Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
(originally published by Macmillan/1961)
Paperback: 144 pages
When an unbridled schoolmistress with advanced ideas is in her prime the classroom can take on a new identity and no one can predict what will happen. Jean Brodie is a teacher whose unconventional ideas put her at odds with the other members of staff at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, as she endeavours to shape the lives of the select group of girls who form her set.
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark plays with narrative chronology to portray a set of characters in the past and future and how their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, influenced them. By playing with the chronology of the story, showing us events in the future, Spark imbues the characters and situations with more complexity. We wonder what their motivations are and how it connects to future events.
Miss Jean Brodie isn’t an altogether sympathetic character; never downright malicious or even “evil”, she is, however, a overbearing and pompous woman who manipulates her class into moulds of her creation. Yet, is she all bad? she does try and open the girls’ minds. She wants them to think for themselves, to not be hindered by conventional wisdom.
She is certainly an interesting character but the reader is never allowed to fully understand her, we’re never fully invited into her psyche. Portrayed through a prism of the Brodie set, Miss Jean Brodie never becomes a fully embodied character. There is a curious distancing affect happening, the narrative voice is omniscient and exists outside the realm of the narrative. It is our guide and then there is another level of detachment, the Brodie set itself, where we understand and see Miss Jean Brodie only through the eyes, somewhat juvenile eyes, of her class. She is built up through the eyes of others.
Miss Jean Brodie is the central figure in these young girls’ lives, yet is she the central figure of the novel. Spark has distanced Brodie from the reader to give us the idea that these are based upon subjective memories. The Brodie Set didn’t know who Miss Brodie was, and think back to your childhood teachers, you didn’t know who they were in their personal lives.
A delightfully written story populated with a believable characterisation, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is worthy of its status as a classic of literature.