Bad Teacher, Bad Novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Let the record state that Miss Jean Brodie (whether in her prime or not) is the worst kind of teacher. She keeps a math problem up on the board during the period when they’re supposed to be doing arithmetic. She tells her students to keep their books open on their desks, so it appears they’re doing history. Instead, she tells them stories of her life, particularly of her stirring romance with her perfect man in the marvelously orderly Mussolini-controlled Italy. This man, conveniently, tragically died in WWI, opening the door for two sort of love affairs with other male teachers. She chooses favorites, a group of girls acknowledged by the whole school as the “Brodie set.” She meets with them on weekends and treats them to the theater and outings on her dime. She tells her students to study on their own, so they’ll pass their end of year exams. And, despite all of this, the headmistress can never quite nail her on any fire-able crime. She deserves every scornful stare sent her way by the other teachers at the school who, presumably, are actually doing their jobs, however boring they may be to the Brodie girls.

So, there are lots of problems with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. That Miss Brodie is a terrible teacher is actually not chief among them. She is ultimately unlikeable, but, here’s the thing, so is everyone else. All of the characters – the other teachers, the girls, the headmistress – are wholly uninteresting and Spark relies heavily on epithets to help keep everyone straight. For instance, Monica is always “Monica, the one who’s good at numbers” because that is pretty much her only personality trait.

Is this whole book written with tongue planted firmly in cheek? Certainly, the start of the novel begs the reaction of incredulity: “is this woman, this school for real?” Perhaps this attributable to the Brodie set’s young and impressionable age of 10. Less charitably, it’s attributable to bad writing, writing that is trying to shield a despicable main character from the brunt of everyone’s scorn. That Miss Brodie’s downfall is framed as “betrayal by one of her girls” is melodramatic to the extreme, suggestive both of Miss Brodie’s absurd character and the lack of any real substance to the novel’s plot.

Ultimately, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie illustrates how easily an adult, with trust and influence, can influence the mind of a child. The novel wants to be about maturity and sex and romance, but those are merely window dressings in an otherwise empty house. The end of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie mentions some truly dramatic and consequential events, but decides to skim over them to focus on Miss Brodie’s “betrayal,” omitting the pivotal moments that actually lead to her forced early retirement.

On the cover of my edition, the Chicago Tribune calls the novel “A perfect book.” I cannot fathom how this could be except if the sentence actually read “A perfect book for demonstrating how not to write a novel.”

Up Next: A Good Many is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
Why? because this books is actually good?


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