Saturday, 28 July 2012

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE – Muriel Spark, 1961

Being part way through a biography of Muriel Spark, I thought it was time to re-read this. I’d actually forgotten how short it is.
Having been a teacher myself, I know how hard it is to please the establishment and how important it is ‘to make a difference.’ Miss Brodie only cared about one of these issues.
Like all good things, she goes too far and is finally betrayed by one of her pupils. There is no mystery; we learn early on which one it will be. We also find out the fate of her ‘girls.’
Miss Brodie, as Spark makes clear, is not unique. The years after the First World War saw legions of single women looking for a purpose. The character is so compelling, however, that she seems unique.
Sandy, Eunice, Rose, Mary, Jenny and Monica are the special girls she singles out to receive the benefits of her ‘prime.’ They soon begin to stand out in the school and not for the best reasons. The problem is that Miss Brodie’s progressive methods do not sit well with the conservative ethos of the school. She tells her students to prop their books up and pretend that they are studying geometry when really she is telling them about Hugh, her lover who fell in the war, or how Mussolini is transforming Italy.
She teaches them to love beauty and culture, though, and to make the most of their opportunities.
If we can, with the benefit of history, excuse her political zeal, we can’t forgive the fact that she is a bully to Mary, one of her least-promising pupils, and blames her for everything, almost foretelling Mary’s untimely death.
But years later when Sandy, now a nun, is asked about her influences, she replies ‘there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.’

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