Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 364
Unusually for a novel which has a schoolteacher as its principal character, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is not really about growing up. It is about being a non-conformist in a world which values conformity above almost everything else. It is about the influence we have on each other, and how some people try to live their lives vicariously through others.
Miss Brodie is a primary teacher in an Edinburgh girls' school in the thirties. She has unusual ideas about education, and isn't really interested in teaching her pupils the usual subjects. Instead, she tells stories which awaken an interest in the world, and she does not censor them to make them more "suitable" for children.
When Miss Brodie decides she is entering her "prime", she picks out a group of girls who seem to respond particularly well to her stories. These are the girls through whom she tries to live vicariously; her stories often now focusing on excelling as an individual. She talks a lot about vocation, how to recognise the one task in life for which she believes each person is destined. While the Brodie set, as they become known, pass on through the school, the keeps up contact with them, wanting to know what they are doing down to the smallest detail, yet always slightly distorting it to fit their lives into the mould she wants them to live in. (The most obvious example of this is her attempt to manipulate one of them, at seventeen, to have an affair with the art teacher with whom Miss Brodie herself refused to have an affair a few years earlier.)
The rest of the teachers at the school are constantly trying to find an excuse to get rid of Miss Brodie. This is a battle in which the Brodie set play an important part, for the headmistress is keen to get from them the information which will lead to her downfall, as they know more about Miss Brodie than any of her colleagues. In the end, one of them does betray her, and this not only loses her her job but brings her prime to an end. When the adult girls from the Brodie set return to Edinburgh after the war to visit, they have tea with Miss Brodie and find that she is reduced to obsessively taking up the question of which one of them it was who betrayed her.
The clever part of Spark's writing in her best known novel is the way that she makes it clear that Miss Brodie is not as wonderful a teacher as either she or the Brodie set think the is, even in her prime. Different from those around her, an inspiration to those she taught, a lifelong influence probably not (though that is what she clearly hoped to be). It is difficult to be a teacher without seeking to influence your pupils, but in many ways Miss Brodie was an influence which at its best was unsettling, bringing questioning of the accepted certainties around the girls, at its worst unhealthy. (This last is made most clear by the admiration for Hitler and Mussolini she sought to pass on to the girls.)
The action a teacher, or indeed any adult, should never perform is to attempt to live vicariously through children. Parents are most likely to do this - pressure to take up opportunities denied to or turned down by the previous generation - and it can be extremely harmful.