The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark has been on my bookshelf at home for many years. I bought it and read it when I was a student. I suppose I did so because I heard friends of mine who were studying English (including Ali Smith – see here for my relations with her) praising it. I do not know how much I liked it at the time. Now, for reasons not worth relating here, I took it off the shelf and opened it. I started reading a little and then could not stop until I had finished it. I had the strange impression that I liked the book much better and laughed a lot more than than the first time. Is this true or is it just my memory failing with increasing age? Now I am considering the possibility that among all novels by Scottish writers it is the one I like the best. What are other possible contenders for this role? The one which occurs to me is ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray. I read it with admiration as a student. In a way Gray is to Glasgow as Joyce is to Dublin although I would not think of regarding Gray as being on the same level as Joyce. I once met Gray personally. The Aberdeen University Creative Writing Group invited him and Jim Kelman (who years later won the Booker Prize) to Aberdeen to give a reading. They came on the train from Glasgow and presumably consumed alcohol continuously during the whole journey. At any rate they were both very drunk when they arrived, whereby Gray appeared a bit less intoxicated than Kelman. I had no particular interest in Kelman; Gray was the one who interested me. I cannot remember much about our conversation, except that he pronounced ‘Proust’ incorrectly. I am not sure if that was ignorance or provocation. It was probably the latter. I have not read Lanark again since then and I think my copy did not survive my moves since then. I do not know what my impression would be if I started reading Lanark again but my intuition tells me that it would not captivate me like Miss Jean Brodie. This is because of the way I have changed over the past almost forty years.

As the title suggests the novel ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is dominated by one character. She is strong and fascinating but it is wise to be cautious of having too much admiration for her. This is made clear at the latest by her professed admiration for Mussolini. (The novel is set in the years leading up to the Second World War.) She is a teacher at a private school, her pupils being girls of under the age of twelve. A group of these girls from one year come together to form ‘the Brodie set’. They are brought together not by any similarities between them but by their bond to Jean Brodie. This also keeps them together for the rest of their time at school. She is regarded by most of the teachers at the conventional school as too progressive and the headmistress is keen to find a reason to get rid of her. Eventually she succeeds in doing so. I cannot see Jean Brodie as a model for a teacher. She hatches out schemes to allow her pupils to avoid the work they should be doing and to listen to the stories she tells them. She has very definite ideas, for instance as to the relative importance of subjects: art first, philosophy second, science third. My ordering would be: science first, art second, philosophy third. The book is often very funny but I think there is also a lot in it which is very serious. Apart from the content, the use of language is very impressive. I enjoyed trying to imagine what it means for a jersey to be ‘a dark forbidding green’. There is even a little mathematics, although that is a subject which Jean Brodie has little liking for. Concerning the conflict of Miss Brodie with the Kerr sisters we read, ‘Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides’. For me this is one of those few books which is able to bring some movement into my usual routine. I watched a documentary about Muriel Spark herself, which is also very interesting. Maybe I will soon read another of her novels. ‘Aiding and Abetting’ has also found its way from my distant past onto my bookshelf but I am not sure it will be the next one I read.

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