Books Magazine

Book #80: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

Have you ever been to a restaurant that gives you a palate cleanser?

It’s usually a sorbet, or maybe it’s a drink, like warm tea, to cleanse your palate and prepare it for the next course.

After Naked Lunch, I needed a clean, straight-forward novel. I needed a novel without violent, graphic sex, pedophilia, and heroine use. I needed a light, short story with decent, somewhat coherent characters.

For me, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a perfect palate cleanser, and it came at the perfect time. Because of that, I might have enjoyed the novel a little more than I normally would have.

The story is all about a “junior school” teacher in Edinburgh named Jean Brodie. She has a group of female students—referred to as “the Brodie set” around the school—to which she takes an overwhelming interest in.

Brodie has an alterative method of teaching, which she describes in this passage:

“I am summoned to see the headmistress at morning break on Monday,” said Miss Brodie. “I have no doubt Miss MacKay wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word ‘education’ comes from the root from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls’ heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads.”

In the story, that translates to taking her students out on walks and talking to them about stories from earlier in her life, including stories about many of her love interests. She repeatedly uses the phrase “I’m in my prime”—reminiscent of “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five.

“The Brodie set” idolize Miss Brodie. She tells them a good deal about herself, but just enough to still keep her mysterious. The girls often fill in the gaps, especially when it comes to Miss Brodie’s love life.

As the girls get older and leave Miss Brodie’s school to attend the senior school, something interesting happens. They begin seeing Miss Brodie from more mature eyes.

It reminds me of that family member you always thought was so cool, maybe a crazy uncle, when you were little. But as you started growing up, you begin to see cracks in his armor. You started to see that maybe he wasn’t so cool after all. Maybe, even, dare we say, he was a loser!

Not to give the story away, and not to say that’s how the girls end up feeling about Miss Brodie, but it’s interesting to watch their maturation over time. Even in a short 150ish page novel, Spark pulls off that character development well.


Muriel Spark (Wikimedia Commons)

She also uses a “flash forward” technique throughout the story. You’ll see the girls in their careers, possibly catching up with each other and talking about Miss Brodie and their memories of her.

These flash forwards are seamless, thanks to Spark’s talent as a writer. She’s really, really, really good. Her style is matter-of-fact, almost deadpan, and it’s always clean and crisp.

This is isn’t a life-changing novel, but it is a very good one. And it came at the perfect time for me. So if you’re looking for a quick, interesting read from a fabulous writer, you can’t go wrong with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Other Stuff

Opening Line: “The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.”

The Meaning: It’s about betrayal and impressionability at a young age. I think there’s something in there about the wisdom that comes with the passing of time as well.

Highlights: Miss Brodie is a strong character. In just a few short pages, Muriel Spark paints Miss Brodie as a smart, manipulative, arrogant teacher.

Lowlights: Not a whole lot here. With the shortness of the novel, I think Spark might have tried to fit in a few too many characters to the “Brodie set.” Focusing on just a few might have made the girls a little more memorable.

Memorable Line: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

Final Thoughts: Great novel. Glad to have read it. As I mention above, if you’re looking for a quick short read from a great writer, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a good pick.

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