There are some books in this world which, I must surmise, have achieved a cult-like status among the older generation who remember the impact they created when first published but, in truth, have not been read afresh in many a decade. If they did, they might be unsettled by what they find.
This is my working hypothesis for why ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is still on almost every ‘Top 100 books to read’ list. It shouldn’t be, it really shouldn’t.
The novel was published in 1961 at a time when sexual liberation was in its infancy and was undoubtedly one of many books which helped encourage the movement. Set in 1930s Edinburgh it tells the story of the ‘the Brodie set’, a class of young girls who grow up under the tutelage of Miss Brodie who considers herself ‘in her prime’ and is dedicated to ensuring the girls develop exactly how she wants them to.
The style and structure is sound enough. It’s a mercifully short book and can be read quite quickly. There’s very little character development – especially of the title character herself – which could be argued is deliberate but I suspect was merely that the author couldn’t manage to deepen the personas she had created.
It is the content and message of the novel which, for me, is simply not palatable writing for a modern age. I don’t want to suggest the book should be censored – I’m very much against censorship – but that its status as a classic needs to go. Miss Brodie’s ‘prime’ needs to be quietly forgotten.
From the beginning I could feel my face contorting as I read each page, mixing one moment from admiration for the teacher to next moment utter horror. As a former classroom teacher – allegedly an inspiring one, so I’m told – I can relate to her wish to break the girls free of restrictive social conditioning, to find their own identities, to challenge with new ideas and to take a great deal of interest and care about their upbringing beyond the years spent in the classroom. I would wish all teachers could be so – we have the power to completely transform not just our society but all societies worldwide if we could go beyond the ‘requirements to teach the National Curriculum’. At the same time, the love of fascism, the condescending conditioning of the girls and, worst of all, the abusive attacking of poor Mary is gut-wrenchingly awful to read. This is not a teacher I could have worked with. I would have reported her without a blink of my conscience.
But it gets worse. This novel is clearly born of a time that is pre-‘Saville’, a time such as I grew up in where teachers sleeping with barely pubescent teenagers was, if not perfectly acceptable, at least didn’t bat an eyelid with anyone; where teaching one’s own extreme political views and views on religion was allowed and even encouraged; and where taking children home and out to events as a private individual to do with as you wish did not raise any suspicions.
I kept hoping, as I got deeper into the book, that Spark was not going to take us where I thought the book was going. ‘It’s going to turn out innocent,’ I tried to tell myself. Increasingly though, what the author presented as ‘mentoring’ became more and more obvious to be what, today, we’d call ‘grooming’. In the end, my suspicions were confirmed, to my horror and disgust.
All of this would be fine if there was a real clear sense of who is right or wrong in this novel. Miss Mackay, the headmistress trying to get rid of Miss Brodie, is clearly the antagonist, the enemy and presented as the bad guy without a doubt. Yet I would have sided with her for sure. The two love-interest male teachers, one of whom would be jailed today for his lifestyle, pass through the story without a blemish. Miss Brodie, while we are told of her eventual doom from the beginning, never really sees a true downfall and remains beloved by her girls even in adulthood. She never sees the errors of her ways nor does the author encourage us to think she should. Only Sandy, possibly the character most modelled around Spark herself who also converted to Catholicism, presents anything remotely resembling a complex character who receives both reward and punishment for her actions and who implies some sense of philosophical thinking to Miss Brodie and seems to understand the deeper impact of who the woman truly was. But even this is only implied and never fully spoken.
In short, this is not a book which can be read today without a sense of queasiness and distaste. It’s quaint, almost childlike style gives it an ‘Anne of Green Gables’ type of charm. But this is an Anne Shirley who pimps girls for prostitution and gets away with it. Even up to the 1990s I could see this book as titillating and even relatable for many readers who would have known similar teachers in their schools. But today the comedy is out of place and the ethics so far removed from where we are now as to be all but completely alien.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org