The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark


published 1961


Prime of Miss Jean B 2


[The Marcia Blaine School for Girls, Edinburgh, the 1930s]


The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth‐form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. But there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.


Prime of Miss Jean B 1


These girls formed the Brodie set. That was what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve. At that time they had been immediately recognisable as Miss Brodie's pupils, being vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorised curriculum, as the headmistress said, and useless to the school as a school. These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witchhazel over honest soap and water, and the word "menarche"; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Bronte and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less.


commentary: A new play based on this book has just finished a run in London: it was excellent, memserising, with a particularly charismatic performance by Lia Williams as Miss B. You could understand how she would win the hearts and souls of the crème de la crème.

I saw it with friends B, M and J, and afterwards we stood outside the theatre discussing it for so long that we met some of the cast when they came out later. We were considering the differences between book and play, and I was making confident assertions that I already half-knew were probably false memories. So the next day I picked up the book and re-read it: it takes no time at all, it is very short.

Prime of Miss Jean B 3

And what a masterpiece it is. It tells a tight story of a schoolmistress and her influence on one group of her pupils. The action happens over a few years in the 1930s, with some flash-forwards to the late 40s. It should be a tiny chamber piece, but it is big and mysterious, and the idea of a ‘prime’, and the children who are the ‘crème de la crème’, have entered the language. People who have never read the book or seen film or play know about Miss Jean Brodie, she is part of the culture.

I first read it when I was in my teens, when I thought it would be a grown-up school story, light and light-hearted. I have probably read it every ten years since, and have found it to be a completely different story each time: it reflects the age you are when you read it. Every time something new strikes you: in my case this time it was the description of an Edinburgh full of women like Miss Jean Brodie, and the final line from Sandy.

But it is always dark and thought-provoking, while always making you laugh. And her description of the thoughts and random interests of schoolgirls is tremendously convincing, the mixture of sex and crushes and books and things understood and other things not understood at all: funny and wholly real. The language is rhythmic and very repetitious, in a surprising (for such a short book) but not annoying way.

I was certain I hadn’t done a blog entry on it, but when looking for schoolgirl photos I found that I had included this in a list of fictional schools:
The Marcia Blaine Academy in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a select day school in Edinburgh. I always fear that I would not have been one of the crème de la crème, Miss Brodie would not have taken a fancy to me. For a start, I would have had my sleeves rolled up like someone ‘doing a day’s washing.’ She says: ‘I won’t have to do with girls who roll up the sleeves of their blouses… Roll them down at once, we are civilized beings.’
The book is very clever and witty, and Miss Jean Brodie is such a clear and visible figure – but at the same time the reader searches endlessly for the meaning of the book, and the judgements we can make on the girls and their teacher.

It’s a marvellous book, and one everyone should read.

And while I don’t hate Alan Bennett’s History Boys, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie really shows it up: Spark’s young women are much more entertaining than Hector’s boys. (To me, and perhaps other women?).

Both b/w photos are by Sam Hood, and come from the State Library of New South Wales.

By chance I came across the marvellous original cover illustration forthe book,  by Victor Reinganum.

There are more Muriel Spark books all over the blog.



















Comments

  1. Oh, so good to see this one highlighted here, Moira. I've always thought that, for a small book, it really has had a powerful influence. And it says so much in so little space, if I can put it that way. I especially like the way the story explores the social dynamics of the characters, and shows how much influence that has, even years later.

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    1. It's astonishing how much it contains in its small number of pages, Margot - such an impressive accomplishment.

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    1. Exactly, me too, that's all you need to say!

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  3. I would guess I have read this book, but it falls within the range of "I don't know for sure." So will try to read it sometime. I am sure I will enjoy it.

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    1. I think you would Tracy, and as I say above, it means different things at different times in your life...

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  4. This is my all-time favorite book--it is so masterfully told and vivid. I reread it every year, and find that different parts speak to me each time.

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    1. Exactly. It is most impressive how it grows and changes with the reader....

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  5. It's not my favourite book by Spark, that's The Girls of Slender Means, but well worth reading. The bit about the angle of the hats makes me think of how we customised our school uniforms in Scotland back in the 1970s. We didn't wear hats in those days so we all did different things with our ties which had to be worn. I got into trouble for wearing it around my head - well it held my hair back!

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    1. I love the Girls of Slender Means too.
      Yes, we customized our uniforms too. We had to wear hats, and gloves, when I first started senior school, but luckily they were quickly phased out. But we definitely had ways of wearing them: no elastic (unlike Sandy in the book in fact) and there were 'tabs' - ends of ribbons hanging down your neck, and you had to tuck those into your hat to be cool...

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