Saturday, 10 October 2015

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

This review contains mild spoilers.

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” 

Title: The Prime of Miss Jean Brody
Author: Muriel Spark
Year: 1961

Through the eyes of Sandy, Rose, Jenny, Monica, Eunice and Mary, the character of Jean Brodie is introduced. She was their teacher all throughout their teenage years. A remarkable teacher, one they will never forget. At first this seems to be because of her strange way of teaching, not bothering with the curriculum at all. The six girls were also Miss Brodie’s favourite which meant they were invited to all sorts of activities outside of school. As a reader our insights grow along with the girls, and as they get older, they become aware of their teacher’s strange behaviour, manipulations, and fascist ideas.

Spark based the character of Miss Brodie on her own teacher, Christine Kay, “a fiercely independent Edinburgh school ma’am, determined to tell her charges all about life’s pleasures, rather than teach them the boring curriculum” (Roberts). The character of Sandy represented Spark herself, who was obsessed with her teachers’ personal life (Roberts).

The novel starts out whimsical and cute, both in plot and in writing style. The former in the sense that the children are so excited and loving towards their teacher as well as the other way around. The writing style fits in this due to the comical repetitiveness, mostly when people are introduced, and later described again as if they had never occurred before. Moreover, the title of the novel is constantly emphasised – Miss Brodie was in her prime. This, unfortunately, became too repetitive, to the point of annoyance. This style changes, though, just as the plot does. It turns darker and darker as we learn about Brodie’s secret agenda as well as Sandy’s betrayal. This makes for an engaging dynamic between style and plot.

Another interesting shift takes place, namely one in focal point. The character all action revolves around throughout the first part of the novel is Miss Brodie. Around two thirds of the novel, the focus turns to Sandy and it turns into a story about her unmasking of the teacher. At that point the novel transforms into a much more difficult and layered piece of literature. The reader is pro Miss Brodie, not fully aware of her faults just yet. Sandy is despised as her actions seem solely driven by jealousy. As a consequence of the shift, though, these ideas are juggled and shaken. The real importance of the story becomes clear and one is left feeling cheated. Just like the Brodie set.

All these changes in the story made me want to read the story again, right after I finished it, trying to see if I could read the novel trying to detect all unethical aspects to Miss Brodie’s teaching, and this way allowing me to be more judgemental towards her. This is what Judy Suh also addresses in her study of the novel, and she states that “the novel does not as a result of featuring such a magnetic character posit the impossibility of judgement” (87). While presently I cannot fully agree with this statement for as I said before, I feel the novel tricked me into liking Miss Brodie too much, but I am interesting to see how I would view her the second time around.

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