The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – revisited

primeofmissjeanbrodieGod, I hadn’t read this for years. I had a real Muriel Spark jag at some point in my late teens or early 20s. I started with The Ballad of Peckham Rye and worked my way through her entire oeuvre, probably putting myself off her in the process, because not even Muriel Spark could produce nothing but hits.

(In a similar way, if I’d restricted myself to the four or so Don Delillo books that are actually quite good instead of reading bilge like Ratner’s Star and Players, I might still be able to read him.)

Anyway, I heard a snippet of this on the radio and I needed to read it again. Not available electronically (what a stupid world we live in), I had to get a paperback version. I like a paperback, but you can’t read them in the dark and you can’t make the type bigger when your eyes are tired.

If you’ve never read Jean Brodie, you could be in for a treat. We’re in Edinburgh in the 1930s at a very traditional girls’ school, and Jean Brodie teaches on the junior side. Every now and then, she singles out a group of special students and gives them the benefit of her wisdom and experience, going way beyond the curriculum. In fact, largely ignoring the curriculum. Because of this, of course, her school wants to find grounds to deal with her – the problem for them being that the Brodie Set usually ends up being the brightest and most successful group of students in any given year.

At a little over 125 pages, this is a stunningly short novel (novella), although in my Penguin edition the type was rather small. And yet so much is packed into it, it reads longer. As well as in its length, its genius lies in its narrative technique, and the mastery Muriel Spark has over details and events, and – most especially – time.

We start in 1936 and almost immediately glide back to 1930, and we shift backwards and forwards in time with deft, subtle movements, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. We are told what will happen before it happens, and then when it happens, we are still surprised.

Jean Brodie is a woman in her prime. Left alone by the death of a lover in the Great War, she throws her energy into her girls, but also – perhaps – has a bit on the side with the art teacher, perhaps, or the music teacher, perhaps—or perhaps it was both. She sings the praises of things she loves and issues withering dismissals of the things she disdains, like science and maths. She has her girls round for tea, even when they are no longer, strictly, her girls, and have moved up to the senior school. I love the description of the girls near the beginning: all wearing their school uniform hats incorrectly – but in different ways.

As an unconventional teacher myself, who is constantly under pressure to conform to the consistency of tiny minds, I relate wholeheartedly to Brodie’s unique methods (though not her politics).

This is deft, funny, brilliant, witty, and – praise be – short.

(I’ve moved on from this to the equally brilliant The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and I just want to say to everyone: take Monday off. Nobody should have to work Mondays.)

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