Observations on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel SparkThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Penguin Modern Classics, World Book Night Reprint 2011
I received a copy of this from the lovely Little Interpretations

Oof, another book that is difficult to discuss.

I am probably the last person in the world to read this, but for those who are unfamiliar with the story, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about the unconventional teacher Miss Jean Brodie, who teaches those she considers “her girls” about her life, sexuality, art, instead of teaching the curriculum. The book follows both Jean Brodie, and her students, through most of their lives (a remarkable feat for such a short novel) and depicts their changing opinions of each other.

This book is incredibly clever and beautifully written. In its 128 pages it covers so much more than I expected. So much so that I feel that in order to truly understand the story and its themes, I should probably read it a second time. I also feel I would go from liking to loving this, on a second read, probably.

My somewhat rambly, somewhat random observations on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • The flashbacks and flashforwards that intersperse the text surprised me at first, confused me too, but I got used to it as I read on. It is actually a quite clever mechanism of capturing a lot in few words.
  • Are we supposed to be as captivated by Jean Brodie as her girls are? I did not enjoy her self-asserting ways, her confusion of right or wrong with her personal opinions:”Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
    “Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
    “That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”
    Her rebellion makes her interesting, though, and there is much humour to be found in the opinions expressed in this book.
  • The development of Jean Brodie as the reader views her is actually one of the most interesting parts of the book. Alongside Sandy (one of the Brodie bunch) the reader starts to mistrust and scoff at Miss Jean Brodie more and more while reading the book. While she is sympathetic at first, and you can feel the admiration of her girls, her insistence on her own opinions, and her own goals and principles in life slowly develop her into a rather tedious and controlling creature. And although I felt sorry for what happened to Miss Brodie later in life, I do not at all wonder at why the person did what she did.
  • I read this book in two manners, and I am curious to see what I think of these when I reread it: First, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seems to paint the logical progression of childhood/teenage influence and infatuation, in its portrayal of admiration, exemplars and daydreaming of living Miss Jean Brodie’s life and memories, to a slow adaptation, appropriation, and rejection of her principles and manner of living.
  • Simultaneously, I wonder if (and I’m conjecturing, because I’m still contemplating this), through the change in the reader’s sympathies towards Miss Brodie, Muriel Spark tried to discuss the influence and dangers of mass-movements surrounding totalitarian world-views. This seems to be discussed on a macro and a micro level. Frankly, Spark’s portrayal of Miss Brodie’s sympathies towards Mussolini and Hitler scared me a little, especially at first, what was she trying to say? Was Brodie’s admiration of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s “solutions” to society’s problems in fact her own? Was she simply portraying what many people in society must have felt for them pre-World War II? Having Brodie concede in later life, in the stage where the reader feels she’s quite ridiculous in some of her expressions, that “Hitler was rather naughty” to me was only part of the ways in which Brodie’s sympathy towards fascism was subverted. The comparison between girl-guides, fascism, and Jean Brodie’s influence over “her girls” seems to be telling. The moment that Sandy realises that some people think of all the girls of Jean Brodie as copies of her is a key turning point as well, I think.
  • All in all, what seems to makes me want to reread this book is exactly what makes it so very clever: there are pinpricks and references to a number of large themes hidden in every section of the story, whether it be through Miss Brodie’s opinions, the life of her girls, or world-events, in flashbacks, or flashforwards, in the main story arch or seemingly insignificant details.

Other Opinions: A Literary Odyssey, Care’s Online Book ClubSteph and Tony InvestigateVulpes LibrisLeeswammes, A Damned Conjuror Starts Lecturing, Reviews by Lola, Literate Housewife, Age 30+.. A Lifetime of Books, Jen and the Pen, Bibliographing, Booking in Heels, Novel Insights, One-Minute Book Reviews, Books Please, The Mookse and the Gripes, What Kate’s Reading, Sam Still Reading, Fifty Books Project, Lost in a Good StoryOld English Rose Reads, The Broke and the Bookish, Books 4 Breakfast, Booknotes by LisaThings Mean A Lot, Nose in a Book.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list. 

20 thoughts on “Observations on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

  1. Nymeth

    “Through the change in the reader’s sympathies towards Miss Brodie, Muriel Spark tried to discuss the influence and dangers of mass-movements surrounding totalitarian world-views.”

    This is the reading I lean towards, though I suspect I’d also get much more out of it on a second reading. One to revisit for sure.

    Reply
  2. Sandy

    Well, you aren’t the last because I have not read this. But you have certainly motivated me, because these are definitely some weighty discussion points. I’m thinking it would even be good for a book club.

    Reply
  3. Alex

    I bough and read this one in Edinburgh a few years ago. I thought I’d have stronger feelings towards it than I actually did. Hear the movie adaptation with Maggie Smith is really good!

    Reply
  4. Care

    Fabulous review. It is full of interesting themes and this is amazing for how short it is. I agree this would likely be even better on a re-read.

    Reply
  5. zibilee

    This is a book that I have had on my radar for some time now, and your observations really make me want to go out and read it as soon as I can. It does sound very complex, especially since it is rather short, but it also sounds like something that I could really sink my mental teeth into. Great review today, Iris!

    Reply
  6. Emily Jane

    I loved this book. I’m not sure we’re supposed to be as enamored of Miss Brodie as “her girls” are, but at the same time, I could imagine myself as a young girl feeling that way about her or a similarly charismatic and rebellious older figure. And I think you’re right about the parallels between her changing dynamic with the Brodie set and the fascist movements of Europe. I also really liked the movie :)

    Reply
  7. selena

    having read your review and not having read the novel, i’m intrigued that something so short could do this much in its narrative! i’d rather like to see it done (though it seems that with every muriel spark book i’ve seen so far, they’re short. am i wrong in that?)

    Reply
  8. cbjamess

    It’s been several years since i read this so please forgive me if I mix up the characters. As I recall, there is one girl who basically turns on Miss Brodie after another girl leaves to join the fight in Spain on the side of Franco. I always felt that was there the author’s symapathies lay, with they girl who turned against Miss Brodie. I also felt that was the position we were supposed to take by the end of the book.

    Miss Brodie’s views of fascism were common throughout the world at the time. What impressed me about the book is the way the girls simply follow a charismatic teacher, unable to really look at her ideas critically. It’s an important point for we teachers to keep in mind.

    Reply
  9. Jillian ♣

    I had never explored what this novel is about, so I’d only eever heard the title. Now that I’ve read this, it sounds pretty interesting…

    Reply
  10. A Year of Reading My Own Books Blog

    Hi Iris: interesting to hear your thoughts. I have several Sparks books on my shelves and a goal of getting to know her work. And I love how you list so many other reviewers at the end, I am going to start doing that, to date I have only worked a couple into my posts. Happy reading, Ruby

    Reply
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  14. SarahCT

    This book, in my opinion, is Spark at her best. Her views on life is very complex, and she does not love or hate her characters, thus leaving the reader to experience each character as the story unfolds. Another Spark book I loved was A Far Cry From Kensington.

    Reply

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