‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Sparks

Consistently found in top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century lists, Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an evergreen delight as the Edinburgh schoolteacher influences the girls in her charge.

A non-conformist, right-wing libertarian, Brodie is not popular among her more conservative female peers as she strives to encourage her girls to reject the restrictive, conventional ways of thinking, feeling and being assigned to their gender. As a result, the teacher prefers to talk about experience rather than teach maths to her junior charges at the Marcia Blaine School. Recent holidays to Italy or Germany and the advantageous changes wraught by fascism (the novel is set in the early 1930s) are top of the agenda as Brodie invests in a small group of six girls known as the Brodie Set. Private trips to galleries and museums, tea and cake at home are just part of Brodie’s instructional approach to teaching. Little is part of the curriculum.

At a time when a good name is part of the requirements for a position at the school, head teacher Miss Mackay constantly badgers girls within the Set for information. Her concern is not only political allegiance but rumours of extra-curricular behaviour with the two male teachers on staff – the married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, and later, singing master Gordon Lowther. But the girls remain faithful – even though, as the course of the novel unfolds, glimpses into future years show that one of the students later betrays Brodie, leading to her dismissal.

Based on one of her own teachers, Sparks writes of the personal drama in Brodie’s life – the loss of a lover in the Great War, the loneliness, the investment in the emerging adolescents and young women entering a new world order with new hope. It’s a time of post-war successes, yet to be darkened by the onset of a second world war.

Comic observation sits alongside social commentary and reflections on human nature in a surprisingly short (126 page) novel later made into an Oscar-winning film starring Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie.

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