Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

First read: 12/99
Reviewed on: 12/3/99
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

So, I was about 8 years old, watching television with my dad.  A woman was telling some girls, "If they want to stop me, they'll have to assassinate me."  I wasn't paying a lot of attention, because I was busy with my toy robots (The Zeroids).   But the commercial came on, and then an announcer said, "We now return to the Crime of Miss Jean Brodie."  I asked Dad what the movie was about, and he said it was about a teacher who didn't believe in teaching the way the others did.  And I thought that must be the "crime" referred to in the title.

But I didn't care about all that.  The important thing was that Dad answered me seriously.  We had a real grown-up-type conversation.  That type of thing meant a lot to me then.  I even tried to pay attention to the movie, so we could discuss it all adulty afterwards.  Nobody else was in the room.  Just Shaw the eldest and Shaw the youngest, watching TV like grownups.  But I couldn't follow the plot; it seemed like a bunch of girls talking.  I wound up going back to the Zeroids.

The climactic scene was Miss Brodie yelling at one of the girls.  "Assassin!   Assassin!"  and then stuff happened and the movie ended.  And I made a connection.  I realized that foreshadowing had taken place, that the line "they'll have to assassinate me" was a set up for the final downfall of Brodie, metaphorically "assassinated" by one of her own students.  But I didn't know words like "metaphorically" and "foreshadowing."  I just knew that I had noticed something really "smart" and wanted to point it out to my dad.   "At the beginning of the movie she said that they would have to assassinate her, and at the end she really was" was the way it came out.  And my dad then patiently explained that she wasn't REALLY assassinated.  And I didn't know what to say.  My clever insight wasn't heard; instead he thought that I didn't understand the movie.  I was back to being a little kid.  I said something else, mentioning the title, and Dad laughed at me and said, "Prime, not Crime."

...and then I grew up to become a teacher who didn't believe in teaching the way the others did.

...and then I bought the book, because I hadn't read anything from #68 through #85, and I thought that if I picked a book in the middle, I would look smarter to someone looking at the list.  I never outgrew that.  I'm a petty bastard, actually.

So, let's talk about the book.  It was excellent.  Muriel Spark was able to write a novel that jumped around in time and place that wasn't at all annoying about it.   She used the time jumps to really make the characters live.  Ten-year-old Mary isn't just the picked-on girl, she becomes the picked-on girl who will die in a fire in her twenties.  Ten-year-old Rose Stanley is the little girl who in six years will be "famous for sex." 

She also uses repetition like a poet.  Certain paragraphs from the beginning of the book were repeated verbatim at the end, although the meaning is changed subtly because we are different people at the end than we were at the beginning.  Similarly, she repeats the phrase "famous for sex" when referring to Rose Stanley enough during the first half of the book that whenever we see her name, we automatically think "famous for sex" which is probably the intent.

Muriel made a very interesting choice on the "betrayal" issue.  She sets up a mystery in the first ten pages:  One of the six girls will betray Jean Brodie.   But Who?  Who?

And then she spoils it a third of the way through the book.  She doesn't play the mystery game.  Its an important plot point, that I could easily see being revealed at the very end, but for some reason Spark mentions it in passing and moves on. 

Although I loved this book, I do think it was primarily written for women.  When the six girls are introduced (at 16 years old), their personalities are established partially by the way they wear their Panama hats.  Eunice Gardiner has the brim of hers turned up at the front and down at the back.  Rose Stanley, who is famous for sex, wears hers "quite unobtrusively", but dented in the crown on either side.   I know women who can tell a lot about someone by the way they wear their Panama hat, but I don't know any Real Men who are tuned into those subtleties.

There is a real accuracy to Dame Spark's writing.  The six girls and their teacher really live through her use of details.  Sandy and Jenny learn a little physics and then joke, "If Miss Brodie were weighed in air and then in water."  I used to play with concepts that way.  The only book that paints a more realistic picture of young girls, in my opinion, is the wonderful The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (a book which I think is one of the Top 100 Novels Of All Time, but I suspect wasn't on the list because it is a children's book)

I wish I was mature enough not to notice that the name of Brodie's nemesis, Miss Mackay, is the same as the name of the guidance counselor on the television show South Park.  But I did.  Instantly.  And it made me smile every time she spoke.  

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