Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

Originally published in 2 parts, in April and May 2004.
Book 14 in my first 52 books challenge.


Author: Muriel Spark
Published: 1961
Where got: second hand shop
Genre: Literature, satire

I seem to have a knack for choosing books that have been made into movies. I wonder why?

This week's choice was made into a memorable, if rather stagy, movie, starring the wonderful Maggie Smith.

SPOILERS AHEAD!
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Don't say I didn't warn you!

The book is about a teacher at a private girl's school in Edinburgh (Scotland) who has her own special ideas about education. She strives to turn out girls who are liberated and free thinking - or what she thinks is liberated and free thinking. Her behaviour and teaching methods are far from orthodox in the conservative environment of the school. She makes enemies among the other teachers and the headmistress is constantly trying to find an excuse to get rid of her. Her closest allies are a group of her students, six girls known as "the Brodie Set" among the other teachers and students of the school. The story is about her relationship with the girls and how the girls' perceptions of her change as they get older, and how in the end one of them betrays her fascist political ideas to the headmistress, causing her to be forced into early retirement.

This is in many ways a good story. Jean Brodie is a memorable character, somewhat unsympathetic and utterly real and understandable. She is the kind of teacher who can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. A blessing because she readily diverges from the set curriculum to tell her students about foreign countries and other interesting subjects, and a curse because she does so much of it that learning is mostly done at home and can be reflected in bad grades. Her teaching seems to consist mostly of telling the girls about her life and travels and trying to mould each of them into the persons she believes they are destined to become. The girls seem to love her unquestioningly and form a protective shield between her and the headmistress whose attempts to get something on her become ever more desperate as the narrative continues. We are told almost from the start that she will be betrayed by one of her own girls, and when the betrayal happens, it is quite understandable why the girl did what she did, although you still feel sorry for Miss Brodie.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time and is somewhat disjointed at times. It took me quite some time to figure out the age of Miss Brodie, and sometimes it wasn't clear how old the girls were either (not that it matters much).

Rating: A decent read, nothing earth-shattering, but worth taking the time. The movie is better (in my opinion) even though it is a bit stagy - Maggie Smith captures Miss Brodie perfectly. 3 stars.

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