Where to start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? On the surface the book is simple, Jean Brodie, teacher, a woman in her prime, and the six girls who are the Brodie set. Miss Brodie’s methods of teaching are unorthodox but the girls are loyal to her even when headmistress Miss MaKay begins inviting the girls to tea to pump them for information she can use to get Miss Brodie fired. Eventually, when earnest encouragement has stopped, one of the girls betrays Miss Brodie.
Underneath the simple story with the simple style, is a surprising depth: the power a teacher has to shape the lives of her students and the disillusionment of the student when she realizes the teacher is only human. The book takes small leaps into the future now and then so the reader knows fairly early on that Miss Brodie will be betrayed and by whom it will be done. The how and why is left to develop with the progression of the narrative.
Miss Brodie never finds out who betrays her. She never knows the betrayal came from the one she trusted most, and still trusts after it is all over. I don’t know if Miss Brodie genuinely doesn’t know, or if she just doesn’t want to know, refuses to believe in the truth that is before her. Miss Brodie is a likable character. I feel bad for the end of her prime. It ends, I think, because of a certain amount of hubris, too much belief in her power to hold her girls’ loyalty forever. She forgets that even though the girls are young and impressionable, they grow up and they learn different ways of looking at the world–Miss Brodie cannot control their thoughts, she cannot control who the girls become. She thinks she can. And that is her downfall.
While I feel sorry for Miss Brodie I also found myself wondering how she could be so stupid. The book takes place in the 1930s. Mussolini and Hitler are just coming into power. Miss Brodie thinks fascism will make the world a better place. Maybe it is because I have the hindsight of history that her thinking makes me cringe.
I felt throughout the book an underlying sense of menace. I have tried to put my finger on it, but I am not sure what it is exactly. Perhaps it is the early knowledge that Miss Brodie will be betrayed by one of her own. Perhaps it is the personal details of her life, real and imagined, that she imparts to the girls. Maybe it’s both, or something else. Whatever it was, it gave me a creepy feeling now and then.
How does Miss Brodie compare to my extra credit book, A Far Cry From Kensington? Both have the same wry humor. Sandy, one of Miss Brodie’s girls, reminded me a little of Mrs. Hawkins in A Far Cry. It also had a touch of menace in it. Both books also focus on a sort of closed community–the school in Miss Brodie and a boarding house in A Far Cry. Each of them is peopled with delightfully quirky individuals. Miss Brodie, however, is definitely a deeper read.
I enjoyed both Spark books very much and after a bit of a break, plan to read more of her.