The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on Amazon
Everyman's Library :: 2004 :: 512 pp. :: $18.69
Read for the Unread Authors Challenge.
I don't know what I was expecting from this novel. Something prim and old-fashioned, from the "Miss Jean Brodie," something long-drawn-out and Dickensian, from "Prime"; really, I sort of expected to be bored. This was why Spark had remained on my list of authors to be read for so long.
In any case, I was very much not bored. The novel does take place at a prim, old-fashioned boarding school and spans a long period of time, but it's far from prim or old-fashioned itself. Rather, it reads like (what it is:) a New Yorker story stretched out into a novel. Spark tells of the five girls who make up the "Brodie set," a group of young women being educated by a woman named Miss Jean Brodie, who is in her prime, and who is, essentially, the school nutcase. The mystery of the novel is which of the girls betrayed Miss Brodie.
Really, though, far from a mystery, this is a sort of group coming-of-age novel. The girls' minds are opened by Miss Brodie to all sorts of insights about life -- particularly love and sex -- that they are not quite ready for. At first Miss Brodie is their absolute hero. Then, as they grow older, they learn to be skeptical. They learn to judge for themselves. And it's never quite clear whether Miss Brodie herself got crazier, or whether the girls just couldn't recognize it before.
The voice is quiet and sure and graceful in its quirkiness. It describes the five girls of the "Brodie set" in terms of what they are famous for, repeating each often -- whether they are famous for sex, stupidity, mathematics, etc. -- and this is certainly one of the most memorable stylistic tics of the book. In general the narration is distant and playful, not quite omniscient, but close to the girls' perspective, drawing closer, later on, to the mind of one of them without quite entering it.
I don't want to describe this book too much for fear of giving it away, and yet the only way I think I can tell why I loved it is to... give it away. Let me leave off the review with a quotation, one of the most memorable passages in the book. It describes the death of one of the girls years after the main events of the novel (we find out the futures of the other girls, too, though not quite as memorably as this).
"...[She] never again referred her mind to Miss Brodie, but had got over her misery, and had relapsed into her habitual slow bewilderment, before she died while on leave in Cumberland in a fire in the hotel. back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled, and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie's pupils."
It's this kind of thing, this strange telescoping through time, that made the novel so magical. As if all the things that happened in the girls' lives, though completely separate and not causally related, were still, somehow, contained and made meaningful within each moment of their childhoods.
In Summary: Highly recommended when you're in the mood for something different.