The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Rating: +

Muriel Spark

I've both seen and performed in the play based on this novel, and it is one of my favorites, so I've meant to read this for quite a while. I wish I'd got to it sooner - the story is just as enjoyable when more fully fleshed out and the writing is very good.

Miss Jean Brodie is an upper-elementary level teacher at an English girl's school who collects a close-knit band of young girls around her as her "crème de la crème". Brodie's interest in these girls, and in being a teacher at all, is to shape these girls into an image of herself - as she sees herself - dedicating her "prime" (as she calls her middle aged years) to them. But this isn't a sweet story of a committed teacher working to bring out the best in her students. Brodie's real motives are hinted at in her motto "Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life." Brodie is living her life vicariously through these girls, pushing them to be what she wishes she had been while separating them from their classmates and any outside interests which might weaken their connection to her.

While this book is, at its heart, about Miss Brodie, the bulk of the plot is actually about the childhood of "Brodie's set" and how Brodie's early influences shape their later lives. Each of the girls from early on is assigned a talent for which they are "famous", allowing Brodie to keep the girls in separate niches and prevent competition within the group. One of the most disturbing aspects of the group dynamics which Brodie sets up is her astute inclusion of one untalented girl, Mary, who acts as an internal scapegoat and target for ridicule. The girls don't even consider outsiders enough to criticize them - their entire lives are focused within their insular circle. In fact, one of the major appeals of the book is Brodie's horrifying cleverness at building a loyal following and keeping them in line.

The conflict in the book comes when the girls, particularly Sandy, who Brodie labels as talented in locution but in actuality is gifted in psychological insight, grow older and begin to question the paths that Brodie sets them on. At the same time, Miss Brodie is growing older and becoming more extreme in her manipulations, using the girls to literally act out part of her life that she is unable to follow through on herself. We see Sandy struggle to free herself from Brodie's influence, with no other outside connections to replace the circle she would be rejecting.

The novel does not contain significantly more content than the theatrical version; it is a fairly short book at only 140 pages. There are a few characters who are compressed into one in the play, as are some scenes. In particular, Sandy is made out to be a stronger, more decisive character in the play than in the novel. The Brodie of the novel is both more hateful and more pathetic than in the play, where some of the details of her manipulations are left out.

Overall, this book is more of a character study than a plot driven book. The character of Brodie is unique and compelling, though, and Spark does a wonderful job describing the deep influence a teacher can have on a young child and the risks inherent in that influence. It ranks a high '+' with me, and I intend to read more of Spark's novels in the near future.


Review written July 2002.


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