The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – review

Published by Penguin

Publication date – original publication date 1961

Source – own copy

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life . . .’

Passionate, free-thinking and unconventional, Miss Brodie is a teacher who exerts a powerful influence over her group of ‘special girls’ at Marcia Blaine School. They are the Brodie set, the crème de la crème, each famous for something – Monica for mathematics, Eunice for swimming, Rose for sex – who are initiated into a world of adult games and extracurricular activities they will never forget. But the price they pay is their undivided loyalty . . .

Read more on the Penguin website.

Miss Brodie is beloved by her pupils, decried by her colleagues. Her unconventional teaching methods and unusually close relationships with her pupils worry some. As for the chosen few, the Brodie set, they at first revel in their distinction. But they soon learn their loyalty may be misguided.

This is a short novel, easily read in a day, but it’s length doesn’t make it any the less absorbing or impacting.

Miss Brodie is narcissistic, kind, selfish, considerate, moody and happy all at the same time. The line quoted at the beginning of the synopsis says it all. She wants these girls to adore her, to be malleable, to bend to her will. She needs them as an extension of herself, and to live out missed dreams of her own.

The reader is allowed access to the elusive and exclusive Brodie set, those girls chosen by Miss Brodie to be nurtured and educated the Brodie way. She is deliberately careless with their education, openly going against convention. In her chosen few it is as if she is trying to manipulate them to her will, to adore her during her prime, to reinforce her ideals about herself and to justify her actions. She is open in her affair, a rebound to a lost love. The ramifications of this affect not just her and her lover but the girls in different ways.

The girls themselves are a wonderful mixture of characters. Muriel Spark shows them as both adolescents and as adults. The fact that Miss Brodie has access to them at a time when they are most impressionable is perhaps the greatest danger, and this is shown in the story. The effects of being part of the Brodie set  are seen in the future, though surprisingly with some positive results.

There is some intrigue throughout the story as it becomes apparent that one of the set betrays Miss Brodie to her employer, who is keen to see the rebellious teacher ousted.

Jean Brodie talks through the majority of the book of this time at school being her prime, and that the girls are lucky and honoured to be able to share her prime with her. Viewing her actions there are a range of emotions elicited. Annoyance that she manipulates the set to her own advantage, to make herself feel better, to justify her prime. There’s also sadness that she shows, sometimes all too clearly, that she is desperate to hold on to her youth, to her vitality and to the position which defines her. She is at heart a lonely woman, unable to express it in way that is not without narcissism.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel that is read quickly but which stays with the reader for much longer. More emerges from it as time goes by since reading. This was my first Muriel Spark novel, it won’t be my last.

About the author

Muriel Spark (born February 1, 1918) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. She began writing seriously after the war, beginning with poetry and literary criticism. In 1947, she became editor of the Poetry Review. Her first novel The Comforters was published in 1957, but it was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962) which established her reputation. After living in New York for some years, she settled in Italy in the late 1960s. She became Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993.


13 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s been a long time since I read this. I do think Spark is masterful at short, high impact novels that really stay with you. Time for a re-read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I hope it’s as good on the re-read. She is as you say, very good at impacting characters in a relatively short page count.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That jacket! So long since I’ve read it but I’m afraid Miss Jean Brodie will always be Maggie Smith for me. She played that part as if she was born for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Isn’t it great. It’s not the cover of my copy, which I couldn’t seem to find anywhere. I’ve never seen the film though I must now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One of the few film adaptations that works, I think.


  3. I might give this another go having read your review as I’ve never managed to get beyong the first 20 pages or so. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I can see why you didn’t get any further. I think I just got used to the writing and let it carry me away. I hope you like it if you read it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. heavenali says:

    Great review. This was my first Spark, read a few years ago. I liked it, but it won’t be my favourite, MJB is such a fantastic character though. I should probably reread it though I’m planning on getting to The Bachelors, and The Ballad of Peckham Rye before the end of April.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks. Well it was your reading Spark that inspired me. I have The Bachelors that I hope to read by the end of April and then Loitering With Intent for September 🙂


  5. This is one of my favourite novels. Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading more of her novels.


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