Published in 1961 this short novel by Muriel Spark tells the story of a maverick teacher and her favoured group of pupils at Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland.
On the surface Jean Brodie is fun and charismatic. It’s 1930 and under an elm tree in the garden, the ten-year olds are taught that goodness, truth and beauty rather than safety come first! They learn of her travels to Italy and Egypt and of her first love, Hugh, who fell on Flanders’ Field. She thinks of herself as a romantic heroine, in love with love, she is “in her prime” and promises her girls that if they will only listen to her she will “make of them the creme de la creme.”
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”
And that is really the problem because along with her charisma comes ownership. Miss Jean Brodie is an anti-heroine who wants to control and dominate the girls in her infamous ‘Brodie set’ as well as any other teacher and every situation she comes into contact with. She is utterly self-absorbed, sees things only from her own point of view and works on her girls, subtly drawing them further under her influence. It’s an interesting study of the influence a powerful personality can have and how deceptive that power can be.
But every page crackles and fizzes with wit and (often a dark) humour. The complexity of her character is matched by the complexity of the storytelling. The timeline interweaves the past with the present and future so closely that we are able to piece together clues about all of the characters lives over a period of about 15 years, which takes the girls into adulthood . This is so cleverly and subtly done that the effect of a future event suddenly interrupting an otherwise peaceful paragraph can be really shocking!
Despite her complex and troublesome issues, however, I can’t help but have some admiration for her. Jean Brodie is a real anti-heroine, she constantly outwits the head mistress, and her form of conventional authority; is not afraid to be the outsider, and on walks through Edinburgh explains ‘unemployment benefit’ to her 10 year olds – I think in this respect she became a bit of a ’60’s icon!
This is the first Muriel Spark novel I’ve read, but I will definitely read more. It’s my fourth read for The Classics Club challenge.