Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – with Historical Novelist Clare Flynn

The third in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Historical novelist Clare Flynn picks this modern classic as her favourite school story – read my interview with her to find out why

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

So far in this series we’ve had novelists Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking – to that’s a Welsh author on a Canadian story and a Finnish author on a Swedish one! This time, I’m pleased to welcome British historical novelist Clare Flynn talking about the Scottish modern classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!

Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.

Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?

Clare Flynn, award-winning historical novelist, shares her passion for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.

When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.

I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.

I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:

‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’

Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy.  Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.

Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.

Which character did you identify with?

I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.

The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends

‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’

I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.

How did the book affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.

In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.

How did it affect your writing?

Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.

Would the book still resonate with young readers today?

I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.

Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!

cover of The Pearl of Penang against Malaysian backdrop
Clare Flynn’s tenth novel was awarded the Selfies UK Award 2020

Connect with Clare Flynn

Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.

Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!


POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences

  • cover of Secrets at St Bride'sI mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
  • Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
  • I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!

For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Pippi Longstocking – with Guest Author Helena Halme

The second in my occasional series of guest posts by author friends who love school stories

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories like I did! I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite school story.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

First up was Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables (click here to read her interview).

Now it’s the turn of Finnish romantic novelist Helena Halme, who nominated the Swedish classic Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren – one of my own childhood favourites.

Pippi Longstocking at St Bride’s

Funnily enough, Pippi makes an appearance in Secrets at St Bride’s as a favourite bedtime story of the youngest girls in the school, as in the following extract.

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's

FROM CHAPTER 21 – STORY TIME

“What are you going to read to us tonight, Miss?” asked Tilly from the bed in the far corner, busy plaiting her long dark hair, presumably to keep it tangle-free overnight. 

That took me by surprise. “Me? Now? Read to you?”

“Miss Bliss always reads to us for fifteen minutes.”

I wondered why Oriana hadn’t included that in my briefing. Were they having me on?

“Really? What does she read?”

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” they chorused, clearly relishing the name.

“Aren’t you-?” I was about to say “too old for these stories,” which I remembered enjoying back in priarmy schol. But as I clocked their eager, hopeful faces, soft in the low light cast from their bedside lamps, I realised the connection: they shared the motherless Pippi’s vulnerability. Seeing her sea-captain father only at rare intervals she claimed complete self-reliance and gloried in her independence, although her more conventional friends suspected her of making up her madcap adventures to hide her loneliness.

“Pippi Longstocking it is, then,” I beamed, gratefully accepting the big green hardback that Imogen held out to me.

Meet Helena Halme – and Pippi Longstocking!

headshot of Helena Halme
Meet Helena Halme, Finnish novelist and Pippi Longstocking fan

Now over to Helena Halme to explain her love of Pippi Longstocking!

Helena is a prize-winning author, former BBC journalist, bookseller and magazine editor. She holds an MSc in Marketing and an MA in Creative Writing. Full-time author and self-publishing coach, Helena also acts as Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors and has published ten Nordic fiction titles and two non-fiction books. Apart from writing stories set in her native Finland, Helena is addicted to Nordic Noir and dances to Abba songs when nobody’s watching. 

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)

Hi Helena, welcome to my blog, and I’m so pleased to have you here to share your love of Astrid Lindgren’s legendary creation, Pippi Longstocking! Can you please kick off with a brief description of her books?

The latest edition in the UK features endearing illustrations by Lauren Child

Pippi Longstocking is a girl with upturned plaits the colour of fire. She lives on her own in a large wooden house with a pet monkey and a white black-spotted horse and never wants to grow up. Pippi is superhumanly strong and can lift her horse one-handed, but she’s also playful and unpredictable. She dislikes unreasonable adults and often makes fun of them or plays tricks on them, especially if they are unfair or pompous. Her father is a swashbuckling pirate captain and she tells endless adventure stories about him. Whether all of them are strictly true is another matter… Her four best friends are her horse and monkey, and the neighbours’ children, Tommy and Annika.

How old were you when you first read Pippi’s adventures?

I was seven when I was first introduced to the crazy world of Pippi and her friends. Pippi’s unconventional, unruly, and exciting life was in such stark contrast to anything I had ever experienced that I was immediately hooked. Although with a good heart, Pippi had a wicked side to her and often exposed grown-ups, particularly teachers, for their double-standards. The books tell Pippi’s story through the eyes of her two best friends, Annika and Tommy, who were ‘normal’ children, with a mum and dad at home.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

Reading Pippi Longstocking later has made me realize how the book reflected social changes in Swedish society at the time. The books were published in 1945, with a hugely popular TV series 1969, which sealed the success of the Pippi stories. I believe that the books reflect the post-war era when the Western world craved freedom and looked toward higher moral values such as peace, humanity and even feminism, all of which are reflected in the Pippi Longstocking books.

What did you particularly like about this series and about the author? Was there anything you disliked?

I just adored the unruliness of Pippi’s life, especially as underneath it, there was often a message about right and wrong. The fight against authority to protect the weak is a ‘red thread’ running through all the books, and that really appealed to me.

I, as did many of those who read the books in Sweden, was later made uncomfortable by some of the racially offensive language used in some of Pippi books, such as Pippi in the South Seas. I believe the text has been changed in later editions.

Which character did you identify with?

In the Pippi books, I identified with Annika, who was the ‘goody two shoes’ to Pippi’s mad and Tommy’s more boisterous character. Annika would often vote against some hair-brained scheme that Pippi came up with, while Tommy was the first to agree to it. I would have liked to have been like Pippi, but knew that it just wasn’t me. However, Annika, who (mostly) followed the rules and was praised by teachers (like me) would have done anything even if it meant rebelling against authority to protect her friend. I hoped I might also behave in a similar way if called upon to do so.

How did Pippi Longstocking affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Reading the Pippi books gave me a huge amount of confidence. Although at the time, my parents were still married, they were constantly fighting, and reading about this girl who could live on her own, supported by her friends, gave me comfort. Although I wouldn’t be able to lift a horse or stand up to my teachers if they were being unfair, it was nice to daydream! Besides, Annika didn’t have those powers, but she was best friends with a girl who did.

How reading Pippi Longstocking affect your writing?

Astrid Lindgren is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The Pippi books started off as bedtime stories she told her own daughter when ill and having to stay at home from school. Her books made me dream about being able to write, to entertain readers and also to convey a message through the stories. The Pippi Longstocking books also made me understand that there is no such thing as a story that is too fantastical!

What type of school did you go to yourself?

What type of school didn’t I go to? Mainly due to my dad’s job (he was a telecoms engineer), as well as because of the on-off break-up of my parents’ marriage, we moved a lot while I was growing up. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, I went to five different schools. That’s a school per year.

My first years were spent in a lovely primary school in Tampere in Finland, where everyone respected the teachers and my big sister was with me. Next, we moved to Stockholm to a large secondary school where the teacher was bullied and sometimes physically abused by the pupils. This was the worst school I’ve ever attended. I cannot tell you the number of times I saw the teacher cry at the end of the lesson when the pupils piled out of class. How I wished I’d have the physical and mental abilities Pippi possessed to deal with the bullies!

The next school in Stockholm was the polar opposite of the first one. A small class of just 15 pupils, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic side by our wonderful teacher. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, every girl in my class had a crush on Johan Johansson!

Back in Finland, schools were very much the same as my primary school in Tampere. Disciplined, academic and pressurized, I thrived because I was quite good at learning. And by that stage, I’d acquired a new language: Swedish, something which helped.

Were your friends also Pippi fans, or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Everyone loved Pippi Longstocking! I remember once when I was eight, a friend was having a fancy dress party for her birthday. No less than five freckled-faced Pippis, including me, turned up. They must have sold out of red wigs in the local shop…

Would the Pippi Longstocking stories still resonate with young readers today?

I absolutely think that Pippi Longstocking will still appeal to today’s children. I certainly intend to introduce the rebellious, strong and fair-minded redhead Pippi to my granddaughter when she’s old enough. Pippi’s belief in her own strength, moral judgement and refusal to follow conventions is perfect for today’s world!

Like to try one of Helena Halme’s books for free? Download the free ebook of the first in her compelling Nordic Heart series of romantic novels. Click the image to find out more.

Connect with Helena Halme

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

PS If you’re wondering what the girls at St Bride’s make of Miss Lamb’s rendition of Pippi, here’s what happens next:

As I read, the girls gradually clicked off their bedside lights, until I was conscious of sitting in a dark room, the only lamp still illuminated focused on Pippi. Halfway through the second chapter, I glanced around to check how many of the girls were asleep and realised that while I had been reading they had all styled their hair into two plaits, which they’d arranged at right angles to their heads, draped across the pillows as they lay down. Each had closed her eyes, slight chests gently rising and falling in the comfortable rhythm of sleep. Perhaps they were all Pippi Longstocking in their dreams, reliving the chapter in which her father returned home from sea.

Secrets at St Bride’s is now available both as a paperback and an ebook.

  • Order the ebook online from your favourite eretailer here.
  • Order the paperback from your favourite bookshop quoting ISBN 978 1911 223 436, or online from Amazon.