Blog Post 12: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ often appears in Top 100 lists of must-read literature. It is technically a novella, 128 pages in my 1969 Penguin edition, with Maggie Smith on the cover, Jean Brodie herself in the film of the book, with her unforgettable cut glass Edinburgh accent. But it certainly deserves its place.
Jean Brodie is from the generation of women who lost fiances, husbands, and the possibility of a married life and children. The First World War claimed so many lives and its effects echoed on for decades. Miss Brodie is a victim of that war and in the run-up to the next war, she is hell bent on achieving immortality through her girls, the ‘Brodie set’.
Monica, Sandy, Mary, Eunice, Jenny, and Rose, all ‘famous’ for something, all encouraged to be individuals by Miss Brodie, make up the set, her ‘creme de la creme’. In reality, they are as one, kept together due to the herd mentality sparked by this increasingly manipulative teacher, who admires Mussolini and has pictures of fascists goose-stepping across her classroom walls.
Miss Brodie is their teacher for two years, when the girls are aged between 11 and 12, still children but with puberty fast-approaching and inquisitive about adult life. The set is separate from the other girls at Marcia Blaine School, even when they move up to the seniors and have different teachers. They only exist as a group because of Miss Brodie; even the art teacher who paints each of the girls sees them as inseparable from each other and from their leader. (In the portraits they all creepily look like Jean Brodie.) She is the only thing they have in common and once she has been ‘betrayed’, the set falls apart.
Miss Brodie, based on one of Spark’s own teachers, is a snob. She is the epitome of hubris. She constantly bigs herself up, telling the girls that she is in her ‘prime’. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age,’ she boasts, ‘and she is mine for life.’ In the run-up to the outbreak of war in Europe, we can see that she is a dictator, like her beloved Mussolini . Her girls are her chosen ones but we see her nasty side in her bullying and scapegoating of Mary (who dies in her early twenties in a hotel fire). It is Miss Brodie’s political leaning, not her love affairs or grooming of the girls, that finally give her nemesis, headmistress Miss Mackay the munition she needs to dismiss her.
Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. she ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor- was it you, Mary?’
But we never really know Miss Brodie as a character. We see her through the eyes of the girls, especially Sandy. The narrative is a third person authorial voice, which jumps back and forth in time, sometimes even within the same paragraph – from the 30s, to post-war, to the 50s, and back again. This narrative device is so effective. We know early on that Miss Brodie will die young and that her ‘prime’ is over too soon. But strangely there is no lack of suspense. Knowing what will happen before it happens somehow piles on the tension. Kate Atkinson uses this technique and I think she must thank Muriel Spark for this.
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ also has a firm sense of place, and is one of the best stories set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie might see herself as European, teaching the girls about the classics and art. But when she takes them around the Old Town to observe her city’s history we can see that the Calvinist influence of pre-destination is something she hasn’t managed to escape. She says that her raison d’etre is to inspire her girls but she is unable to avoid the fate that awaits her: a lonely, early retirement and cancer.
This is a cuttingly funny, disturbing book, not a word out of place, and one where the reader must work out what makes Miss Brodie. We never really know and this is its genius.