prime“The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.”

We have become so used to the notion of monsters being non-human. Be they dragons, ogres, trolls, aliens or ghosts, to our mind we tend to associate monstrous things with a lack of otherwise human-like traits. But I think we all know, deep down, that the things that can most accurately be described as monsters are all too human. Cast your mind back, and I daresay that somewhere, locked in a chest or filing cabinet in your memory, there resides the imprint of someone from childhood that you still think of as a monster. And, nine times out of ten, I bet that that person is a teacher.

Miss Jean Brodie is not a monster in terms of, say, Miss Trunchball or Professor Umbridge, but nonetheless she is not a good teacher and should never have been in charge of impressionable young girls. Anyway, hang on, I’ll just give a very quick summary of the plot.

Set in 1930s Edinburgh, Spark’s novel is the tale of Jean Brodie, a spinster teacher with high and mighty ideas of art and politics. She is known to frequently take a group of girls from the Marcia Blaine School that she deems special for whatever reason, and give them lessons that would not otherwise be on the curriculum about philosophy, history and her own life. The story passes through several years, showing the girls – Jenny, Sandy, Rose, Mary, Monica and Eunice – growing up and discovering their womanhood under the shadow of Miss Brodie, who will consistently claim that she is at the prime of her life.

Running parallel is the suggestion that Brodie is having an affair with one or other of the two male teachers at the school, Mr Lloyd the art master, and Mr Lowther the singing master. Concerned by her effect on the young girls and these potential relationships, the headmistress Miss Mackay seeks the assistance of the Brodie set to find a way to oust Miss Brodie from her position, desperate to find an excuse to remove her.

So to continue, Miss Brodie, perhaps saddened by her somewhat pathetic and pointless life, contrives to pass on her desires and wishes to certain students whom she favours. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that she doesn’t necessarily have her students best interests at heart and is merely living out her fantasies through their youth. The stories she tells of her past lovers and colourful history are not necessarily grounded in truth, and the girls come to realise this as they grow, seeing Brodie as a human with needs and desires, rather than just a teacher. She becomes, for them, an example of how not to be, and through her they realise young that just because a group of people are all in authority, it does not mean they are all in agreement.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the novel, but I enjoy Spark’s style. The plot flips back and forth, casually throwing in mention of what happens to the girls once they’ve left school quite randomly. Thus, we know early on that Mary will die young, and we also know that Miss Brodie herself will lose her job when one of her own betrays her, but who that is and why and how it is done remain mysteries for longer.

Brodie teaches her class things that they should probably not be taught, or at least not in the way that Brodie talks of them. She is dismissive of the sciences, believes art and philosophy are above all else, and is more than a little sympathetic towards fascist leaders in Europe. She is a complex tapestry, being pious in some respects (in an extreme example, she won’t allow Eunice to do acrobatics on a Sunday) but then apparently sleeping with an unmarried man and spending nights at his house, which is deemed shocking.

For a small book, there is a lot going on. Brodie is a fairly unpleasant character, although towards the end one may have a little sympathy towards her. The girls that she “raises”, the Brodie set, are also not altogether without fault, each of them having some admirable qualities, but eventually spurning the woman who dedicated so much time to them. Above all, I believe Brodie to be lonely, thus leading her to form unsuitable relationships and to invite the girls to her home on the weekends.

It’s quaint, but probably its most redeeming feature is that it is short. Not an outstanding book by any means, but one well worth a glance.

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