There’s something about Brodie! She is perhaps one of the most complex literary characters that I have come across; she is neither likeable (her admiration of Hitler and Mussolini assures this) nor unlikeable, both heroine and villain, controlling, and “held in great suspicion”. But she is also a woman celebrating her “prime”; she’s enchanting, glamorous, obsessed with romantic love and yet aware that “the age of chivalry is past”. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life”, says Brodie early on in the novel. It is this far-reaching and manipulative influence on her selected pupils, the Brodie set, the ‘creme de la creme’, which forms the basis for the story.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930’s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie focuses on schoolmistress Jean Brodie and her Brodie set: Monica Douglas, “famous mostly for mathematics… and for her anger”; Rose Stanley, “famous for sex”; Eunice Gardiner, “famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming”; Sandy Stranger, “notorious for her small, almost non-existent, eyes, but she was famous for her vowel sounds”; Jenny Gray, the “most graceful girl of the set”; and Mary Macgregor, “whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame”.
Admittedly, I didn’t fall in love with any of these characters, yet they all enthralled me. Their comic naivety is their redeeming feature (“Mr Lloyd had a baby last week. He must have committed sex with his wife.”), but they become increasingly more selfish, shrewd and cliquey under the tutelage of Miss Jean Brodie at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Brodie rebels against the standard curriculum and instead teaches her girls art, culture and lessons in life, indulging them with anecdotal insights into her love life. Her unconventional methods do not go undetected by headmistress Miss Mackay, who tries to oust her several times on the basis of sex, then successfully on the basis of politics, when Brodie is betrayed by one of her own girls.
What is most brilliant about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Muriel Spark’s writing; it is so typically Spark. The use of flash forwards in the narrative means that the novel shifts from present to future, with snippets of the girls’ fate revealed to us (similar to The Driver’s Seat), which tinges the story with tragedy.
But there are plenty of other brilliant things about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! Using her poetic style, Spark creates an atmosphere that reminds me of my school days; tastes, smells, music rooms, bunsen burners and the things people say: “They say, make the most of our school days because you never know what lies ahead of you.” And it’s funny, really, REALLY funny. Thematically, the novel investigates religion, psychology and conformity amongst a host of others, and for such a short book, there really is a lot to say.
I’d be lying if I said that the book lived up to my expectations. Living in Scotland, people talk fondly of Miss Jean Brodie and many hold the book in high (almost unreachable) esteem, and deservedly so; but I don’t share that sentimentality. To me, it’s just a brilliant book by a brilliant author. It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read in order to fully appreciate its brilliance.
For World Book Night on 5th March, I’ll be giving away 48 copies of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! My giveaway plan is currently top secret, but all will be revealed soon.
In the meantime, to celebrate World Book Night you can win one of FIVE copies of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie AND a special Little Interpretations bookmark (these haven’t returned from the printers yet – but I’m hoping they’ll look awesome).
To be in with a chance of winning:
- Leave a coment on this post AND
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I will choose the winners at random, and the winner will be announced at 6pm on World Book Night, Saturday 5th March 2011.
(I will post worldwide!)