Muriel Spark & 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'

First published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie brought Muriel Spark international fame. Time magazine chose it in 2005 as one of the 100 best novels in English from 1923 to the present, and the Modern Library ranked it 76th in its ‘100 Best Novels of the 20thC’.

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The story of Miss Brodie and her ‘crème de la crème’ group of pupils has become a classic of Scottish literature. It is funny and tragic, sharp and unexpected, and it is set in one of the greatest cities in the world. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is arguably Muriel Spark’s best novel and certainly her most celebrated. Discover why it is such a brilliant work of fiction and learn about its characters and themes.

“I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.” – Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark’s sixth novel is one of her most autobiographical. At her own school she had been much impressed by her teacher Miss Kay, “that character in search of an author” as she once described her. Miss Kay borrowed reproductions of paintings from the art department to put on the classroom walls, and introduced her students to Da Vinci and Botticelli. She had on her wall a cutting showing Mussolini and his fascists. Miss Kay encouraged young Muriel Spark to become a writer and Jean Brodie, partly based on her, is Spark’s tribute to the power of a good educator.

Her own Edinburgh childhood, and the feeling that she was something of an outsider because of her heritage, also contributed to the book. As a girl, she wanted to learn about sex, she wanted to break free from Scottish Calvinism, she wanted to wear bright colours and travel. These longings went into the creation of her famous character. Her struggles over religion influenced the introduction of religion as a theme in the book, though I personally doubt that this is a novel that would encourage anybody to turn Catholic!

During her adventurous life, Muriel Spark must have often stopped to wonder about a woman’s prime. When does it arrive? How will you recognise it when it does? I’d love to know if she came up with answers to these questions!

Learn more about her life and books, the themes, styles and characters in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and perhaps enjoy sharing discussion questions with your book group – or even here with me. I always love to hear what you think. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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Featured image credit- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ 1969 20thC Fox at imdb fan sites,
Body image credit- Maggie Smith sent Muriel Spark this telegram the day after she won the Best Actress Oscar for the lead role in the film ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. Maggie thanks Muriel ‘for creating such a wonderful character for me to play.’ [Copyright of the estate of Dame Maggie Smith.] from the National Library of Scotland,

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