Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the tale of an innovative and very different teacher at a girl’s school in 1930’s Edinburgh. Miss Jean Brodie chooses to dismiss the standard classroom exercises, along with the classroom itself, in favour of real knowledge garnered from a life lived with the intention of ever improving the mind. She takes her classes outdoors and tells them of her life, her loves, her passion for art and of her extensive travel in Europe, occasionally asking them to repeat certain parts of the lesson so as to relate them to the standard curriculum. She invites the class to teas and takes them on unconventional excursions, leading them through part of Edinburgh they would not otherwise see, i.e. the impoverished sectors. As she does so, the students learn not only of art, but of life and its many facets. Miss Mackay, the headmistress of the school, doesn’t care for Miss Brodie or her methods and repeatedly tries to catch her out so she can dismiss her, but Miss Brodie’s success with the girls prevents her from being able to do so.

After a while, the girls begin to stand out in the school and become known as the Brodie set, a mark which they never loose. The story also begins to drift more and more into the personal life of Miss Brodie as she makes the girls into her friends and not just pupils. This, as is repeatedly is mention in the flash forwards, turns out to be her downfall as one of her pupils betrays her. Even when the girls go on to other classes and forms and Miss Brodie herself teaches new students, this particular set of girls continues to play a pivotal role in Miss Brodie’s life.

Superficially, this book is a quick and good read, but it offers a lot of food for thought if you care to think about it. Miss Jean Brodie, who constantly professes to be in her prime, is a passionate, somewhat unorthodox woman with deep undercurrents of malcontent and disappointment. She loves where she cannot and cannot return love where she should. She wants to keep her pupils from becoming boxed in as society would have it and free them to widen their horizons. In some ways, it’s quite reminiscent of the Bloomsbury School, even though it’s being written decades later. Unfortunately for Miss Brodie, she also possesses a naïveté which she uses as a buffer against the real world. It’s almost as if she knows, but ignores, that the world is a much harder place than she feels it should be. If she consequently disregards the inconvenient truths of life, in part by romanticising everything she sees and hears, they will not affect her. It’s as though she believes that her convictions will materialize if she simply believes in them long enough and hard enough. She is trying to shape the world through will instead of pragmatism. It is this forced ignorance of reality, or romanticism, that finally leads to her betrayal as she is finally incapable of seeing things how they are instead of how she would like them to be.

My first impression of the book was to chalk it up onto my “have read” list and relegate it to the back shelf. It turned out to be a bit more difficult than that. Somehow it’s worked itself into my subconscious and keeps popping up at the most unexpected times with an analogy or a sudden flash of understanding about what Spark intended. It’s almost like it’s haunting me and challenging me to think, as Miss Brodie was trying to do for her pupils. In my opinion, that’s one of the things that makes a book great and I can now understand what all the fuss is about with this one. 5 out of 5. A must read.

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