Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was my first Muriel Spark, and most definitely won't be my last. The story pivots around primary teacher Miss Brodie, and her group of favoured students, known throughout the school as the Brodie Set. When we first meet these students they are sixteen, and in the secondary school, although the story starts when they are ten, and move into Miss Brodie's class. Set in an exclusive school, The Marcia Blaine Academy for Girls, the girls have experienced an unusual primary education, hearing about the life and loves of Miss Brodie, whilst having their formal textbooks propped open in case of sudden disturbance by another teacher. Miss Brodie feels persecuted by the other teachers, as they are always trying to remove her from her post, as they do not like her progressive methods of education.

Miss Brodie is an unusual character, and it's difficult to know how to approach her. She is not really a likeable character, but the reader does seem to have sympathy for her throughout the story. As well as her unconventional educational methods, she has an admiration for fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, who were prominent at the time this book is set. You would think that a woman who believes the girl guides to be a fascist movement to rival Mussolini, manipulate her students into having an affair and can persuade a teenager to run off to fight for Franco would earn nothing but contempt from us. But that's not quite the case. I think perhaps it the persecution of Miss Brodie, and to a lesser extent, her set, automatically puts us on her side.

Her group of girls are all very different characters, and all seem to have an aspect of their personality that the are famous for. She grooms them all to become what she believes they can be, as she says herself

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and they are mine for life"

They are all captivated by her, her glamorous clothes, the cultural visits she takes them on and her fabulous stories of her love life (as well as those they make up about her themselves).

She has them marked down as certain things, although her favouritism and manipulation takes a further step when she later on selects one of the girls to assist with the completion of her plan for the other, with unexpected consequences. The set itself keeps to the principles taught by miss Brodie, even when they are no longer taught by her,

"By the time they were sixteen, and had reached fourth form, and loitered by the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox routine, they remained unmistakeably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking. They had no team spirit."

It has to be said that Miss Brodie is ultimately wrong. Her girls are not hers for life, as one of them ultimately betrays her. We know this from very early on, and not long after, we discover who, although, we don't discover why until the end. Which brings me very neatly round to how this story is written, It's told in a non-linear fashion, with the narration jumping around from the children's childhood, teenage years and even their eventual fates as adults. The progression is so non-linear, that we know what eventually happens to the Brodie Set, and Miss Brodie, through most of the novel. This means we are reading about the events of the girls' childhood with a prior knowledge of exactly how these events affect their adult lives. This serves to make what is actually a very succinct novel, full of ideas and information, and in a few pages characters are illuminated so that we feel we know them inside out, without actually getting much description about them.

I loved this book. I liked the writing, I liked the way the story was told from an adult perspective but through the narrative jumping around from childhood to adult events, we see both the adult and the childhood view on the events. (which can be very different). I think what I like most is that I don't feel I've got nearly anything like what I could get from this book. I don't re-read very often, but on first reading this book feels like one that will reveal more each time I read it. And I think my favourite quote is one concerning an issue I didn't touch on very much here, but does seem to suggest one of the things that I thought about this book, but couldn't quite articulate

"It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of The Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie's fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need"

1 comment:

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I read my first Spark last month as well (A Far Cry from Kensington) and absolutely loved it. This sounds fantastic as well - thanks for the review. I'll probably try reading this next, followed by The Driver's Seat.

PS: Off topic, but see you're reading Fraction of the Whole. Hope you enjoy it.