The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
By Muriel Spark
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I recently had the opportunity to watch the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the first time (see here for my review of that over at film-nerd social network Letterboxd.com); and I was so blown away by how unexpected, original and surprisingly dark it was, I decided to check out the original novel it was based on from my local library right afterwards. And indeed, the novel is great as well, although this is one of those rare cases when I think I actually like the movie version even better; and that's because the book is written in an experimental style where the narrator is constantly hopping back and forth between time periods, randomly doling out hugely important act-three shocking moments in just weird little afterthought comments during the "present-day" storyline. Although this narrative experimentation is admirable, I found myself better responding to the same story being told in a more traditional way, where we don't find out about the spoiler-heavy fates of Miss Brodie's young students until after having a chance to get to know them and get invested in their fates.
In any case, it's a real stunner of a story if you're not familiar with it already. Ostensibly the tale of a prim middle-aged teacher at an all-girl's academy in 1930s Scotland, the setting plus its Mid-Century Modernist release date led me to believe that it was going to be some sugary family story along the lines of Mary Poppins; but instead it's a surprisingly dense and subversive character study about authoritarianism, how the actions of childhood affect us as adults, and where exactly the line lays between proper and improper relationships between teachers and students. Realize, though, that this summary doesn't do this complicated and always surprising story justice; the charming, infuriating, fascism-loving Miss Brodie is in fact one of the most complicated characters I've ever come across in a modern novel, and her actions and attitudes will have the same mind-messing effect that it has on the small pool of impressionable junior-high girls she takes under her wing every year in order to "mold them in her image." An unforgettable story that's way more wicked and sometimes just plain evil than its genteel setting would indicate, do yourself a favor and make sure to check out both the book and movie versions, each of which follow the same plot but tell their stories in very different ways.