The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

primeThis one deserves a reread because Muriel Spark packs a lot in one novella. She writes so smoothly—–narrating the present in one paragraph, then narrating the future event in the next. One might miss the irony in her tone, but you’ll catch up as the events unfold.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about an unorthodox teacher in 1930s Edinburgh who amusingly and dangerously influences six girls aged 10 to 12 in a private school. They are called the Brodie set and they are each famous for something. The conflict comes when one of the girls, Sandy, breaks the mold when she comes of age and betrays Ms. Brodie’s confidence in a final act of defiance.

Memorable characters here include the art teacher and painter with one arm, Mr. Lloyd, who is in love with Ms.Brodie, and whom Sandy, the girl famous for her insight, finds intriguing. He makes portraits of all six girls, but in all them, the likeness of Ms.Brodie is unmistakable. To be polite, Sandy praises the economy of his method, which is the British way of calling out on his bullshit.

Other funny scenes include the fictional letter that Sandy and Jenny wrote when they were pretending to be Ms.Jean Brodie who declines a lover. Then there are scenes that depict Ms.Brodie as pitiable like when she was madly preparing food for her unmarried lover, the singing teacher, Mr. Lowther, while her two girls are impatiently waiting for her to join them on a walk.

The title refers to the stage in the life of Ms.Brodie and which she repeatedly promotes to her girls as though it is something to be proud of. She is feminist that way, albeit a dangerous one, especially when in the company of impressionable adolescent girls.She believes in her capabilities and success as an educator who only needs a leaven on the lump to influence.

There are mentions of Calvinism and fascism in the book that I have to look up to understand the religious and political sentiments in Scotland in the thirties, before the second world war. Jean Brodie refers to them so casually to her girls and in effect to the readers themselves. A bit of reading on the history of these two movements is recommended for better appreciation.

If you’re looking for something fresh in terms of writing, specifically in the use of flash forwards, this is the book to read. If you like British humor, you will also like this.

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