“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark

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The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieIt’s another Muriel Spark book’s turn. This time I enjoyed the witty author’s style in a story about a peculiar girls’ school teacher, Miss Jean Brodie. Over forty and “in her prime”, as she can’t stop emphasizing throughout the novel, Miss Brodie is a one-woman-show with her educational entrepreneurship, high sense of order and discipline, penchant for talking about her love affairs to her students, and a dubious respect for the rising fascism.

The novel is set in Edinburgh in 1930’s and follows six girls chosen by the eccentric school teacher to be “groomed” into becoming “crème de la crème”. Miss Brodie is proud of her advanced teaching methods and, though most of the rest of the staff look disapprovingly on her methods, she picks “promising” girls generation after generation to help them realize their potential and bloom into exceptional women.

The main reason Miss Brodie earned the disapproval by the principal and some of the staff is because she has low esteem for mathematics, history and other sciences. Instead she believes that her select group will benefit much more from useful lessons about art and culture, as well as tips on beauty, hygiene and love affairs. When she takes them up, the girls are about ten and too young to resist the influence of such a strong-willed and eccentric woman. Thinking it her duty and good deed, Miss Brodie instills her values, principles and beliefs into these young ladies, and admires her work when they come of age.

Miss Brodie’s awe of Mussolini’s (and later Hitler’s) disciplined regime, no litter on the streets and no unemployment, came as a shock at first, but as I got to know the character, her fascination became clearer. I could easily excuse her being misguided, except that she’s doing something similar to her girls. It also made me wonder who, if any, of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances would perhaps fall into the trap of admiring fascism in the ’30s?

Though the critics all agree that Miss Brodie is an amazing character that will live for a long time in literature, if not forever, I was much more interested in the main of the six girls – Sandy. The wonderful world of Sandy’s imagination is described so sharply and humorously that Jean Brodie with her self-righteousness and questionable motives pales by comparison (for me). With her small pig-like eyes, plump figure, frequent ventures into imaginary conversations and amazing “insight” (whose development we follow from childish naivete to admirably shrewd perception), Sandy is the life of the novel. But you’ll find out  more about her only if you read the book. 😉

I love Muriel Spark’s style – clear, sharp, concise and with “sparks” of the surreal or exaggerated, which becomes the source of her particular humor. Though I enjoyed “Loitering with Intent” more, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is definitely worth reading for her exceptional writing and character building.

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