Muriel Spark, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961) – This was a fun little novel. Taking place mostly in 1930s Edinburgh, we follow the lives of six young pupils of one Jean Brodie, an unconventional schoolteacher who, we are told often enough, is in her prime for the course of the novel’s action. She picks favorites; she eschews the typical curricula in favor of “truth and beauty” and the occasional nod at interwar fascism. She has an unfulfilled love affair with the art teacher and a fulfilled one with the music teacher. She has a lot going on.
Spark masterfully warps the narrative, taking us forward into the future when the girls are grown and back into the past again with flawless aplomb and great gusto. Notionally, what’s “at stake” is who “betrayed” Jean Brodie, that is, narced her out to the school administration and got her early-retired. But this is solved relatively early in the book and the rest of it goes to show the logic behind it. Spark observes the manners of middle-class Edinburgh pointedly and poignantly, and while I don’t know what it’s like to be an eleven year old girl, I do know what it’s like to be eleven, and I don’t think Spark forgot either.
I’m not entirely sure what “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is “about,” or if it needs to be “about” anything. If I had to put a spin on it, it would be about how adults project onto children, including the supposedly sensitive and intelligent adults, and what sort of trouble and loss of perspective that leads to. The last revealed actions of Jean Brodie are genuinely terrible, leading to trauma and death, and come from blurring the lines between herself and her students. But it’s all dealt with with a consummately light and deft touch. Highly recommended for those in to the art of fiction for its own sake. *****