The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961): Opposing Reviews

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Scottish-born Dame Muriel Spark (1918 – 2006) was a prolific novelist, short story writer, poet, and biographer. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) would become her best-known and most enduring work. Here are two opposing reviews of the novel from when it was first published.

The tale of a middle-aged Edinburgh schoolteacher was immortalized in the 1969 film starring a young Maggie Smith, now is considered a cinematic classic. It was also adapted as a Broadway play.

When the slim novel first came out, it received generally excellent reviews, but they weren’t universal, as you’ll see in the somewhat dour review that ran in the London Observer.

The positive view of the novel prevailed, as it has found its way onto “Best 100 novels” of all time lists on both sides of the Atlantic, including this one in The Guardian, which called it “the soul of wit and brevity.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

Muriel Spark in 1960

Learn more about Muriel Spark
. . . . . . . . . . .

In praise of Miss Jean Brodie — from Canada

The review by E. J. Hillen in The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), Jan 6, 1962, review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie deemed “Unreservedly Recommended”:

A penetrating and sparkling imagination has produced a story set in Edinburgh in the 1930s about a schoolmistress — Miss Jean Brodie— and her favorite six pupils —“The Brodie Set.” It is a delightful. witty story and brilliantly written.

The six girls are immediately recognizable as Miss Brodie’s pupils — they are vastly informed on many subjects entirely irrelevant to the authorized curriculum of the girls’ day school they attend.

Miss Brodie had the girls in Junior school, but her powerful influence persists. At sixteen, they remain unmistakably Brodie. They are famous throughout the school, that is, they’re held in suspicion. Why? Because as Miss Brodie says: “It is because you are mine. I mean of my stamp and cut, and I am in my prime.”

Six years before, when the girls were ten, Miss Brodie told them: “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders, and all my pupils are the creme de la créme.”

And she could do it, because: “These are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognize the years of one’s prime, always remember that.”

Miss Brodie has original ideas about the education of her pupils as well as of her own place in the scheme of things.

A typical lesson with Miss Brodie goes as follows. Miss Brodie speaking:

“Hold up your books, prop them up in your hands in case of intruders. We are doing our history lesson … our … poetry … English Grammar.

 … Meantime I will tell you about my last summer holiday in Egypt … I will tell you about care of the skin, and of the hands … about the Frenchman I met on the train to Biarritz … and I will tell you a little of my life when I was younger than I am now, though six years older than the man himself. He fell on Flanders Field.”

That is Miss Brodie in her prime, in those anxious pre-war years growing up with her girls in a world that contains the ogre of fascism as well as love.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is unreservedly recommended as some of the best and most original writing in English on either side of the Atlantic.

. . . . . . . . . . .

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - 1969 film

Original trailer of the 1969 film adaptation of
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
. . . . . . . . . . .

From London, a rather dour view of Miss Jean Brodie

The review by John Davenport in The Observer (London, England), October 29, 1961, review titled “Treachery in the Classroom”:

Muriel Spark is mercifully free from snobbishness, the English disease (pox britannica); a moralist, but coolly detached.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her sixth novel and eighth book, has been triumphantly published in the New Yorker. Mrs. Spark is indeed an author to bc grateful for in our plutonian age. It is sad, therefore, that it should be a failure; a comparative failure only, but a disappointment by her own high standards.

Miss Jean Brodie is an Edinburgh schoolmistress: the time is the early thirties. Looming fascism is on thc horizon. Miss Brodie, with her dark Roman profile, is an eccentric proudly cherished by her favourite pupils: Sandy, Monica, Mary, Rose, Eunice, and Jenny — “the Brodie set.”

Her standards. are high; they must carry themselves like Sybil Thorndike, appreciate the superiority of Giotto to Leonardo da Vinci; they must in her favourite phrase, the crème de la crème.

The form of the novel is that of a set of cyclic variations with Miss Brodie as the centre. The weakness of it lies in the fact that there is insufficient development: there are repetitions and evasions; and one feels that the types are over-simplified for the complex moral situation.

The central character is simply not strong enough or deep enough. Even her eccentricities are familiar. Mrs. Spark’s dread of unnecessary amplification, admirable in itself, has carried her too far. Only one of her pupils, the repellent Sandy, is fully created.

Miss Brodie has had love affairs with the art master and the music master, and the crux of the book is her betrayal to the authorities, who have always been suspicious of her unorthodoxy. Which of her favourites is the Judas? Like “an enigmatic Pope” Sandy says, “If you did not us it is that you could have been betrayed by us.”

By this time Sandy is old enough — there are odd gaps in the time sequence — to have had a liaison with the art master herself with Miss Brodie’s knowledge and even approval.

It is, of course, Sandy who is the Judas. She becomes a nun. It is difficult to believe her vocation.

Was it an act of expiation? She writes a philosophical treatise that makes her world famous. A visiting journalist asks of her, what were the main influences of her schooldays — “Was it Calvinism?”

After a short silence she replies that there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. This is fine, but it remains mysterious. I have clearly missed the point of it all; the mystery fails to fascinate; I need more data. Less obtuse readers will doubtless find Miss Brodie as compelling as her pupils did. For mc she remains a wraith.

More about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *