The inspirational teacher is a stock character in literature and film, from Jane Eyre’s Miss Temple and Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore to John Keating in The Dead Poets Society. These instructors light a spark in the hearts and minds of their students, often while fighting a traditional, conservative school system. However, an inspirational teacher has great power over their students, and such power can be dangerous. This is the case of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher of both great inspiration and sinister influence.
Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the story of the titular character, an unconventional teacher at a conventional girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930’s, in her self-proclaimed “prime.” She gathers a group of students around her, known as the “Brodie Set,” and not only opens their minds to experiences outside the traditional curriculum, but involves them in her personal affairs, as well. Miss Jean Brodie is an exquisitely complex character: she is a teacher who wants to enlighten her students but is also deeply narcissistic, self-centered, and self-righteous, frequently admonishing her students that “if only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.” The “set” becomes a reflection of her own ego, and she wields them as pawns in her love affairs and ultimately encourages one of them down a deadly path.
Written in 1961, this “modern” classic combines the best of contemporary story-telling techniques with throwbacks to 19th century style. The prose is traditional and lucid, without the verbosity of many earlier classics or the lyrical mumbo-jumbo of some contemporary books. On the first page, in a clear and satisfying style that characterizes the book, Spark tells the reader, “The girls could not take off their Panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence.”
The sharp, brisk dialogue is reminiscent of Jane Austen, as it wittily exposes the absurdities of the characters. Readers know Miss Brodie through her words; they hear her voice and understand her character instantly. Take, for example, this exchange between Miss Brodie and one of her “small girls”:
“I must tell you about the Italian paintings I saw. Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”
“Attend to me, girls. One’s prime is the moment one was born for. Now that my prime has begun – Sandy, your attention is wandering. What have I been talking about?”
“Your prime, Miss Brodie.”
Such dialogue is delicious, and perfectly conveys Miss Brodie’s essence. It is vibrant and fresh, yet reminiscent of a comedy of manners.
Though rooted in classic prose and dialogue born of an earlier time, Sparks makes masterful use of experimental flash-forwards, seamlessly weaving the present action with haunting scenes of the future: “Mary McGregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame, and at the age of twenty-three lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden.’” Spark uses this technique to reveal that Miss Brodie will be “betrayed” by one of her own set, but does not reveal the culprit until the last pages, creating one of the book’s main points of intrigue.
The concept of this book remains unique to this day, taking the stock character of the inspirational teacher and showing its darker potential for abuse of power. Miss Brodie is brilliant and magnetic yet dangerous as a cult-leader, surrounding herself with blind followers. As she says, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” Spark’s characterization of the girls, following them from ages 10 to 17, captures the innocent loyalty and obsession with their dramatic and poetic teacher that makes them so easily manipulated. The narration is from the girls’ perspective, particularly Sandy’s, and this allows the readers to see Miss Brodie from the girls’ awed point-of-view.
Rooted in classic prose, yet bursting with ingenious story-telling techniques and fascinating characters, this short book is compelling and engrossing. Any modern day reader will find it to be “the crème de la crème.”