Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Book cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I picked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie up off my TBR pile the other day because I was after something short to read while being poorly and feeling overly sorry for myself. It definitely took my mind off my illness, although it’s a strange little book.

An Amazon summary – 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”.’

This is really more of a character study than an actual story. The narrative jumps around continuously through different time periods and points of view, rather like an older person trying to piece together hazy memories. Actually, that’s more apt than I originally thought – all the characters seem a little fuzzy, as Miss Brodie and all of her ‘set’ are partially described but not closely enough to actually make them seem alive. 

Unfortunately, none of the schoolgirls are even half as interesting as Miss Brodie herself. Each one is a different schoolgirl stereotype – there’s the sporty angry one, the sexy slutty one, as well as the quiet religious one. The reader is bludgeoned over the head with a repetition of their attributes almost like Muriel Spark couldn’t quite think of any further character quirks for the girls. 

Miss Brodie herself, a middle-aged individual with romantic ideals and mildly Fascist leanings,  is an extraordinary feat of characterisation. I fully expect to see her walking down the street towards me tomorrow, she seems that real. Not likeable exactly, as she is stubborn, jealous and a little childish, but definitely real.

A young Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThis is one of those novels that a reader would struggle with to explain the plot to a friend. Nothing much actually happens. But, as is the case with most good literature, you get to the end without completely realising that this is the case. The plot (so far as you can call it ‘a plot’) involves the headmistress of the school trying to find a reason to sack Miss Brodie, as she doesn’t agree with the latter’s teaching methods. The ending is referred to several times throughout the book, which irritated me a little as I generally prefer books to be militarily linear. That’s the general format of the book though – completely up and down.

Unsurprisingly, as it was written in 1961, there have been multiple film versions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The most famous movie stars a very young Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie herseld. Doesn’t she look strange? I might have to add this to my list of book adaptations to watch. I’m not much of a film-watcher, but I’m going to try, damn it!

Have you read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? What did you think, I’d love to know!

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