The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: A Novel
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156 of 159 people found the following review helpful
My first encounter with Jean Brodie came via Maggie Smith's very memorable performance in the 1960s film of the same name--a very fine film indeed. But those who come to Muriel Sparks' novel through the film are in for quite a surprise: although the basic characters and the story itself are recognizable, the tone is quite different and the novel works to a greatly different point.

In a general sense, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is a portrait of a place, Edinburgh of the 1930s, a particular time, an era in which women were dominated by strict codes of behavior. Those who did not conform these codes were on a collision course with society, and so it is with Miss Jean Brodie, school teacher at the conservative Marsha Blaine School For Girls. A pseudo-intellectual with a sensual disposition, Miss Brodie sets out to visit her own ambitions on the next generation--and with very mixed results.

The next generation in question is a particular group of girls who fall into Miss Brodie's hands through the school, a group that quickly becomes known as "the Brodie set" and are noted for their excessive loyalty to her and to her romantically inclined attitudes to life. But Miss Brodie has erred: for all her claim to special insight, she is largely oblivious to the true nature of their characters, and while she has an undeniable impact on their lives it is not precisely the impact she seeks or expects.

There are no suddenly plot twists, no great turns in the novel in any dramatic sense; instead, the book is about the revelation of character that can only occur with time. Miss Brodie first appears as a fascinating figure, but as her students grow to maturity and perceive her in new and different lights our own impression of her changes. Is she, as one student says near the end of the novel, "a silly woman," a woman of false emotion and half-thought-out ideas, a Scottish Madame Bovary? And what of the children in her care, whose lives take such unexpected (and, to Miss Brodie, often undesirable) paths when they leave her behind? Are they really the "Creme de la Creme" after all?

Sparks presents her story in what might be called layers of time, allowing us to see past, present, and future all at once; it is a remarkable bit of writing, alternately smooth and sharp, sweet and bitter, and all to surprising effect. At the same time the novel is concise, condensing a great deal into the fewest pages possible. A quick read, yes, but one that most will find unexpectedly demanding.

In the end, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is about character and how it is shaped by ourselves, by others, and by our various circumstances--and how we either accept or rebell against that impact. Although THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is frequently offered in high school and early college literature courses, I personally do not feel it will have much relevance for any one much under the age of 40; it is the sort of novel that requires the reader to bring considerable life-experience of their own to the tale, and without it book may seem shapeless and trivial. It is very much an adult's book and should be approached with that fact clearly in mind. Strongly recommended.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 27, 2004
By now I'm sure that Miss Jean Brodie and her prime are better known from the film than from the original novel. The film, and the absolutely wonderful stage production that preceded it in London with Vanessa Redgrave as the first Brodie, caught one side, the caricature side, of Muriel Spark's immortal creation, but the story is a more complex matter altogether, short though the book is.

Any story by Muriel Spark is complex up to a point - her way of thinking is devious and unstraightforward and her characters tend to inhabit the moral and motivational lowlands. Insofar as they seem like real people at all rather than clever animations, her attitude towards them is usually ambivalent. Indeed it's almost fair to say that she makes her feelings for her own creations clearest, and expresses them most strongly, when those feelings consist most of repugnance, as with Patrick Seton and Father Socket in The Bachelors. Nevertheless she always seems to distance herself successfully from their general squalor through her quick wits and the dazzling speed at which she keeps rearranging the scenery.

This book has a lot of the familiar Spark `feel' to it, but it's a bit different in some ways too. It's short, but it doesn't come across to me as a lightweight effort like The Abbess of Crewe. The cast of characters is not as large as in The Bachelors or The Ballad of Peckham Rye, but it's large enough. What makes it simpler is that it consists largely of a group of juveniles on the one hand, and on the other it is absolutely dominated by one single outsize personality, maybe the nearest to a true heroine or hero that Spark ever allowed herself. Jean Brodie is a silly woman but not a mean or corrupt one and that, in a novel by Muriel Spark, is quite something not to be. Another thing that may have softened the author's stance is that the setting is not London or the east side of Manhattan or Crewe or any other foreign clime, but her own native Edinburgh. I don't suppose she is trying to conceal her affection for it (although being who she is she doesn't indulge it either), or if she is she has failed at that. I can recognise the kinds of people and the kinds of attitude through a similar if not identical background, and it has brought out a most unusual candour in the author. At the start of chapter 3 there is a very straightforward account of the kind of Edinburgh spinster that Jean Brodie exemplifies. Spark typically springs it on us who it was that `betrayed' Miss Brodie, but once she has done so she takes us through the person's thought-processes with a most untypical clarity. The book shuttles backwards and forwards through time-frames, but this time with a sheer naturalness that conceals the cleverness of it. There is even a rare glimpse into the author's fascination with Catholicism when she discusses Miss Brodie's semi-ecumenical religious interests. Above all the typical spurts of sarcasm and ridicule are more often funny than bitchy, not the other way round as is more usual from her.

A taste for Muriel Spark is a bit of a mini-religion itself. This book might make her a few converts.
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42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2001
Students who are forced to read this slender but pithy novel in high school or university classes often dismiss it was being 'about nothing', or just a dead bore. Which is a shame, as this powerful novel from Muriel Spark is one that needs to be appreciated and taken seriously - and enjoyed - by all readers, whether those in high school or those who lecture on it to classrooms of bored university students. Perhaps the lack of appreciation for this novel by students is the lack of interest with which teachers approach it. Perhaps it hits too close to the bone for many teachers, who, like Miss Brodie, endeavour to shape and form their 'set' and who, perhaps unwittingly, manipulate their students in the worst ways.
Whatever the reason, this text is one that should be read and taught ethusiastically, for it packs into its 150-odd pages a deeply comic yet troubling bunch of themes: betrayal, fitting-in, the power of imagination, adultery, and most importantly, the transfiguration of the commonplace. In a way the book is at the same time a paeon to and a curse of the imagination, demonstrating how it can enrich life (such as in the antics of Sandy and Jenny) yet also how it can damage others (such as Miss Brodie's false and manipulative ideas about love, sex, Teddy, Rose and so forth).
Muriel Spark writes about things she knows well, in this case teaching, Edinburgh, girls schools, sex and betrayal. A book not only worth reading, but well worth teaching, and an excellent introduction to the works of Spark, whose other works are equally compelling and astute.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2006
This is an easy to read classic story by an author who puts the spark into sparkling.

Enter the world of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime, a teacher in 1930s Scotland, she is a woman on a mission, to put "old heads on young shoulders," and she sets out to do this with a group of girls who become known as the Brodie Set. Miss Jean Brodie has her enemies in the school she works in because she is considered too "progressive" but she is too shrewd to get caught and she relies on the loyalty of her set to keep silent about what they know about her life, politics and beliefs.

Miss Jean Brodie is certainly no ordinary teacher; she admires Mussolini, and can't see anything wrong in Hitler's socialism, and she sees no harm in telling her "gels" about the young lover she had who died on Flanders Fields in the First World War. She is also incredibly manipulative, she is in love with Teddy Lloyd the Art teacher but she has to take the moral ground and deny herself this passion, instead she grooms one of her girls to become Teddy's lover, wanting to live vicariously through this girl who will through another of the girl's tell her how the affair is going on.

The story jumps between the past and present with ease, one minute you are with the Brodie set when they are juniors, the next you are with them when they are 18 and then you briefly see them as adults when they are scattered to the wind and living individual lives.

One of the central characters is Sandy, who is the first to realise that Miss Jean Brodie is dangerous, her ideals and beliefs can get people killed, and that she has to be stopped at all costs.

Miss Brodie spends the rest of her life trying to find out which of her "gels" betrayed her and near the end of her life realises that it is the one girl she did not think it could be, Sandy, now a nun and famous for a book she has written called the "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace."

This is a witty, sparkling, darkly humoured novel about relationships and what makes them tick.

A delicious book that has been made into a splendid film with Maggie Smith, it doesn't completely follow the novel but all the same Maggie Smith is superb as Miss Jean Brodie.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2003
Miss. Jean Brodie is a teacher of girls in the Junior Department of Marica Blaine School in Edinburgh. Even a cursory reading will alert anyone to the undeniable fact that she is in her "prime". This is the solemn refrain of the novel. What this means is left, largely, to your own discretion. The surface narrative, insofar as there is a surface, charts the influence that she has upon a "set" of five girls, the hand picked "creme de la creme" of her class, that become the "Brodie Set" marked indelibly by the imprint of her "prime". Funny and light, at the same time as being extremely dark and sinister underneath, it alerts us constantly to the illusion and refraction of truth in fiction and the inescapable effect of our lessons on our view of the world.
As many other reviewers have been quick to point out "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is often the subject of university lectures and examinations. And there should be no surprise in that. This slim volume has a dazzling breadth of theme and expression composed almost singularly of one woman's personality.
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is probably the most beautifully visual of Muriel Spark's novels, containing some dazzling natural and urban imagery. These are lovingly interspersed in the otherwise sharp, and blackly comic text. It is easy to understand why Muriel Spark claims that her "novels are just an easier way of writing my poetry".
"The Prime" is also a comedy of some value (anyone who has seen the 1979 Maggie Smith film adaptation couldn't dispute it), and the childhood imaginings of Sandy and Jenny, two girls of the "set", certainly provides some laugh out loud moments. Like the classic imaginary love letter between Miss Brodie and her lover Mr. Lowther. Who could forget its wonderful conclusion - " Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing." The girls capture the eloquence and the ridiculousness of Miss Brodie beautifully and unknowingly.
The most compelling aspect of the novel, however, is its undeniably sinister streak. Miss Brodie is a "born Facist", as one of her set eventually comes to realise. She speaks with fervent passion of the "wonderous" regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, while encouraging one of her young charges to become involved in the Spanish Civil War. She does all this with a stunted self-aware romanticism and a deluded clarity that cuts directly to the coldest heart of her personality. Her teaching, which literally amounts to an indoctrination in the values of bigotry and prejudice, is instilled into her "set", some of whom do not escape as unscathed as the others.
To crown the glory is Spark's inventive narrative style, which feels free to skip and leap around the story of the rise and fall of Miss Brodie. The omnipresence of the author is always jabbing in another future event to permanently shape our view of the present. The holistic reading that emerges from this narrative assault allows for all kinds of realisations concerning identity, facism, illusion, truth and fiction.
A thoroughly terrifying, enjoyable read, for all those who don't quite believe that seeing/hearing is believing.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2006
Having finished this wonderfully strange and spare novel--about an unorthodox teacher at a conservative girls' school in Edinburgh of the 1930s and her devoted coterie of students--I couldn't believe I'd never read anything by Muriel Spark before. When I first found myself carried away on her odd, lilting prose, it reminded me of the first time I read Gertrude Stein; there's a kind of hypnotic quality to its repetitiveness, as if it's on the verge of falling into a verse incantation. Spark's writing isn't as deliberately disorienting as Stein's, though, which is what makes it seem strange rather than experimental--a mystifying of something that keeps a ghost of its normality, or in the words of the title of the book on psychology one of the Brodie set goes on to write, "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." Back when I thought I was more likely to become a novelist than anything else, I fantasized about a writing sentences like this one: "The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six-o'clock feeling in the house." And if there's anything that seduces me more than strange, beautiful prose, it's strange, beautiful prose with a wicked sense of humor, and in this respect Spark is about as sharp as it gets. Ultimately, this is a story about the disenchantment of childhood devotion and idolatry, and it leaves you with the lost feeling of looking back at things you loved as a child with the too-wise eyes of an adult. It also leaves you with the wonderful sense of the author's own intelligence, as if you've just been seeing the world through a more perceptive gaze.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 1999
This book offers many things that are appealing: a female protagonist (flawed, like the rest of us), somewhat complex, young female supporting characters, feminist undercurrents, and psychological delvings into the female mind, particularly in the 1930's. It is charming when Miss Brodie plays golf with her "set," or has them for tea. On the other hand, her love of Hitler and Mussolini is stupifying; one realizes the magnitude of her power over the young minds of her students.
As a teacher myself, I have witnessed teachers who have this same mentality, a sort-of god-complex, whereby the students become their fascisti...it is highly self-serving. But when I was done with this novel, I didn't know what to think. I didn't like Sandy or Jean Brodie. It hardly mattered what became of any of them in the end. All their efforts, too, were highly self-serving. I'm not sure what this says of the female psyche, if anything -- I'm not sure if this novel does a perfect job of helping its readers draw any conclusions about the matter. This is why I give the novel four instead of five stars.
Finally, in part because of the anachronistic telling of events, one ends up just noticing Spark's literary style (which, ironically, is highly self-serving).
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 1999
As a teacher and department chair, I find myself alternating between Miss Brodie and Miss Mackay in my daily life. The Miss Brodies of the world are fascinating, inspiring creatures--they make us want to learn and to believe in having a mission. Yet, also like Miss Brodie, they can be dangerous, when their style either masks a lack of substance or a very foggy understanding of the implications of the ideologies behind the personalities they embrace. At the same time, while we need Miss Mackays in order to make sure the trains run on time (as it was said of Mussolin, Il Duce, Miss Brodie's own hero), they lack the "spark" (pardon the pun) that make us want to learn--and to teach. How to reconcile the spiritual and the utilitarian in this world--this seems to me to be Spark's theme. Perhaps most intriguing, ultimately, is Sandy herself--the somewhat monstrous amalgam of both Brodie and Mackay. I have been Miss Brodie, in my "prime," yet I also understand the dilemma a Miss Mackay faces--and who, finally, would want to be Miss Mackay, in any case? Perhaps the lesson is to allow, empower our students, our children, to be critical of their education--and thus to learn how to take from each educator the lessons she or he has to offer. The film, by the way, while necessarily making some changes (though giving Teddy Lloyd back his arm seems to me an unfortunate choice), is quite marvelous, with Maggie Smith's performance justly prized, but also featuring fine work from Celia Johnson and Pamela Franklin.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2004
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is not an easy book, though it seems to be at first. If you start reading it, you expect something in the "Dead Poets Society" vein: a teacher who inspires his/her pupils and makes them better human beings.

But in Miss Brodie's case, this is not so. In fact, Muriel Spark's novel is ultimately a very dark and depressing one, in spite of its seemingly lighthearted tone and loads of irony. It is about power, deception, loyalty, influence, sin, love and hate...

In fact, the novel adresses many dilemmas of human interaction, all inserted in a seemingly simple and straightforward story. There are no good and bad characters in the book, only good and bad acts and attitutes. But in the end no-one can remain unspoilt and pure.

One of the most fascinating books I've ever read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2002
Originally published in 1961 in a single issue of the New Yorker, upon release, 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' set off a worldwide firestorm of praise which hasn't substantially abated with the passage of the decades.

Though the novel has been adapted for the stage, made into an excellent Academy Award-winning film, and a six-part PBS special, the book has sadly received little attention from academia in America, though in England the scholarly attention shown the book and its author, the late Muriel Spark, has been generous. Thankfully, novelist and critic John Updike has been a steady and dedicated Spark advocate since the Sixties, reviewing each of her books in the New Yorker upon release, thus vastly broadening her American audience.

The story of a bright, individualistic, and defiant Scottish schoolteacher troublesomely employed by a restrictive conservative school for girls in 1930s Edinburgh, the novel moves effortlessly backward and forward in time, and though never less than buoyant in tone, has so many extremely subtle layers that it reads like an organic product of nature; nowhere does the reader sense an author's intruding hand or mind. Wise almost beyond reason, its gracious prose continually underscores a number of poetic, psychological, and spiritual truths that subtly illuminate the ostensibly simple story of Miss Brodie and her influence over six particular students.

Initially structured around an act of betrayal and a question of identity, the answer to the mystery is casually given midway through the story, making it obvious to the undiscerning that the genuine focus of the novel lies elsewhere. Its complex themes of individuality, group identity, hero worship, sublimation, proxy relationships, and repression are effortlessly woven together and punctuated by symbolism so fine many readers may fail to perceive it at all.

Less overtly funny than most of Spark's fictions, 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' stands out distinctly from all of Spark's other works, perhaps because it is the most autobiographical of all her novels: with this work, Spark threw her fictional net wider than she ever had before or has since. An excellent introduction to her remarkable oeuvre, readers may find themselves reflecting endlessly on its meanings, nuances, and intentions. Ultimately, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie leaves the reader with more questions than answers: as in life, the larger mysteries remain.

Recently chosen as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century, 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' is certainly that.
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