The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the best known of Muriel Spark’s work. It was first published by The New Yorker Magazine but was published as a book in 1961. The story is set in 1930s Edinburgh where a group of six 10 year old girls at Marcia Blaine School for Girls are taught by Miss Jean Brodie, a Calvinist and fascist who believes in nurturing the best of the best. The story follows the girls as they progress through school, but Spark includes frequent flash forwards throughout, letting the reader know almost immediately that eventually one of Brodie’s girls will betray her trust, though this doesn’t happen until the end of the novel.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been widely critically acclaimed since its release in 1961. In 2005, it was ranked by Time Magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923-2005 and it was also chosen as one of the best English language novels of the 20th century by Modern Library.
Spark’s style of writing in the novel was a departure from the conventional method as she uses flash-forwards to remove the element of suspense – the reader is told the fates of some of the characters within the first chapter. This was Spark’s way to focus the reader’s attention on why things happen, rather than concentrating on what would happen. The novel has biographical aspects to it, specifically the character of Jean Brodie who is said to be based on Spark’s teacher Christina Kay who taught her for two years at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls and encouraged her to become a writer. The school still exists, though it is now a comprehensive, and is located south of the meadows in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh.