The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a deceptive book. Its effortless style is so perfect that the themes presented only reveal themselves gradually. I cruised through most of the book admiring the writing but wondering just what was the point of it all? It wasn’t until to two thirds of the way through that the full ramifications of what Spark was presenting hit home. I soon realized that the book is an example of psychological fiction at its best.
Set in 1930’s Edinburgh the novella (it’s only 126 pages long) examines the relationship between a teacher - Jean Brodie and her ‘set’; six ten year old girls. Brodie has an unconventional attitude toward teaching, which mainly involves interactions based on her opinions and experiences, with a touch classical education thrown in to broaden their minds. Each girl is described as being famous for something – Rose is famous for sex (in the future, not at ten!) and Sandy is famous for her English vowel sounds and notorious for her small, almost non- existent eyes. They fair better than Mary, who is famous for being a “silent lump, a nobody that everyone could blame.” The principle thing they have in common is their loyalty to Miss Jean Brodie and how that influences their lives both while they are at the school and into the future.
Brodie’s influence over her set continues even after she stops being their teacher, inviting them to her home for supper and for long walks. The girls are gradually drawn into an adult world of which they only had limited insight previously. The headmistress, who is judgmental about Brodie’s methods, pumps the girls for information about Brodie that could be used to dismiss her. Brodie presents herself as being in her prime and the girls refer to it continually. It becomes a catch phrase that justifies Brodie’s behavior. Meanwhile a love triangle develops between Brodie, the one armed art teacher and the music teacher. This adult world of duplicity, lust and self-deception casts an increasingly dark tone over proceedings.
Spark is a subtle writer. The themes of power, narcissism and fascism are the subtexts that give this slight book an impact that comes seemingly from nowhere. Brodie travels to Italy and Germany and speaks highly of the benefits of fascism in those countries. She admires how organised they are and talks of what a great example they set. It only takes a subtle shift on behalf of the reader in order to start viewing Brodie’s efforts to influence her set as something akin to fascism.
Spark’s prose is beautiful and succinct, a style that lulls the reader with its charms, all the while pulling the reader into its darker subtexts. Spark also liberally uses the technique of flash forwarding - moving the narrative forward in time suddenly in order to reveal a character’s future or fate. Rather than being disruptive this technique is quite effective and gives the reader further insight into the influence that Brodie has on the girls later on in their lives.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an impressive achievement and I can understand why this book is regularly included in lists of the greatest books of the twentieth century. After reading The Man Who Loved Children (1940), also set in the 1930s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie felt like a literary holiday, but now I’m not so sure! The book has recently been published as one of those $10 orange Penguins, a small investment to make for a book with a lot to say about human nature and the perils of the transition from youth to adulthood.