The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Muriel Spark
Published serially in The New Yorker 1961
Published in book form 1961
Read August 2017
I am likely not alone in immediately thinking of Maggie Smith and Rod McKuen’s Oscar-nominated song “Jean” when I hear the title “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” despite having never read the book nor seen the 1969 movie until this summer (2017). I have now corrected both lapses and can report that both the book and movie are worthy of individual or paired consideration.
The short novel makes extensive use of flash-forward as well as some flash-back. Through these devices we learn the story of the “Brodie set” as they become called, starting in 1931 at age ten and having their first year of Junior School with Miss Jean Brodie, their subsequent years as they progress through the Marcia Blaine School, a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, while continuing a close special relationship with Miss Brodie through their tenure, and for some of the characters, a bit about their lives after school. The story also traces the story of Miss Jean Brodie—her unorthodox teaching approach, her fight with Miss Macky, the headmistress, to stay there vs leaving for a more “appropriate” school for Miss Brodie’s method, the renunciation of her love for Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher (and his love for her), her love affair with Mr. Lowther, the singing master, and her eventual betrayal and dismissal from Marcia Blaine for her fascist views.
Narration, giving us only the girls’ perspectives, alternates with occasional dialog providing the reader’s only opportunity to hear Miss Brodie’s voice. As such, we only know Miss Jean Brodie through her comments to her girls. She is quite insistent she is “in her prime” and that she is totally committed to “her girls”. She loves the art teacher and even shares a kiss but avoids more interactions because he is married. She carries on a love affair with the singing master seemingly to heal her heart. She also has some views, desires, and takes some actions that are less easy to understand—her appreciation of fascist rulers, her clear desire that Rose be her proxy as lover of Mr. Lloyd, and her strong suggestions to a new student that she run away to fight for Franco in Spain. We can’t know what propels her to have fascist leanings or why she would find a love affair between Rose and Mr. Lloyd something for which to wish. We do, however, learn that her effect on Sandy was far from what she intended. Not only is Sandy the Brodie set member with whom Mr. Lloyd has an affair, Sandy also chooses to put a stop to Miss Brodie.
It was interesting to view the movie to see how the structure of the novel would be handled. The story is told in a more “straight-line” approach. The “Brodie set” is reduced in number by blending some of their stories together. Sandy remains a distinct and pivotal character. The betrayal is handled differently and Miss Brodie actually interacts with her betrayer providing a useful climax for the movie.
I think this would be a great book for a book discussion—there are so many unanswered questions about the characters and the setting of the story—1930’s Edinburgh—enabling many rich discussions.