Monday, 13 June 2011

The Crème de la Crème

Muriel Spark’s classic novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has been on my reading list for a very long time. It features on many ‘must read’ lists such as the 1001 books you must read before you die. As such, I had high expectations of this novel when I finally cracked the spine.

Miss Brodie is a teacher in a Scottish girls’ school who has a rather unorthodox method. Her students, known collectively as the Brodie set, adore her. But Miss Brodie is viewed with contempt by the conservative element within the school.

It is the 1930s and Miss Brodie talks regularly of her 'Prime' – the period of her life where she comes in to her own. She takes her classroom outdoors, to galleries and to her home. She talks openly of her lovers and has a romantic view of the world. Brodie is a fascist and speaks favourably of Mussolini. Miss Brodie choses Sandy Stranger as her confidant and consequently the young girl is able to hasten Miss Brodie’s downfall.

The story alternates between various timeframes and perspectives. These flash-forwards were initially confusing as I found there were too many of the Brodie set to keep track of. Just as the reader is introduced to someone they are told what happened to them in the future, when they later become “famous for sex” or “famous for mathematics.” This lack of chronological structure though is an extraordinarily clever technique and requires an alert and committed reader.

I have strong personal attachment to Edinburgh and consequently enjoyed reading Spark’s descriptions of many of the places I know and love. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly deserves its place on so many must read lists. It is witty, intelligent, unique and entertaining.