The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The setting is a conservative private girls’ school in Scotland during the 1930s. In part this is a story of growing up, as the tale takes us through the teen years of six girls. But it revolves mainly around their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, who cultivates them and welds them together over their school years.

Romantic and Romanesque, Miss Brodie’s goddesslike quality captivates her group of girls, and also the school’s two male teachers, Mr Lloyd who takes art, and Mr Lowther, music. But her self-assurance shades over into narcissism, hence her many references to being in her prime. She tries to mould the girls into extensions of her idealised self.

Her quirkiness generates tension with the headmistress and most of the other staff, particularly since she disdains the set curriculum in favour of her idiosyncratic takes on culture and history, and anecdotes from her own life and love-life. The headmistress keeps trying to sack Miss Brodie, who exploits her support base in her struggle to hold her ground, and indeed selects for her following ‘those she can trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust’ (25-6). The head tries to split up ‘Brodie girls’; she pokes and probes for a sackable indiscretion of a sexual nature, or any nature.

All this is set against the cultural backdrop of Edinburgh, with its purtianical Calvinist heritage, its Catholic minority, its rich and poor; this backdrop touches the girls to varying degrees, and influences events. The wider background also appears in the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism, which Miss Brodie naively admires.

Early in the book we have this classroom scene:

“Mr Lloyd showed his pictures from an exhibition of Italian art in London. He had a pointer with which he indicated the design of the picture in accompaniment to his hoarse voice. He said nothing of what the pictures represented, only followed each line and curve as the artist had left it off – perhaps at the point of an elbow – and picked it up, perhaps at the edge of a cloud or the back of a chair. The ladies of the Primavera, in their netball-playing postures, provided Mr Lloyd with much pointer work. He kept on passing the pointer along the lines of their bottoms which showed through the drapery. The third time he did this a collective quiver of mirth ran along the front row of girls, then spread to the back rows.” (p49)

The theme of transformation, the surrendering one form for another, is introduced here – saved from heavy-handedness by the distracting reference to ladies’ bottoms. It plays a large part in the story, alongside the themes of loyalty and betrayal, sex and puritanism, and the deep ambiguities of female bonding.

Spoiler alert

Sandy is only girl developed to any real extent in the story. She is the most imaginative and deep-thinking of them, and most sensitive to cultural influences. She sees a lot through her tiny eyes. Her fantasies are of adventure, but also of belonging, of being valued and loved. She tries to reconcile her awakening sex drive with the puritanical atmosphere around her. At the same time she wants to fit in. She is hungry for a female role models, and inevitably Miss Brodie is the key one.

She is strongly impacted when one of the other girls is confronted by a flasher. The girl is seen by Sergeant Anne Grey, a blonde young policewoman, and the incident is much discussed with her Brodie peers. After a time the girls think less and less about the flasher, ever more about the policewoman: his gross sexuality is slowly transferred, in purified form, into her beauty and glamour. In Sandy’s fantasies she also personifies puritanism, and stylishly strives to stamp out all sexual activity in the neighbourhood.

Sandy matures. She discovers, in Calvinism, a betraying God who springs ‘a nasty surprise’ on almost everyone upon their deaths.

Ultimately she gets caught up in the suppressed, vicarious sex life of Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie and the art teacher Mr Lloyd are in love, but she foreswears it since he is married. At first she transfers her energy to a discreet relationship, sexual but passionless, with Lloyd’s rival, Mr Lowther. But as the Bridie girls bloom she fixes on the idea of a vicarious affair with Lloyd himself – by delivering one of her followers to him: Rose, renown for her sex appeal. Sandy is allocated the role of go-between and spy. Rose sits as a model for Lloyd, but that’s all; it is Sandy who ends up having the affair with him.

All of Lloyd’s portraits of the Brodie girls mysteriously look like Miss Brodie herself. Sandy challenges him about this with ‘an insolent blackmailing stare’. He kisses her, tells her she is ‘just about the ugliest little thing I have ever seen in my life’, and the affair begins. By throwing down her challenge, Sandy has successfully embodied Miss Brodie for him, and become desireable.

A huge wave of bitterness is building in Sandy. She cannot really have Lloyd, who already has his fine wife, his large family and his obsession with Jean Brodie, for whom Sandy is merely a stand-in. Mr Lloyd is a Catholic, and if Sandy cannot have him she can have his religion; she ends up a sequestered nun, clutching at the bars through which she speaks to visitors.

Sandy betrays not only herself, but also Jean Brodie. She tersely furnishes the headmistress with the weapon that can finally accomplish Miss Brodie’s sacking: her facism. When informing Miss Brodie of her dismissal the head does not fail to mention that the fatal piece of intelligence came from one of her own ‘set’. It is this that breaks her spirit; she ends her days a lost soul, fretting over which girl had done the deed.

When challenged about her betrayal, Sandy implies that it was the girls themselves who were betrayed, without further explanation. Miss Brodie’s attempt to pimp Rose to Lloyd comes to mind, but perhaps, more deeply, Sandy feels that Miss Brodie has betrayed all the girls – and herself most crucially – simply by offering her true love to Lloyd, not them. And perhaps, in Sandy’s heart, Mr Lloyd himself is ultimately a stand-in for the longed-for, goddess-like Miss Brodie, a primal figure indeed.

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