanks Simon! I’m surprised you haven’t picked it up again – though I’m not sure you’d like it very much!! A bit nasty for you perhaps!🙂

  10. What a wonderful review Rachel.I have to admit that The Prime of Mis Jean Brodie was not one of my favourite Sparks, but it is years and years and years since I read it so, on the strength of your review, I have got it down from a shelf, blown the dust off, and started reading… I’ll report back later…

  11. Nice one, R.

    Haven’t read it but I’ve taken note.

    Hmmmm. Ponder ponder…….

    What this sounds like is a kind of lost and then corrupted love. She hasn’t got it, so she compensates by building a personal empire with children. She needs to be needed and pursues what appears to be a personal agenda, rather than educational practice.

    Anyway this may be a bit extra-terrestrial, since I haven’t read the book. But does she – for example – have anything like the altruism of Keating, in Dead Poets Society?

    – Bop.

    1. Hi Bop, I think Dead Poets Society was based on this. I have to admit I didn’t enjoy the film because I thought it just didn’t compare well to the strength of Maggie in Brodie. On strength of this review and as its so long since I read the book that I can’t remember it at all (and as an adult have not read any Spark until this week), I have ordered it to read again. May have to check out DPS again and see if have the same strong aversion to it. See what you think when you get a chance!!

      Rachel – another fab review….you are not helping my book addiction!!

      1. Hmm interesting. Yes I think there is a parallel, because Keating is distant from his wife but through circumstance rather than a problem, as such. There’s a scene where one of the boys notices his wife’s photo on his desk, says she’s beautiful, and asks if he misses her. I think he says yes but that he wants to be where he is, teaching, because its what he loves.

        Clearly – it could go on another narrative trajectory like Brodie. That is, there’s some issue in his life re. the above and he compensates for it in his job. But he really does love teaching and inspiring the boys with self belief and poetry – both literally and in terms of what is symbolises.

        Educationally, the heart of it is when one of the senior staff tells Keating its his job to do basic drilling – and then and only then does the opportunity arise for a boy to find his voice, expression, creativity etc. This is all wrong for Keating, as when he tells the boys to rip out the page of a formulaic literary criticism book the effect of which is to bore, block, and stultify because it is second hand, not the juice.

    2. Your analysis is highly accurate, Bop! I don’t think there is an altruism there, not really…more a desire to control and to create clones than develop independent thought and encourage personal interests. I would love to see the film of the book and look at how Maggie Smith portrays her – perhaps there is more of an altruism in her depiction.

  12. Excellent review of an excellent book. What I find brilliant about Spark’s writing in this book is that she fools us into admiring Miss Brodie at first and then, bit by bit, making us see how cleverly (and, perhaps, ignorantly) Miss Brodie has manipulated the girls in her charge. In addition to everything else, this book is quite a study in “group think” and how it is perpetrated.

    1. Yes, she is so skilful in that way…it’s a bit of a shock when you realise, actually, she’s not doing what you thought she was doing, and she’s really a rather cruel woman…Spark is an excellent creator of characters, I have to say.

  13. I have never read any Spark but roughly knew the story of this book. Thank you for portraying it so well, I know now that I certainly need to be reading this book at some point in my life!

  14. This is one of the very few books I reread the same day I read it for the first time — the other three are Spark’s The Girls of Slender means, and both of Flannery O’Connor’s novels. I just wanted to see if I could see how they did it. I think no one is better than Spark at showing the evil the ego can do. Not at all religious myself, but I love a fearless writer with a strong moral point of view. Flannery O’Connor’s published letters are brilliant and I now I am wondering if Spark’s letters were ever published …. must trot off to find out.

    1. I should imagine they are, AJ – I’m glad she has made such an impression on you. Her skill as a writer is certainly formidable and really I am in awe of how she managed to create such a powerful character who lingers in the mind for years after reading the novel. Amazing.

  15. What a brilliant review! This sounds like an intriguing yet disturbing read. I have this on my shelves and have yet to read it, but your review has inspired me to hopefully pick it up soon. I have so many books still to be read – it is certainly a case of so many books, so little time!

    1. Thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it🙂 It is a very interesting and quite remarkable book and I hope you will enjoy reading it when you get around to it!

  16. I’ve just finished this book for the first time and I liked it as well. The time jumps confused in the beginning, but I got used to it. I also like, that at the end, they refer to Miss Brodie as Lesbian with a capital L. Wile reading the novel I got the feeling that she was a bit like Sapfo from the ancient Greek stories.
    I also want to thank you for this review because I have eto write an essay about this and got some ideas now. So again, thank you🙂

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