One could wish that all writing was this accomplished, but without such peaks, we would not be able to see the troughs or the other peaks beyond. Yet such literary peaks (unlike their geomorphological counterparts) are the easiest to climb. Deceptively so. And The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is no exception. For we have a short, simple tale of a teacher and the influence she has (or thinks she has) over a particular group of girls.
Packed into the 120 or so pages of this novel are endless and complex layers of characterisation and moral exploration, not to mention social history. And with the style of writing so beautifully mirroring the story itself, we are presented with a portrait that is by turns comic and tragic with all the shades between, and which is always compelling.
As the narrative progresses it becomes more sophisticated, maturing as the children mature and their understanding of what is going on around them increases. It makes use of remarkable leaps back and forth, of startling imagery (the death of Mary Macgregor, in particular, is one I always find deeply moving because of its inevitability and the way it is echoed in her response as a child to the explosive chemistry experiment).
The fragmentation of time, however, presents a seamless narrative, that makes sense in the way it is presented. It is what allows for such a compressed piece of work. For one could imagine a lesser writer being tempted to present us with a 1000 page epic embracing all social history and world events, Miss Brodie’s holidays abroad, and so on. But we need none of that in detail. We know enough about Jean Brodie to know how she reacts to these things as an individual. It is clear in the way she attempts, increasingly, to manipulate her ‘set’, how her mind works and has been influenced by her own life (of which learn surprisingly little) and larger events. In the small world of the school we see the larger world at work. In the Brodie set, we see how friendships develop and how minds are shaped, not always in the way the shaper assumes.
Muriel Spark’s writing here is breathtaking. It is economical without ever giving up on richness; makes use of poetic language and technique (particularly the repetition and variations on theme); manages to be modernist without once severing its links with the long and venerable Scottish literary tradition (which has, in any case, always been innovative); and paints a picture that lingers and changes as one continues to think of what kind of person Miss Jean Brodie was and the effects she had on her charges.