The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


One of the blurbs on the back of the book raves that Muriel Spark's novel, "Is the perfect novel." And it isn't far from the truth. In that statement it shares praise with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which has also been called the perfect novel. It also shares a great deal of the atmosphere of the former novel, though not of the content.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ostensibly about a very "liberal" and "progressive" school teacher of the 1930s who takes under her wing a group of girls called "The Brodie Set." This group is marked by their inability to blend in with the other girls in the upper form.

While the story is largely linear and appears to be the work of an anonymous Omniscient narrator, it is in fact a "limited" omniscient narrator, as the story careens along mostly from one point of view, with bits and pieces out of sequence and time from the other characters. It sounds as though this might create a confusing patchwork, but it does not. Instead we have a robust, multi-layered, amusing, sad, and powerful story of friendship, betrayal, conversion, and transformation.

The book, like most of Muriel Spark's works, is very short, and it is peppered through with delightful absurdities and contradictions of character. For example, while Miss Brodie teaches her girls that "team spirit blurs individuality," she starts the year by posting a picture of Mussolini and his "fascisti" and extols their impeccable timing marching together and working together, almost machine-like.

While the story is named for Miss Jean Brodie, and certainly pervaded by her influence, Miss Brodie is a strangely distant character. We get much closer to one of the girls and learn a great deal about Miss Brodie through her eyes. Interestingly, the author's descriptions of this character lead us to be somewhat ambivalent about her.

It isn't possible to recommend this book highly enough. Spark's observations of Brodie's opinions about religion and about Catholicism in particular, are brilliant and thought-provoking. Her observations of Jean Brodie, who, despite her intentions is actually quite an unpleasant sort of person--unpleasant to the point even of evil, give us pause as we consider the small, unadorned packages in which evil is contained. Those packages, the human heart, are the true territory of the novel, and it is for that reason, among others, that this is "the perfect novel." I plan to read it several more times in the near future because I feel my cursory second acquaintance with the work hardly does it justice.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 11, 2006 9:24 AM.

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