The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Books 2020, 21)
This short novel feels surprisingly modern. Indeed, maybe it’s modernist. It was written in the fifties, and is set in the thirties. The modern part is mainly the way it plays with time. Starting at a point and then flashing back is simple enough, but then we get various flashforwards and explanations of what’s going to happen to the various characters. It’s all very elegantly done, with the changes smoothly integrated, so they don’t feel like jumps at all.
Jean Brodie is a teacher, and kind of an educational reformer, in that she thinks her students should be taught a broad array of things, and should learn about the world, rather than just follow a narrow, fixed curriculum. She would never “teach to the test” – which phrase is never used, but Brodie would be strongly against that modern malaise.
But she very much plays favourites. Her “set” get all her attention (outside of school as well as in it), and all the other pupils – those who have no chance of becoming “la crème de la crème” – are ignored. She is, ultimately, exceedingly self-centred.
Notoriously, she also has exceedingly dogy – or maybe just deeply naive – political views. Here is Sandy, the main viewpoint character, when Brodie has shown the class a picture of Mussolini and his fascisti:
They were dark as anything and all marching in the straightest of files, with their hands raised at the same angle, while Mussolini stood on a platform like a gym teacher or a Guides mistress and watched them. Mussolini had put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets. It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching along. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it.
It gets worse, though, when she:
was going abroad, not to Italy this year but to Germany, where Hitler was become Chancellor, a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini; the German brownshirts, she said, were exactly the same as the Italian black, only more reliable.
She sees the error of her ways, though, after a fashion:
After the war Miss Brodie admitted to Sandy, as they sat in the Braid Hills Hotel, “Hitler was rather naughty."
She has some more positive views, though:
“We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans.”
But my favourite quotes involve religion:
The Lloyds were Catholics and so were made to have a lot of children by force.
And getting back to those Fascisti:
By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie.
It’s a sad story, in the end. Worth reading, though.