In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), there is something in the eponymous protagonist that repels us, but there is also something that strongly attracts us to her – and the novel balances itself between these two extremes, in a movement that, differently from our traditional narrative on unconventional teachers, never comes to a comfortable resolution.
When the novel opens, it’s the early 1930’s and we are at the Marcia Blaine School, a conservative girl’s school in Edinburgh. The story centres on one of the teachers, the unorthodox Miss Jean Brodie, and a group of ten-year old girls whom she calls ‘her set’ – the school’s ‘crème de la crème’, carefully selected by Miss Brodie to be her confidents. She takes them to concerts and art galleries, making them feel special by setting them apart from their peers. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’, she says.
Miss Brodie is an unconventional teacher who captivates her pupils – and, by extension, us – with her string of eccentricities: she prefers to spend the time in class telling the girls about her travels in Italy or the story of her own lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War – and even prompts the students to keep their textbooks open, to pretend they are having a real lesson, in case the headmistress enters the room. Rather than history or math, she prefers to give her pupils lessons in art, music, love, and other topics outside the authorized curriculum at Marcia Blaine. Throughout the novel, she repeats that ‘she is in her prime’ – a mantra that acquires a reality of its own, to which her girls will look back with fondness, many years later. She even obliquely alludes to her romantic entanglement with the music master, Gordon Lowther, whom she controls as a puppet – which also inspires the girls to pastiche an imaginary love-letter between the two teachers: ‘Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.’ Miss Brodie’s heart, however, belongs to the art teacher, the painter Teddy Lloyd, a Roman-Catholic man, wounded in the First World War – who, alas, is married and has nine children, but keeps painting Miss Brodie in all his portraits.
We follow the ‘Brodie set’ as they grow up and enter senior school. Although Miss Brodie is not their teacher anymore, she still acts as their mentor: they keep in touch with her after school hours, and frequently visit her at home to tea. And its here that their relationship starts to become a bit sinister, as Miss Brodie tries to influence one of the girls to have an affair with the lover that she herself, perhaps for reasons of propriety, cannot have.
The story is told in flash-forwards, moving back and forth in time between the 1930’s and the post-War years, when the girls are middle-aged women and have already dispersed. This enables us to have both the girl’s perspectives on Brodie, as children, and their later memories of her, coloured by what happened in their lives. The flash-forwards also give us a strong sense of melancholy for a time when nothing had been lost yet, a time prior to the fall from grace or to the loss of innocence. We look back at Miss Brodie through different perspectives, both in real time and in retrospect, and from a time beyond her so-called ‘prime’. We also see how the girls’ personalities develop, and how, in way or another, they hold on to their identities as they had been established in the ‘Brodie set’. We learn that one of them will later betray their beloved teacher, providing information for her dismissal from the school, and, ultimately, bringing her ‘prime’ to an end by ruining her career.
The strength and allure of the novel are rooted in Miss Brodie’s ambivalence as a character. This is not our traditional tale of an unconventional teacher who inspires her pupils with her unorthodox methods – à la Dead Poets Society, for example.
Miss Brodie is a collection of contradictions, and that’s where our fascination for her comes from: she is a teacher who refuses to teach. Although she claims that education is “a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul”, Miss Brodie can be very rigid when controlling the girls – even manipulating their sexual awakening – , and she can also be very dogmatic when the subject is Giotto. Despite renouncing a married man for moral reasons, she does not shy away from offering him one of her girls in her place. While professing the superiority of individualism, Miss Brodie is also fascinated by Mussolini’s black-shirted fascisti, and, while determined to instil the love of art and beauty in her pupils, she herself is afraid of passion. Finally, despite professing unorthodox methods and being an undisciplined teacher, Miss Brodie claims to be an admirer of the so-called Germanic discipline and organization. She is that dangerous thing: a charismatic fascist.
Is she using her students in order to live – through them – the experiences she cannot have? Is she using her classes as a kind of bizarre therapy session? Or are they only the stage where she is better able to display her egotism? Is she a feminist? Does she want to turn her girls into her doubles? How aware was she about what fascism entailed? Was her betrayal by a pupil really a betrayal? Or a victory? Miss Brodie may have found a real double where we least expected to find one: the fact that she was betrayed might be, in the end, the ultimate proof of her strong influence over her pupils.
It feels almost as if you were intent on making us feel for her the same allure she had felt for… well, Mussolini. It may be difficult to admit, but, while acknowledging that Miss Brodie is perverse and even destructive, we cannot help but feel that she is a deliciously endearing character – and this feeling is precisely what throws us in the heart of the contradictions that are the strength of this book: it is impossible to feel disgusted with Miss Brodie without, at the same time, feeling a little disgusted with ourselves, too.
You make us a part of the select ‘Brodie set’, you turn us into her pupils. While reading her story, we almost feel what her girls must have felt, when looking back at their time at school: a certain melancholy, but one inseparable from revulsion and perplexity. And, as with the girls in her ‘Brodie set’, it is left entirely to us to decide what to betray and, ultimately, what to forgive.
“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.” ―
“One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” ―
“It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due” ―
“One’s prime is the moment one was born for. ” ―
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2012, 128 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- The book was made into a film, directed by Ronald Neame, starring Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie (1969, IMDb)
- In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to that year
- In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the novel No. 76 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century
- I read this book for my local bookclub & for Muriel Spark Readalong