I saw this on the library shelf and was reminded of the many times I have heard and read Muriel Spark cited, and this in particular, her well known novel turned award winning film starring Maggie Smith. I knew the phraseo ft repeated in this classic, ‘in the prime of her life’ as it is used in common parlance, but I had never read the book nor seen the film, and in fact have never read Spark. It is such a neatly packaged short novel: a contained and precise concept. It economically outlines the formative years of a ‘set of girls’ and their primary school teacher, 40-something Miss Brodie, told in flashback and flash forward. Its arc is simple but surprising at the close nonetheless, and darkly witty. I appreciated all the nuances of this novel from my experience as a teacher, especially in a girls school, with the mandatory sets of ‘it girls’ who have the teachers’ favour and seem to run the show, leaving lesser mortals envious in their wake. The archetype of Jean Brodie is realistic, even today: the unmarried woman, strangely dependent on the affirmation of school girls, cagily critical of the other ‘by-the-book’ teachers, and as always, linked to the single males on staff. Likewise the girls’ delight in their imagining and speculation of Miss Brodie’s love life is a familiar thrill to many readers, just as seeing a teacher out of context at the shops and caught in their ‘normal life’, always so exotic to students. Spark writes so elegantly, and so knowingly: you feel her winking as you read these passages, and you can hear the wry laughter behind the words. She writes of poor Mary, the whipping girl of the group, so familiar a character to any school girl or teacher: ‘Mary sat lump-like and too stupid to invent something. She was too stupid ever to tell a lie, she didn’t know how to cover up’. Of Miss Brodie, we learn only snippets from the observations from the girls and the reaction of those around her, but her arch dialogue and continuous gasp at cigarettes paints a formidable and complex character: ‘Some days it seemed to Sandy that Miss Brodie’s chest was flat, no bulges at all, but straight as her back. On other days her chest was breast-shaped and large, very noticeable, something for Sandy to sit and peer at through her tiny eyes while Miss Brodie on a day of lessons indoors stood erect, with her brown head held high, staring out the window like Joan of Arc as she spoke’.
The novel is a glorious celebration of female group dynamics, female instinct, and observance of the dedication of a career woman rather than the pitying of an aging spinster: ‘Miss Brodie ushered the girls from the music room and gathering them about her, said, “You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. Form a single line please and walk with your heads up, up like Sybil Thorndike, a woman of noble mien”’.
‘The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie’ didn’t feel aged to me at all: it had an urgency and a vitality that made it feel very much in the presence. Now, to see the much lauded film.