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First edition cover
|Cover artist||Victor Reinganum|
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Victor Reinganum|
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short book by novelist Muriel Spark, the best known of her works. It first saw publication in The New Yorker magazine and was published as a book by Macmillan in 1961. The character of Miss Jean Brodie brought Spark international fame and brought her into the first rank of contemporary Scottish literature. In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie #76 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
In 1930s Edinburgh, six ten-year-old girls, Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice are assigned Miss Jean Brodie, who describes herself as being "in my prime", as teacher. Miss Brodie, determined that they shall receive an education in the original sense of the Latin verb educere, "to lead out", gives her students lessons about her personal love life and travels, promoting art history, classical studies, and fascism. Under her mentorship, these six girls whom Brodie singles out as the elite group among her students—known as the "Brodie set"—begin to stand out from the rest of the school. However in one of the novel's typical flash-forwards we learn that one of them will later betray Brodie, ending her teaching career, but that she will never learn which.
In the Junior School, they meet the singing teacher, the short Mr Gordon Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one-armed war veteran Mr Teddy Lloyd, a married Roman Catholic with six children. These two teachers form a love triangle with Miss Brodie, each loving her, while she loves only Mr Lloyd. However Miss Brodie never overtly acts on her love for Mr Lloyd, except once to exchange a kiss with him, witnessed by Monica. During a two-week absence from school, Miss Brodie embarks on an affair with Mr Lowther on the grounds that a bachelor makes a more respectable paramour: she has renounced Mr Lloyd as he is married. At one point during these two years in the Junior School, Jenny is "accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith". The police investigation of the exposure leads Sandy to imagine herself as part of a fictional police force seeking incriminating evidence in respect of Brodie and Mr Lowther.
Once the girls are promoted to the Senior School (around age twelve) though now dispersed, they hold on to their identity as the Brodie set. Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them to her home as she did when they were her pupils. All the while, the headmistress Miss Mackay tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to sack Brodie. Miss Mackay has more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that she should seek employment at a 'progressive' school; Miss Brodie declines to move to what she describes as a 'crank' school. When two other teachers at the school, the Kerr sisters, take part-time employment as Mr Lowther's housekeepers, Miss Brodie tries to take over their duties. She sets about fattening him up with extravagant cooking. The girls, now thirteen, visit Miss Brodie in pairs at Mr Lowther's house, where all Brodie does is ask about Mr Lloyd in Mr Lowther's presence. At this point Mr Lloyd asks Rose and occasionally the other girls to pose for him as portrait subjects. Each face he paints ultimately resembles Miss Brodie, as her girls report to her in detail, and she thrills at the telling. One day when Sandy is visiting Mr Lloyd, he kisses her.
Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling on Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie is obsessed with the notion that Rose, as the most beautiful of the Brodie set, should have an affair with Mr Lloyd in her place. She begins to neglect Mr Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Another student, Joyce Emily, steps briefly into the picture, trying unsuccessfully to join the Brodie set. Miss Brodie takes her under her wing separately, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side, which she does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is travelling in is attacked.
The original Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, begin to go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny leave before taking their exams, Mary to become a typist and Jenny to pursue a career in acting. Eunice becomes a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy, with a keen interest in psychology, is fascinated by Mr Lloyd's stubborn love, his painter's mind, and his religion. Sandy and Rose model for Mr Lloyd's paintings, Sandy knowing that Miss Brodie expects Rose to become sexually involved with Lloyd. Rose, however, is oblivious to the plan crafted for her and so Sandy, now eighteen and alone with Mr Lloyd in his house while his wife and children are on holiday, has an affair with him herself for five weeks during the summer. Over time, Sandy's interest in the man wanes while her interest in the mind that loves Jean Brodie grows. In the end, Sandy leaves him, adopts his Roman Catholic religion, and becomes a nun. Beforehand, however, she meets with Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put a stop to Miss Brodie. She suggests that the headmistress could accuse Brodie of encouraging fascism, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment a year after the end of World War II is Miss Brodie able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her. After her death however, Sandy, now called Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and author of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, maintains that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due". One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology, to ask about the main influences of her school years, "Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?" Sandy says: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
"She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin." In some ways she is: in her prime she draws her chosen few to herself, much as Calvinists understand God to draw the elect to their salvation. With regard to religion, Miss Brodie "was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master." Feeling herself fated one way or another, Brodie acts as if she transcends morality.
Of the set, "Miss Brodie fixed on Sandy," taking her as her special confidante. She is characterised as having "small, almost nonexistent, eyes" and a peering gaze. Miss Brodie repeatedly reminds Sandy that she has insight but no instinct. Sandy rejects Calvinism, reacting against its rigid predestination in favour of Roman Catholicism.
In contrast to Sandy, Rose is an attractive blonde with (according to Miss Brodie) instinct but no insight. Though somewhat undeservedly, Rose is "famous for sex", and the art teacher Mr. Lloyd asks her to model for his paintings: it rapidly becomes clear that he has no sexual interest in her and uses her simply because she is a good model. In every painting, Rose has the likeness of Brodie, whom Mr. Lloyd stubbornly loves. Rose and Sandy are the two girls in whom Miss Brodie places the most hope of becoming the crème de la crème. Again unlike Sandy, Rose "shook off Miss Brodie's influence as a dog shakes pond-water from its coat."
Dim-witted and slow, Mary is Brodie's scapegoat. Mary meekly bears the blame for everything that goes wrong. At the age of 23 she dies in a hotel fire, killed running back and forth through the hotel, unable to escape.
Spark unfolds her plots not sequentially, but piece by piece, making extensive use of the narrative technique of prolepsis (flash-forward). For example, the reader is aware early on that Miss Brodie is betrayed, though this actually happens at the end of the girls' school years. Gradually Spark reveals the betrayer, and lastly all the details surrounding the event are told. Spark develops her characters in this way, too: Joyce Emily is introduced right away as the girl who is rejected from the Brodie set. With this technique, the narrator of the story is omniscient and timeless, relating the entire plot all at once.
Spark creates deep characterizations which are realistic in their human imperfections. Hal Hager, in his commentary on the novel, writes of Sandy and Miss Brodie: "The complexity of these two characters, especially Jean Brodie, mirrors the complexity of human life. Jean Brodie is genuinely intent on opening up her girls' lives, on heightening their awareness of themselves and their world, and on breaking free of restrictive, conventional ways of thinking, feeling, and being".
The character of Miss Jean Brodie was based in part on Christina Kay, a teacher of Spark's for two years at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Spark would later write of her: "What filled our minds with wonder and made Christina Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened." Miss Kay was the basis for the good parts of Brodie's character, but also some of the more bizarre; for example, Miss Kay did hang posters of Renaissance paintings on the wall, but also of Benito Mussolini and Italian fascists marching. Spark grew up in heavily Presbyterian Edinburgh, while Franco's supporters were almost unanimously Roman Catholic. Christina Kay looked after her widowed mother, not the music teacher who was in love with her. She encouraged the young Muriel Spark to become a writer. Spark, like Sandy, converted to Roman Catholicism.
The novel has been adapted for stage, film and television. All versions have retained the title The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.