How much can really happen in one-hundred-sixty pages? Muriel Sparks proves that a lot can be said and done in that many pages in her novel 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' first published in 1961. The story follows the school teacher Miss Jean Brodie who, during the course of the novel, is in her 'prime.' Brodie has a class of girls that she becomes especially close with, who become known as the Brodie set. The novel follows the course of these girls spending time with Jean Brodie while aging up through their school years, and become a formidable group of young ladies, popular and intelligent. However, Brodie bends the girls to her will while dealing with her own issues, especially pertaining to her love affairs with two different men, who are her co-workers at the school in Edinburgh, Scotland.
[Be aware of spoilers]
But there is more to Brodie than meets the eye, and upon close inspection, she can be seen as a sample of the feeling of various areas of Europe prior to World War II. The novel takes place during the 1930s, and at the time Mussolini was taking over Italy, and Brodie couldn't speak more highly of the man. She believed him when he said that there would be jobs for everyone in Italy. She constantly talks about him to her Brodie set. We know that Mussolini was a fascist as well, which by extension, it can be assumed that Brodie was also a fascist, or at least agreed with that form of government. Later in the novel, Brodie spends some time in Germany, where Hitler is gaining power. She comes back to the school and raves about Hitler and Germany to the Brodie set. There is also the implication that Brodie supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War, as she inadvertently sends a student to her death by encouraging her to go fight in the war. And the most disturbing thing is that when asked about this student, Brodie seems to have no remorse for the death of the girl.
Brodie meets her downfall because she is ratted out by one of her students. It is a possibility that this downfall of Brodie coincides with World War II and Scotland's participation in the war. Since Brodie exhibited fascist tendencies and supported Hitler and Mussolini, this would have contradicted with Scotland's position as part of the Allies, which included countries such as England and France. With the admission that Brodie felt that way about Hitler and Mussolini, it parallels the downfall of both of those men, who were attempting to raise up their countries in the way of the fascists. Brodie being dismissed from the school where she worked also parallels the revolt of the German people against their leader, when they realized what Hitler was really doing to the people of the country.
Brodie certainly exhibits a feminist attitude, being a woman in the 30s, single, working and disregarding social norms and having an affair with a man, but how much can she really be looked up to? She opens doors for the Brodie set by culturing them in more ways about the world than they would have gotten during a regular class, but she also uses them for her own gain, gets a young girl killed, and even exhibits traits of a sociopath. Can someone like that be looked up to for female empowerment when she puts all her faith and trust into two men like Mussolini and Hitler. That is up for debate.
This book is worth the in depth read that it deserves. Because of its ties with World War II history, it makes an even more interesting read when paralleled with the events of the war as it relates to Scotland, Italy and Germany. Sparks packs a punch into her one-hundred-sixty pages.