3: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

This is a peculiarly compelling book. The prose is hypnotic in the way it is stylised, dancing from time to time and, even within one time, referring you forwards and backwards. (This is helpful, because we are introduced to the girls quite cold and it is useful to be reminded what they are, or will become, or were, famous for.) We are told endings one by one long before they should come – when the titular Miss Brodie will die, her betrayal and its architect, the grisly fate of one of the “Brodie set” (the six girls she has taken under her wing), the nun’s vows taken by another – and we are promised that at the end of her prime (declared to be begun in 1930), Miss Brodie will be governed by principles which “would have astonished herself at the beginning of it”.

Part of this book’s compelling charm is funny, in that peculiar way that one would never dream of laughing at – perhaps because we are fascinated still. As if by a snake or a weasel.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”
“A painter,” said Jenny.
Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

There is an unreality to Miss Brodie, perhaps because the way she speaks, or is recorded to have spoken, is so like the prose of the narrative as it describes the inner lives of the girls – by which I mean, at least in part, that it is characterised by non sequitur, as associations and old themes tumble from her lips in staccato bursts. And yet at the same time, that she is very real – and, in a way, very ordinary in her pretensions – is clear. The unreality is perhaps a factor of perspective; we understand her primarily through the lens of her “set”, who spend months debating “whether Miss Brodie was actually capable of being kissed and of kissing”. And, indeed, as the girls grow, so too Miss Brodie changes, until it is unclear whether she or their perception of her has changed more.

I should like to reread this book, and ideally to read about it as well. It feels like there’s a lot going on that the naïve reader can’t be sure of getting – religion gets mentioned a lot, but if there’s an overarching point to that I think I missed it.

Her admiration for Mussolini is introduced early and provides a sinister sense that something might be rotten or off at her core. By ninety-odd pages in, her affections have transferred from the Italian to the German fascists (on the grounds that they are exactly the same except for being more reliable). And ultimately, it seems, she is one of those influences that cannot be adequately captured by “good” or “bad”; a muse of fire who defines their schooldays and whom the years seem to tarnish, until you can hardly recognise the early description of her and you are left to hope that, when she is betrayed, it is early enough that the new Brodie set should have been only kindled, and not yet burnt, by their proximity to her.

Because, ultimately, there is one fact on which all explanation of this select elite rests: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Author Muriel Spark
Published 1961
Pages 123
Best line “You would think the urge would have passed by the time she got her clothes off.”
Best character The Jean Brodie of Sandy and Jenny’s imagination. “Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.”


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