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.