Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Jean Brodie is one of the most complex characters in modern literature. As a teacher, she is passionate about her pupils, even if her methods are frowned upon by the authorities. This makes her a rebel, and we should love her for that. But her influence is malign; she attempts to cajole one of her girls into an affair with the art master, as a surrogate for herself, and another of her wards races to her doom in the Spanish Civil War, fighting on Franco’s side. Brodie is a great supporter of Hitler and Mussolini, and this is one of her most shocking characteristics.
But The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie isn’t just about its protean, Jekyll-and-Hyde hero/villain. The schoolgirls are also beautifully drawn, intriguing personalities in their own right, and the book has a complex narrative structure, flowing backwards and forwards in time. Muriel Spark’s earliest incarnation was as a poet, and this is very much a poet’s work: short and pungent, with no excess fat. An early champion of the ‘nouveau roman’, Spark was a great admirer of the elliptical novels of Robbe-Grillet. She fuses her knowledge to a very Scottish theme – the twinning of good and evil; the inability of each to exist without the other – and to a lilting east coast style of writing.
If all this makes the book seem worthy and literary, think again. There’s a lightness of touch throughout, with an abundance of comic set-pieces. Two of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’, Sandy and Jenny, imagine a series of letters between Miss Brodie and a fictitious lover, one of which ends: ‘Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.’ Such a construction not only makes us laugh, but reminds us that these are impressionable young girls.
Brodie is not in itself a love letter to Spark’s native city. There is a tough argument contained at its heart as to the validity of a Scottish education system which, in the 1930s, owed much to Dickens’ Gradgrind. Brodie wants her girls to learn about beauty and culture, Giotto and Da Vinci. In effect, what their teacher wants is a fresh batch of mini-Brodies, who can play out in reality the dreams she has harboured throughout her spinsterhood. This heralds her final undoing. It’s a book which repays many readings. I was a late convert, having seen the Maggie Smith film first. But it has become a favourite, one of the greatest Scottish books of all time.
Further reading: The Comforters (1957) focuses on a woman who is fully aware she is a character in a novel; The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) charts Dougal Douglas’ devilish effects on a factory.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.