Yesterday marked the 100th birthday of Scottish author, essayist and poet Muriel Spark (1918-2006). Her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), was number 76 on Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It takes place in 1930s Edinburgh, where an outgoing teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, self-described as "in her prime," takes a special interest in several pupils at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. These six students quickly become the "Brodie set," connected to each other and their teacher by Miss Brodie's unorthodox lessons. The novel follows the Brodie set and Miss Brodie through their school years and via flash forwards, to when one among them helps ruin Miss Brodie's teaching career.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie incorporates autobiographical details from Spark's life. Miss Brodie was modeled in part on Christina Kay, Spark's teacher for two years at James Gillespie's School for Girls, whose idiosyncrasies included hanging up posters of Renaissance paintings alongside pro-fascist images. Spark's conversion from Anglican to Roman Catholic also occurs in the favored girl among the Brodie set (and is a recurring theme in Spark's other work). In 1969, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was turned into a popular film starring Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie, for which she received an Academy Award for Best Actress. On February 6, 2018, Harper Perennial Modern Classics will publish a new paperback edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ($13.99, 9780061711299). -Tobias Mutter