Muriel Spark, interviewed by Frank Kermode, once referred to 'vulgar chronology', contrasting her own narrative techniques with strict realist convention. It is Spark's preference for anachrony that refines this story of school life into a highly technical fusion of post-modernist form and religious theme tinged with great wit.
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" introduces the Edinburgh schoolmistress in 1936, surrounded by her notorious 'Brodie Set' of sixteen-year-old girls over whose lives and relationships she seeks almost divine ordinance. A few pages on, the narrative shifts backwards to 1930, showing the reader a small cameo of the Miss Brodie and her class of impressionable girls of ten. This initial anachrony is a common enough technique. However, as we advance through the narrative all the way to 1939 when the 'Brodie Set' are young women of eighteen or nineteen, their schooldays behind them, Spark's skill becomes increasingly apparent. Her sequence of fourteen forward glances and fourteen backward looks builds into a subtle composition of the 'Brodie Set' in childhood, adolescence, and adult life.
Spark writes a cool, calm, and collected narrative in which prolepses never render the text predictable but stage subtle surprises as we move beyond the main story of 1930 to '39 to shift back and forth across a time-span of three decades. Early in the novel, we meet a middle-aged, comfortably married Eunice sharing childhood memories with her husband and planning to visit the grave of her one-time schoolmistress. This extraordinary narrative movement, shuttling the reader forward in order to look back, hints at the style of Miss Brodie's impact. The memento mori is to be combined with the Edinburgh Festival. The schoolmistress, for all her desire to play God in her pupil's lives, inspired both love and a love of the arts. This section of the book is also among its most poignant as the reader learns how Miss Brodie's retirement was involved with a personal tragedy, that she has been 'betrayed' by one of 'her girls'. It is much later that the Sparkian narrator thrusts us towards 1939 to reveal the identity of the teenaged traitor. The revelation is quite matter-of-fact but we now pay far greater attention to the perspective of the character in question since we realise that our understanding of the novel hinges on her understanding of Miss Brodie. At the same time, previous incidents are given an ironic tinge, often taking on considerable import because we share the narrator's omniscient knowledge of Miss Brodie's betrayal.
The question Spark perpetually evokes through her use of narrative anachrony is not 'What happens next?' but 'Why will this happen?'. Miss Brodie is without doubt culpable in her desire for an omnipotent and omniscient rôle in the lives of her pupils. Nevertheless, as Spark highlights her awareness that omnipotence and omniscience are attributes of God alone, attributes necessarily stolen from the 'author of life' by authors of conventional realism, she rejects the absolute moral stance of the realist tradition. Her narrative offers no singular moral perspective on the betrayal of Jean Brodie but leaves us free to make our own judgement from the knowledge anachrony has granted. Spark's readers, aware of how emerging patterns repattern the past, patterns which the realist writer more usually disguises, are left to question whether an absolute past is, perhaps unknowable and therefore beyond judgement. 'I don't claim that my novels are truth', insists Muriel Spark, 'they are fiction out of which a kind of truth emerges....I keep in my mind that...I am writing...fiction because I am interested in truth-- absolute truth.'
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is a novel to which many readers will wish to return again and again, each time gaining fresh insights into the personalities of Miss Brodie and her girls, and the subtle narrative technique of their creator. To readers who are looking for an academic analysis of this novel I recommend the commentary included in "Revolving Culture" by Angus Calder.