The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark

This is a story of schoolgirls and their beloved, one-of-a-kind teacher (Jean Brodie) in 1930s Scotland that manages to capture what it is to be a schoolgirl in any time and any place. Don't get the wrong impression. Despite that description, it is not a happy tale in the manner of Pollyanna or Understood Betsy, say. It is far more complex than that and has a fascinating yet very real heart of darkness. I have heard people who have seen The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on the stage remark on how downright frightening it is. That is a good description. Additionally, although it traverses the lives of several girls from preteen to adulthood, this book manages decidedly not to be a coming-of-age tale. The story is at once mundane and surreal (like junior high can be), and there is an economy of style to Muriel Spark's writing that accentuates the surrealism of it all. Her omniscient yet reticent narration switches on the fly between past and present just as easily as it switches between the characters' fantasy lives and real lives. In short, the story is laid out exactly the way a junior high girl's brain is laid out. (And believe Classic Bitch, she ought to know. That's exactly where her emotional development is arrested.)

Classic Bitch rates this book as high as she does owing 100% to how perfectly Muriel Spark captures the essence of the preteen girl. Particularly strong here is the author's dead-on portrayal of girls' misinformed and/or uninformed understandings of sex. By inhabiting the realms of the girls' fantasy world right with them, the narrator is able to shed light on callow notions that would otherwise be buried for all eternity (probably even from the girls themselves as they became adults and forgot). This is largely accomplished through the book excerpting portions of the girls' journal—which is not so much an accurate retelling of their own day-to-day lives as it is a notebook in which they construct a fantasy diary on behalf of Miss Brodie. (Curiously, quite literally, the girls bury this notebook in the ground when they are done with it.) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about girls' "early sense of erotic wonder," as Muriel Spark writes. Here are two passages from the diary. Note that not much is written, yet the stiff construction imparts the girls' burgeoning eros doing battle with their immature sense. This portion of the diary is meant to be a love letter from their teacher to her lover, a man at long last with whom Miss Brodie has just been the minds of the girls, that is...

• "I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime."
• "Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse."

If you don't laugh at this, you will cry. Classic Bitch did a little of both. It brought back to my mind my own junior high school days when we were forced to read Dickens. My boyfriend and I (hi, Christopher!) would sit at the back of the classroom and construct these elaborate dictionaries as to what certain words, when used in the context of great literature, actually meant (to us, personally). Of course everything had to do with sex or genitalia, as everything does in those days! So a character's head, was...well...not the head on his shoulders, let's say. And I recall that when a character exclaimed the word "Eureka" that it had something to do with getting one's period, in our minds. (You can imagine the fits of laughter we were put to.) Most hilarious was how frequently Charles Dickens used the world "ejaculate." It's not something you see much in writing today. An author would sooner write that a character "exclaimed" something, or perhaps even "interjected." But not ejaculated. (Well...there is some modern writing that uses that word...but it ain't literature!) What can I say? We were 12. We were consumed by Dick...ens.

Thanks for indulging me in my trip down memory lane. And thanks to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for that as well. I have been purposely obtuse in the write-up about the book, intending not to give the plot away here. This book is worth a read—it's very short; it won't take you long at all! Even if I were to try to recount what it is that makes the story dark, I don't know if I could in plain English. I mean it somewhat literally when I keep saying how surreal it is. Give it a try!