I wanted to write about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, for the Scottish Fiction Challenge because it's a totty wee thin book that slips quietly into your pocket (if your pockets are big enough) but also because I read it recently with a student I'm teaching English as a Second Language, and so had to spend a good long time with the book despite how quick a read it could have been. When you spend a long time with something so good, going line by line, it grants a special sort of love, flavoured by the voice of the uncertain reader for whom the story is gradually unfolding, by the rain pattering on the flat roof next to the school room.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those books I had read in another schoolroom when I was a girl, so what is known, technically, as yonks ago. And well now, isn't memory a funny thing? Because I had totally forgotten how many reference to sex there are in this book. From giggly schoolgirl ponderings about the sex lives of teachers, to affairs, to almost-affairs, to a flasher, to flash-forwards to the adult lives of those same school girls, sex is everywhere.
How was it I'd remembered only the acid humour and cleverness? Maybe, because it's a Great Book of Middle Class Scottish Literature I managed to file it away under the wrong categories.
I will have particularly fond memories of reaching the part where Sandy and Jenny are writing an imagined, and terribly overly-formal letter from Miss Brodie to her hapless lover, the school singing teacher Gordon Lowther, and feeling myself shake with suppressed laughter all the way through and at the very last line of the letter...
Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.
...exploding into snorts, along with the student. So, there is that aspect to the book. Be wary, using this as a core text for educational purposes. Ahem.
But of course, being Muriel Spark, whose eyes glint with steel in them, there's more than the (rather taboo at the time) exploration of sexual awareness in girls. There's the perfectly adroit use of language, and tight plotting.
There's even room for the strategic use of repetition, which in lesser hands would be wearying, here bolsters the feeling that what we have here is not merely a little sliver of a moment - in the classrooms of a private school, but an indisputable image of scope: of betrayals, politics, faith, and the grande dame, Edinburgh itself.
If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. If you've the chance, within a schoolroom, or something like it - echoing, pale-lit, terribly Edinburgh in appearance, that would make the perfect setting. If nothing else, at least fetch yourself some scones, and archly pour yourself some tea of the Scottish Breakfast variety, and enjoy.
Helen McClory is a writer and book reviewer currently based in Edinburgh. .