The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in The New Yorker magazine before being published as a novel in 1961. It takes place at a school in 1930s Scotland and is told through the eyes of the female students under the tutelage of Miss Jean Brodie.
The novel takes place at the Marcia Blaine School and focuses on a group of six girls who are assigned to Miss Brodie’s class. The “prime” of the title refers to Miss Brodie declaring that she is in the “prime of her life.” The narration switches between the chronological story of their schoolhood and a series of flashforwards. The girls are influenced by Miss Brodie, who believes that she is obligated to teach them more than the curriculum. Lessons range anywhere from history to politics (specifically the goings-on of Europe and Spain) to her love life. The flashforwards reveal that one of the girls betrayed Miss Brodie and was a catalyst to the termination of her job, but she never finds out which of the girls it was.
The girls are Sandy Stranger, who is famous for her vowel sounds and “insight but no instinct”, Rose Stanley, who is famous for sex (and in contrast to Sandy is told that she has “instinct but no insight”), Monica Douglas, who is famous for mathematics and her anger, Jenny Gray, who is famous for her beauty, Eunice Gardiner, who is famous for her gymnastics and glorious swimming, and Mary MacGregor, who acts as Miss Brodie’s scapegoat and meekly accepts the blame for whatever is going on.
Throughout the novel, Miss Brodie carries on affairs with two of the male teachers at the school, the singing teacher, Mr. Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed war veteran Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd is a married Roman Catholic man with six children. Oops. Both of the men profess that they love Miss Brodie, while she reveals that she only loves Mr Lloyd. Miss Brodie never acts on her love for Mr. Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica, one of the students. She decides that a bachelor makes a more suitable mate, as a wife and six kids tends to get in the way, so she carries on a sexual relationship with Mr. Lowther. Sandy, one of the main points of view in the story, begins to become disillusioned with Miss Brodie.
The girls move on to the Senior school, though they still stick together and identify themselves as “the Brodie set.” Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. Meanwhile, the headmistress, Miss Mackay, tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. Miss Mackay had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a “progressive” school; Miss Brodie declined to move.
Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose should have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr. Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Mr. Lloyd has taken to inviting the Brodie girls to sit for him to paint their portraits, but each of their faces looks like Miss Brodie. I don’t think there’s a single teacher in this book who maintains a proper student/teacher relationship. Urging your student to have an affair with a man that you love is just creepy.
Another student, Joyce Emily, tries to join the Brodie set but the girls aren’t really having it. Miss Brodie takes Joyce Emily under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side. She does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is traveling in is attacked.
The Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit school before graduating, Mary became a typist and Jenny pursued a career in acting. Eunice became a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy has an affair with Mr. Lloyd the summer after she graduates, while his wife and children are away on vacation.
After the summer, Sandy ends the affair with Mr. Lloyd, but she adopts his Roman Catholic religion and becomes a nun. Before she becomes a nun, she meets with Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Miss Brodie. She suggests Miss Mackay try accusing Miss Brodie of fascism based ont he conversations she had with the girls, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment will Miss Brodie be able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her.
Sandy, who is now known as Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and the 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 what were the main influences of her school years, “Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?”
Sandy said: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”
The way the narration is set up is rather unique — you know from the beginning of the story that Miss Brodie is betrayed, even though sequentially it happens at the end of the girls’ school years. The novel also doesn’t attempt to hide the flaws of any of the characters, making them appear more human. There isn’t a definite hero to the book.
The affect that teachers have on students is at the centerpoint of the novel. Miss Brodie claims that she is a teacher who states that if she is given a girl at an “impressionable age then she is mine for life.” In fact, she does go on to influence the girls beyond the realm of the classroom, both when they are in school and when they are living their lives. Sandy particularly feels the reach of Miss Brodie beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. She becomes a nun and shuts herself down to anything Brodie-esque, which shows that she is still affected by Miss Brodie. Miss Brodie draws the girls close to herself as Calvinists believe God elects few to salvation, as Sandy observes. This leads Sandy to publicly reject Calvinism in place of Catholicism. A few of the girls die as a casual result of Miss Brodie’s influence on their lives.
I can’t think of any teachers who have had that sort of an effect on me, and I certainly can’t think of any students whom I’ve affected. Influence is a funny thing. Things that you wouldn’t assume to be influential can sometimes emerge later as a large reason as to a significant life choice. However, the major moral of the story : if a teacher tells you to have an affair with someone, just say no. And ew.