I tend to avoid short novels. I’m either in the mood to work through a collection of short stories (with their clearly defined stopping points) or spend a good chunk of time with a big, meaty novel. Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, has taught me that the novella deserves a place in my reading life as well. Strange and concise, Spark’s best-known work offers a unique perspective I had yet to encounter in literature, and one that I am now glad to have read.
Miss Jean Brodie is the unconventional teacher of ten-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a stuffy Catholic school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1930s. At first, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods are relatively harmless: she selects six girls—the “Brodie set”—to serve as her “crème de la crème” as she encourages them to appreciate Beauty and Culture by escorting them to concerts and museums and reading Jane Eyre aloud to them. However, once the girls graduate from her tutelage to the Senior School, Miss Brodie’s behavior becomes increasingly inappropriate and serves not the girls’ well-being, but her own selfish aims. Though one of her own ultimately betrays her, the girls of the Brodie set are forever influenced by the lessons they learned as teenagers from their Machiavellian instructor.
What I loved most about this concise but psychologically complex novella is the fresh perspective that it offers. World War I shocked the United States and Europe with the barbarity of its violence and the unprecedented number of casualties the new style of battle bred. As a result, a myriad of new voices emerged from the war telling stories that American and European literature had never heard before. Amazingly, the experiences of the women affected by the decimation of so many young men have largely been ignored. The story of Miss Jean Brodie helps to remedy that deficit.
As a young woman when the war began, Miss Brodie, like many women, suffered the loss of her fiancé. Also like many other women of her time, Miss Brodie is unable to secure another prospect and dedicates the abundant energy of her young adulthood—her “prime”—to the education of the girls she instructs at the Marcia Blaine School. However, the loss of her fiancé, and thus the family life she had surely imagined for herself, tinges Miss Brodie with a bitterness that cultivates the manipulative, selfish behavior she exhibits. Miss Brodie’s actions are disturbing, but her motivations are realistic considering her experiences, and therefore surely worth telling.
Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a strange but intriguing book. The length and contents of the novel seem perfectly suited for film adaptation so I look forward to checking out the movie soon!