Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, The Classic Club

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark


This book was chosen for one of the entries for The Classics Club list as I’d heard so much about it from so many admirers and so I had to see what Jean Brodie had to say about herself, I wasn’t disappointed.

As the book opens we meet Miss Jean Brodie as she is with her ‘set.’ The ‘Brodie Set’ is a group of ten-year old girls who she taught at Marcia Blaine School for Girls. It’s the early 1930s and Miss Jean Brodie declares to her willing listeners that she is in her ‘prime.’ What that means for a woman in these inter-war years is that she is ready and willing for new experiences, she loves art and she wants to be loved. Sadly the man who she loves is married.

Miss Brodie sees her role with these chosen girls to guide them to love life and to love learning and as far as she’s concerned the way to get the most out of life you don’t need to worry too much about history or maths, you’re much better listening to the story of her own lost love, Hugh who died in the war. She takes them to galleries, concerts and for walks around Edinburgh but it is the lost love that dominates the girls imagination in the early section of the book.

“To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”

Having first met the girls at ten we see their personalities reflected through their teacher’s eyes, and each other’s. Considering the book is so slim, it has quite a lot to say – I can’t get the fate of poor Mary MacGregor who everyone dismissed for her stupidity but became a useful scapegoat by them all, out of my head.

Mary MacGregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman [and] at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire’.

When they move to the senior school the girls still meet with their mentor, having tea with her and her lover and the story takes a turn because of the shadow of disgrace should any impropriety be discovered which will most definitely ruin Miss Jean Brodie’s prime. It is when the girls become women that the betrayal occurs but it is left to the reader to decide how they feel about the betrayer and the betrayed.

What I was expecting from Muriel Spark’s chief protagonist was a woman making a difference in a world that still had such rigid expectations, an unconventional character who had passed down this way of being to the next generation, a feminist and a lover of life. What I actually got was something far less obvious. Our chief protagonist goes on holiday to Italy and over the years that the Brodie Set are in existence comes back to extol the way Fascism has transformed the country, for the better in her view and as the girls get older she becomes more obsessed with the idea that one of the girls, Rose, should have a love affair with the man who she loves but was sadly married to another. All very odd and unnecessary!

This is one of those books that is truly a classic because it creeps into your mind and takes up residence. It is a slim novel but one that has absolutely had me mulling over its sheer depth. There are layers of meaning, a brilliant depiction of the class distinction in 1930s as well of course the special restrictions placed upon the woman of that age.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is number 1 on  The Classics Club list and the eighth of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.

First Published UK: 1961
Publisher: Macmillan 
No of Pages: 144
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

24 thoughts on “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

  1. Lovely review, Cleo. I was lucky enough to get tickets for a recent theatre production of Miss Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Lia Williams was terrific in the lead role, at once both magnetic and dangerously unhinged.


  2. I’m so glad you liked this as well as you did, Cleo. It is definitely one of those books that stays with you, and that builds up in you as it goes along. And I do love the character descriptions, I have to say. I think they’re really well crafted and well written.


  3. “This is one of those books that is truly a classic because it creeps into your mind and takes up residence.” – I love this! She is such an unusual, and unusually good, writer.


  4. I had forgotten I’d read this book a couple of years ago. I was disappointed with it at the time. If I remember correctly how I felt back then, I did not like the unfairness of having this elite group of girls, this favouritism that would not be tolerated in today’s schools. I felt she’d warped them in their impressionable years. I wonder if I should reread it again and see if my opinion’s changed.


  5. Great review! So glad you enjoyed this one. I totally agree about the depths and the way she avoids the obvious with Miss Brodie – she’s a far more complicated character than at first you think she’s going to be, and I’m still not sure whether I admire her, despise her or pity her – all three, I think! I love the film too, but this is one where the book definitely has more depth than the film…


  6. Huh, this book sounds a bit strange to me. i remember reading reviews of it elsewhere, but I can’t say I approve of Miss Brodie’s lessons on romance. Math and science is important too!


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