Women as Writers 1: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, without a doubt, one of the most intriguing novels I’ve ever read. This is my second reading – the first was done some years ago during high school, which is ironically appropriate – and my perspective has certainly changed since those early days.


The thing that struck me the most about Jean Brodie was Spark’s use of tense switches. Not only did it add an interesting element to the already very full plotline, but also encouraged the reader to think about how all of the actions became relevant when presented in that particular order. By way of a plot synopsis, Jean Brodie details the adventures of the Brodie set, a clique of six girls at Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh. The six girls – Monica Douglas, Sandy Stranger, Mary MacGregor, Eunice Gardiner, Jenny Gray, and Rose Stanley – are each ‘famous’ for something, and under Miss Brodie’s arguably unorthodox tutelage are instructed in the ways of culture, art, history, fascism and love and romance until they leave for the Senior school. Miss Brodie’s way of teaching goes strictly against the curriculum, part and parcel with her attempts to defend herself against the teachers and the headmistress of Marcia Blaine, who are all aiming to have her removed from her teaching duties. She draws her set into the fight as well, urging them to defend her when questioned by Miss Mackay, the headmistress, and confiding in them her plans and hopes and dreams.


But, even whilst she treats the set as her special confidantes, her friends, she manipulates them for her own purposes. Jean Brodie, throughout the course of the novel, reveals to the reader (and to her set) that she is in love with both the art master and the singing master at Marcia Blaine – Teddy Lloyd and Gordon Lowther respectively. She kisses Mr. Lloyd once (who is married with six children), but later pursues a relationship with Mr. Lowther once the girls are in Senior school. This relationship goes nowhere and Mr. Lowther ends up marrying the science teacher, Miss Lockhart, much to Miss Brodie’s heartbreak.


The most interesting thing about Jean Brodie is that she does not realise her own failings, and attributes all of her actions to being ‘in her prime’, a term she continually employs with an elusive if not vague meaning. The reader, by the end of the novel, is forced to conclude that even Jean Brodie herself did not know what her ‘prime’ was; simply that she was in it. It is this quality of facing the unknown ends of her ‘prime’ with gusto and effervescence that makes Jean Brodie such a memorable character, amongst her attempts to live vicariously through her set and her controlling and fascistic mindset, which eventually gets her removed from the school on the advice of Sandy who ‘betrays’ her to Miss Mackay.


Jean Brodie dies of a cancerous growth at the end of the novel, which is ironic in that her first love – known to us only as Hugh – died during World War One and thus deprived Jean Brodie of having children. It represents both this lost opportunity, and the painful reality of her betrayal by Sandy – who is, in essence, one of her ‘children’ along with the rest of the set. Miss Brodie has raised and moulded the set into a group of young ladies with a very individual and anti-team-spirit mindset, able to think and operate as individuals without relying on group mentality. She has, in a sense, mothered them, and satisfied her sense of longing for a family.


I have retold the plot of Jean Brodie in this way because I’d like to highlight an interesting point I noticed whilst reading the novel. Primarily, Jean Brodie is a novel that discusses what it means to be a woman, and what goes into making a woman what she ends up as. It’s a story of growth, loss, love, and society, all of which might not be quite clear upon an initial reading. Spark, in writing Jean Brodie, has shown male and female readers alike that often what you see on the surface of someone isn’t their true nature, or in fact may be only a small part of what lies beneath the surface. Jean Brodie’s character is built on years and years of lost love and working for the war effort, and unless told of her past it would be easy to assume she is a fickle and fleeting woman. This assumption is what Miss Mackay and the other schoolteachers represent – they shun Miss Brodie for the person she appears to be on the outside, and discredit her teaching of culture and individuality to her students for the musings of a self-absorbed and slightly love-lorn teacher who is more than ready to be put out to pasture. Similarly, the tracking of the Brodie set in their development mirrors Jean Brodie’s as a sub-plot. Each of the girls is ‘famous’ for one thing and one alone, and they are portrayed in that light constantly throughout the novel. Their internal personalities are not explored, and when they do become individuals and follow their own paths it surprises Jean Brodie, because she is so used to following the stereotypes given to her. The same happens with Teddy Lloyd and Mr Lowther, who both have their own lives which Jean Brodie also attempts to control but fails at doing so due to external circumstances (Mr Lowther’s love for Ms. Lockhart, and Teddy Lloyd’s family).


All of this analysis aside, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel of extraordinary proportions, with intrigue and detail at every twist and turn. It speaks to readers on a very intimate level, and holds up a mirror to some. To others, it teaches the lesson that one should always look beneath the surface that another person presents, and always consider their background before making judgements on what’s immediately available. It shows that people should never be taken for granted, and that we are complex beings with many different ways of making meaning in our lives. We shouldn’t be underestimated, and least of all should we be categorised.


So, if you’re up for a bit of mental work and a few new lessons, I highly recommend this novel to you.


In the meantime, I’m going to resume reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and keep working on my novel!


Never stop reading!




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