Thursday, August 19, 2021

Book 298: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


"She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed."

Dates read: February 24-27, 2019

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Like everyone who's ever been to school, I've had teachers that run the gamut. Most of them were decent. Some were awful. Some were great. There was my fourth grade teacher, who was personally offended that I would read during class because I was bored and made it her mission to embarrass me by catching me not paying attention (she never succeeded). And then there was Mrs. Helppie, my AP English teacher who single-handedly taught me to write with anything approximating skill and would make us kettle corn and show us movies based on books/plays on Fridays. I will never forget her or her truly impressive selection of jewelry.

For most of us, our formative teachers are people whose influence on us was in the classroom, where their inspiration was related to learning about the world. In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, things are different. The titular Ms. Brodie cultivates a group of girls at their school in Scotland, seeming to be one of those "inspirational" teachers often idealized in books and film: she believes that what happens outside of the classroom can be just as important if not more so than what happens inside of it. She invites them (brainy Monica, pretty Jenny, sporty Eunice, sultry Rose, observant Sandy, and the poor scapegoat, Mary) to her home, takes them on cultural outings. But along with art and history, Ms. Brodie is also a big fan of fascism. And her interest goes beyond just being a role model for her they grow up, she begins to manipulate them.

Ms. Brodie is a single woman, and falls in love with Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher. Their mutual affection is never consummated, so even while Ms. Brodie carries on a relationship with the bachelor singing teacher Mr. Lowther, she schemes to get one of her girls to have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her stead, confiding in Sandy about her plans. While Rose is her intended proxy, it is Sandy who winds up sleeping with him, and who adopts his Catholic faith and becomes a nun. It is from the convent that she is recounting her youth and the role Ms. Brodie played in her life.

This is a brief work, only about 150 pages. As such, many of the characters are flat, even most of the "Brodie set" outside of Sandy. But generally speaking, it paints a vivid portrait of a time, and a place, and the people involved. Jean Brodie is a character who soars off the page, complex and interesting and so deeply flawed. For all her bluster and bravado and determination to avoid pity, she's ultimately a pitiful figure. And one who's careless of the damage she causes, inspiring a student to run away to fight for Franco, which leads to her death. On a lesser level, Sandy's assignation with her art teacher does not leave her without damage.

I was of two minds about the length. On the one hand, I wish there had been more time to develop the other girls, and the relationships between them as well their connection to Ms. Brodie. On the other hand, I don't know that the plot would have the same power, the same feeling of a drive toward the inevitable conclusion, if it had to persist over a longer period of time. This is a solid book, and an unusual twist on the stories about teachers who change lives. I'd recommend it for a quick, engaging read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B

Two years ago, I was reading: The Forgotten Sister

Three years ago, I was reading: Life After Life

Four years ago, I was reading: Mildred Pierce

Five years ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

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