Why Should I Read...?
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark, 1961
If all you know of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is 1968 film with Maggie Smith, you have a treat in store. With few writers I know is style more divorced from plot, and the reason I’ve read this book a dozen times is almost entirely stylistic. Throughout her long career Spark was a stylistic experimenter and innovator: such an approach carries risk, and in all honesty I find most of her work from The Mandelbaum Gate onwards unreadable. But her earlier novels, The Comforters, The Girls of Slender Means, The Ballad of Peckham
Superficially Jean Brodie is a very simple novel: a coming of age story (with strong autobiographical elements) told in only 100 pages or so. There are no tricks or hidden revelations. Miss Brodie is a progressive school teacher in a distinctly unprogressive girls’ school: she mingles feminism with support for Fascism—in 1930s
Structurally Spark pushes the omniscient narrator to extremes. Although
Spark can do all the basics so well the reader hardly notices them. The characters of Jean Brodie and her young disciples are drawn with precise economy, the historical sketch of 1930s Edinburgh vivid, and the themes of the novel—betrayal, loyalty, the social position of women, coming of age—are handled so expertly that the novel would be remarkable without its stylistic brilliance. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has the chilly perfection of an ice-crystal: not to everyone’s taste, but of its type an unequalled glory.
How has it influenced me?
Muriel Spark was the first writer to give me a sense that style could be an end in itself. With writers like Austen and Vance I had always had the sense of the style supporting the plot, but Jean Brodie gives us a style which is self-sustaining and has a vitality independent of the story. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to copy, but as an illustration of what narrative tone can do, it’s hugely instructive. Compare and contrast LA Confidential¸ featuring later on our list. Even the later works, which I enjoyed much less, are instructive in showing how delicate an experiment stylistic innovation is: get it even slightly wrong and freshness is replaced by inaccessibility.
The minimalism of Spark’s style has always impressed me as well. She’s not the only writer to show how much can be done with how little, but few do it better.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
How you tell your story is more important than the story itself
What the omniscient authorial voice loses in immediacy it can gain in perspective
Do you really need that adverb?
If your story only needs to be a hundred pages long, don’t pad it out to two hundred
Even if you are a brilliant prose stylist (and you probably aren’t, whatever you may think…) don’t neglect the basics: character, theme, pacing
Flash-forwards are very, very risky. Be cautious about using them.