An Edinburgh Education
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark
Lippencott, 1962. Harper Perennial, 1994
reviewed by Seana Graham
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for those who don’t know it, is a short novel which has its center in an Edinburgh school for girls in the early 1930s, and focuses on the antics of one highly idiosyncratic teacher and the young students she has selected to be part of the “Brodie set.” The book follows the course of their lives well beyond this two year period of instruction and influence. All of this is ingeniously included in the body of the story itself, not added on as an epilogue. We know from the beginning of chapter two, for instance, that Mary McGregor, “famous” for being stupid, will die in a hotel fire when she is only twenty-four.
In an appreciation of Muriel Spark included in my Harper Perennial edition of this book, James Wood speaks of her characters as “mere crescents,” which we as readers “feel compelled to turn into round discs.” I’d suggest that it’s a bit more complicated than that for present day readers, for many will have come to the book after having seen the movie with Maggie Smith in the title role, and a smaller audience will know Miss Jean Brodie through a late seventies Masterpiece Theatre version starring Geraldine McEwan, as I do. Actors must decide how to embody characters in a detailed way that a writer may be able to avoid. This also holds for the schoolgirls, who in the book are reduced to types, each being “famous” for something. However, it’s interesting that though the girls are characterized by both Miss Brodie and the narrator as rather one-dimensional, they all have inner lives which are quite a bit richer–and funnier–than the roles Miss Brodie assigns them within her group.
Muriel Spark modeled Brodie on a teacher she had at a similar age in a similar type of school, and whom she seems to have greatly admired. Personally, I wasn’t that fond of her fictional counterpart, who seemed to hold a little too much sway with her charges. And perhaps the novel comes out of Spark looking back from a more critical perspective on an early idol. Miss Brodie is an admirer of Mussolini and the Black Shirts, and while she may perhaps be forgiven for it in this period before the war, the story is being told from a point in time when that war has already happened, and Mussolini is known for what he was.
In a significant passage, Spark describes a long walk Miss Brodie takes the girls on. They are paired off, but Sandy is walking with Mary McGregor, since her usual partner, Jenny, has gone home. She is frightened by an understanding she has had that Miss Brodie is the head and the group is the body, and that they are all in “unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Jean Brodie.”
She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and be blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making. So for good fellowship’s sake, Sandy said to Mary, “I wouldn’t be walking with you if Jenny was here.” And Mary said, “I know.” Then Sandy started to hate herself again and to nag on and on at Mary, with the feeling that if you did a thing a lot of times, you made it into a right thing. Mary started to cry, but quietly, so that Miss Brodie could not see.
This is just a small moment in the larger story, but its inclusion is an example of the subtle complexities and even paradoxes that Sharp illustrates in what in other hands might be a fairly minor semi-autobiographical tale. The relationship the girls have with Miss Brodie is a gift, but it is also something more problematic, and for those of us who have been in similar ‘sets’ in our lives, we’re left with a lot to ponder.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.