Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, another entrant in the TIME 100, is a wonderfully terse novel, or perhaps novella, that manages to pack a ridiculous amount of detail and emotion into its 130-odd pages.
TPoMJB is a comedy of manners set over a novel of ideas, or more accurately of ideology. Miss Jean Brodie is an independent-minded teacher at an all-girls school between the wars, and she chooses six girls from her class of ten-year-olds to be the “Brodie Set,” singled out allegedly for their unique personalities, but more apparently for Miss Brodie’s gratification of her own ego and the imitiation of some of her own religious ideals. Miss Brodie teaches the girls what she believes is important, often running afoul of the private school’s authorities and other teachers, and lets the Brodie Set see or hear glimpses of her personal life, including her aborted affair with a married co-worker – whose Catholic faith she subsequently denigrates, as she blames it for the end of their tryst – and longer-running affair with another co-worker. Yet Miss Brodie is not the enlightened teacher of a Dead Poets Society, instead blaming the one “stupid” girl in the Brodie Set, Mary, for almost everything that goes wrong, and never hesitating to point out the failings of her other chosen charges.
The story itself covers the time from the selection of the Brodie Set to Miss Brodie’s downfall when one of her charges – the identify of whom is the only real “spoiler” plot element of the book – betrays her to the school’s headmistress. Underlying that story, however, is a tripartite battle of ideas: Miss Brodie’s Calvinist beliefs against the Roman Catholic beliefs of her paramous Mr. Lloyd, with a non-religious ideology, fascism, entering the fray over the course of the book as fascism itself rises to prominence and then becomes a threat in Europe.
Spark employs a brisk, matter-of-fact style, and she plays with time by never really establishing a “present” time, jumping back and forth in an anecdote-drive story. She reveals future plot elements with almost offhand comments early in the text, such as telling us that Mary dies in a fire or that Rose eventually becomes known for sex, then giving the reader more details at later points. It’s an unusual style, but effective in keeping things moving while also keeping the reader a bit off balance. And if you don’t like it, at least it’s over quickly.