I went on vacation last weekend, and I needed a palate cleanser. If you’ve never read Muriel Spark, she’s just the refreshing sort of writer that I needed to really enjoy.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about an unorthodox teacher of young women in Scotland. She mentors a select group of teen girls, called the Brodie set, and treats them more like equals than children. She tells of her love affair thwarted by her fiance’s death in World War I, secretly pines for one man and encourages the attentions of another. She is liberated and wildly unconventional, but her very unconventionality makes her a target in the end. We hear about Miss Jean Brodie from the young women themselves, both in their young adulthood and through reminiscences many years later when they are older.
It’s a fascinating book, because it plays with ideas of gender and of narrative chronology. If I was teaching a course in twentieth century British fiction, this is going to the top of the list, because it takes a generation of men and women in flux and explains the identity crises they end up facing. Plus, it’s snappily written, and a fairly short novel. I was tantalized by the back-and-forth aspects of the timeline and left the novel wanting more from Spark, especially regarding the lives of the young women she mentored. I also highly recommend reading Memento Mori, which I’d read for a class several years ago and thought was insightful, hilarious, and also tantalizing. I think Ms. Spark and I are going to become friends.