Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This is nineteen-thirty-six. The age of chivalry is past.

Sometime back in May I received a copy of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Birdie's Nest as part of World Book Night, which is a super cool opportunity to share books and see all the places they've ended up. So before even getting to the review, if you want to be the next recipient of this book, let me know in the comments. All you have to do when you get it is go to the World Book Night site, register where the book now is and then read, enjoy and pass it on.

I hadn't heard of this author or this novel until Birdie mentioned Spark in a Tuesday Top Ten. I went into this totally ignorant of the plot and author. Apparently I am capable of doing this, even though I refused to read Never Let Me Go until I already knew the plot, thus making that book far less interesting than if I went in blind. Jean Brodie, by the way, does not at all require you go in not know what's happening so I'm going to go easy on the spoiler warnings.

Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls' school who takes special interest in a group of students, the Brodie set, taking the girls to tea and museums and staying close with them long after they've left her classroom. The headmistress, Miss Mackay, is constantly trying to come up with ways to get rid of Jean Brodie, suggesting she go teach at a more progressive school. To be honest, Miss Mackay makes a good point because Jean Brodie is a pretty awful teacher. I suppose this is supposed to be a free-spirited teacher in the vein of something like Dead Poet's Society* teaching the students about life, to hell with the books. But she doesn't really do that. She instead focuses her lessons on telling the girls about her love life and her travels. At one point she asks the class who the greatest Italian painter is. One of the girls answers with Da Vinci but Brodie corrects her: "That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite." (11) There's a lot of talk about how the girls are some of the brightest in the school, and it's all based on the awesomeness that is Jean Brodie in her self-proclaimed prime. I'm not quite sure how they managed that but I'll say kudos to them cos they somehow managed to get an education despite the fact that class lessons were pretending to learn history while Brodie told the girls about her former lover. I guess that counts as history.

Her classroom lessons do not make up the majority of the story. Just some set up to what Jean Brodie is like. The majority of the story is made up by the fact that one of the girls betrays Brodie and gets her fired. It's a not a surprise that it happens or who does it, it comes up constantly but to save those who want to be surprised I won't name names.  There's also a lot about Brodie's love of the married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, her affair with the single music teacher Mr. Lowther, and her weird insistence that Rose, a member of the Brodie set, have an affair with Mr. Lloyd so she can live vicariously through her student. I had a few WTF moments.

Jean Brodie isn't a particularly likable character, but she's fun to watch. A lot of the story is told from Sandy, one of the Brodie set, so you at least aren't constantly subjected to Brodie's thought process. The book was alright, nothing I would have picked up on my own and I'm not too upset to be passing the book on rather than having it my library.**

*I actually have no idea if this is a good reference because I've never seen the movie but the basic plot line tells me I'm on the right path.

**I'm really making you guys want this book, aren't I?

Title quote from page 10.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Penguin Group, 1961