Read in a Penguin edition

Following on from The Maltese Falcon, this is another novel arguably better known for its film adaptation than the original novel. The film was a success, in its own terms, but of necessity made some significant changes to the novel, in structure if not in spirit.

Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a small private girl’s school in 1930’s Edinburgh. She believes herself to be in her prime of life, and the novel focusses on her relationship with her “set” – a small group of girls who she adopts as her favourites, and who she dedicates herself to moulding in her own image. This experiment largely fails. While she has a significant impact on the girls’ lives, they all outgrow her and go their own separate ways, remembering her with little more than wry fondness.

Described as an experimental novel when first published at the start of the 60’s, the main innovation Spark uses justifying this label, and elevating this from a traditional school days tale, is her use of a fractured time scheme. Instead of a chronological approach to story telling, in which the events of the story are presented in the order in which they happened, the events of the novel leap forward and back in time, as if presented through the recollections of one of the participants. The reader therefore knows what happens to the principal characters – often the main focus of interest of many novels – early on, and is free to focus on other issues. This approach to presenting the events of the novel is a fragmented order is less innovative now of course, but at the time was considered daring. It leads to an interesting case of “negative foreshadowing”, a term I just made up, where a character’s ultimate fate is described, followed by an incident which in a traditional novel would be described as foreshadowing. (A good example of this in its traditional context is the scene in “Of Mice and men” where a character is pressurised into putting down his old, sick dog).  

For a very short novel Spark manages to include a large number of themes and ideas in “The Prime”. The religious issues of 1930’s Scotland, and their impact on the girl’s emerging sexuality features heavily. Equally, the social divisions of the time are also central to the background of the narrative. Education, and the ability of a teacher to influence the attitudes and perspective of their students, and not least politics are also consistently featured. The girl’s vivid imagination is portrayed very effectively – they imagine themselves as heroines of stories inspired by Miss Brodie, and as they get older these stories inevitably get more explicit, while retaining an innocence suitable to 1930’s Presbyterian Scotland:

“Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.”

But the novel is not didactic – this is background, not much more, and the primary interest is in character. The success of this is evidenced by the fact that as well as translating to the cinema, “The Prime” has also been performed successfully as a stage play, and was made into a television series. The portrayal of the central characters in the film was sufficiently vivid to have stayed with me for a long time, so much so that reading the novel felt in many ways like a re-read.