Book Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By: Muriel Spark
Published By: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 1961
Page Count: 160
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
First of all, don’t let the 160 pages thing fool you, there is plenty going on in Muriel Spark’s take on a private, all-girls education in Edinburgh. This novel is small, but dense. And every plot point, every character, every word in it is incredibly hardworking and has a specific purpose. It’s getting five birdies for a reason…
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the 1930s at a private, all-girls school in Scotland. Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy the novel just for Spark’s ability to convey place and time period. You feel like you’re watching a period drama on PBS as you read her descriptions of the environment and culture. The teenagers are well written and realistic, but that is only the tip of the iceberg with Miss Brodie, because she is a mesmerizing and fantastically drawn character. And every member of her hand-selected “Brodie set” of loyal students is dedicated, beyond rational comprehension really, to their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie. And in turn, the magnetic Miss Brodie allows “her girls” to hang on her every word, share in her dreams, hear about her sexual exploits, and, if they’re lucky, spend some quality time with her. All at once you love Jean Brodie and you hate her, but above all you are in awe of her magnetic power and manipulative skill.
As far as her writing style goes, Spark takes very little in terms of plot events and twists, turns, and manipulates her characters in a way that seems both accidental and intentional. The characters seem like living, breathing creatures with minds of their own because of the authenticity with which she creates them and the way she reveals them bit by bit. No one is all good and no one is all bad, maybe.
Now, about the ending…It is entirely too difficult to write a full review without giving away spoilers, but giving away spoilers would make the novel less than it is. The experience of reading it would diminish so much, if you already knew what was coming in the second half, I might tell you not to bother reading it. (I might, but I wouldn’t because I would never rob you of the joy this little book can bring!) The ending is surprising, yet exactly what you see coming when reflected upon. Spark plays with time effectively, letting the readers in on bits and pieces throughout the novel that maintain your curiosity and interest just enough to suspect, but not KNOW what Miss Brodie is up to.
Final Word: A character study that intrigues, surprises, and fulfills your hunger for hearty, well written literature. And at the risk of sounding like a movie trailer, I guarantee it’s the best 160 pages you’ll read this year.
Jean Brodie is a teacher with advanced and unconventional ideas that put her at odds with the other members of staff at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, as she endeavours to shape the lives of the select group of girls who form her "set".