The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark


Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


In her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark brings to life an eccentric, egocentric, and charming teacher in a private Edinburgh school during the 1930s. Miss Brodie’s six students, known collectively as “the Brodie set,” move through the grades. Miss Brodie sabotages school curriculum as she grandstands her own passions, both personal and academic. She colludes with her students regarding her status in the school and trouble she has with the headmistress. Miss Brodie is memorable for these students, recalled in their later lives, as repeated flash-forwards reveal.

Indeed, it is in putting this 1930s story in personal and historical perspective that some of its darker meaning emerges. In the pre–World War II days, autocratic, orderly, and foolish Miss Brodie is infatuated with Mussolini and Hitler. Inclined to think of herself as European, Miss Brodie praises fascism, her very taste for it a sign of her cultivation. Deluded by the appeal of absolute domination, with its apparent order and efficiency, Miss Brodie forgets that each person, however low and powerless, is a human being with rights. In her ridicule of Mary Macgregor, in her irresponsible direction to Joyce Emily Hammond to go off and fight for Franco, and in her attempt to sexually manipulate Rose Stanley, Miss Brodie sets morality aside and denies the humanity of her students. Mary’s death in a fire in 1943 connects this denial to the greater obscenity occurring at the same time on the Continent in the death camps. In sum, readers are at first charmed and amused, and then jolted into pondering the serious, indeed dangerous, side of this nostalgic portrait of the 1930s and pubescent childhood.

Author Biography

Muriel Spark was born February 1, 1918, in Edinburgh, Scotland. She wrote poetry and worked at various editing jobs during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. In the mid-1950s, Spark became interested in Cardinal Newman’s writings on Catholicism. With an English Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father, Spark felt somehow at a theological loss; Catholicism seemed to offer her a specific location or frame of reference, and she converted in 1954.

During the 1950s, Spark edited letters of the Brontës and co-edited letters of Mary Shelley and John Henry Newman. Her first novel, The Comforters appeared in 1957. Along with collections of short stories and poems, Spark published four more novels before she brought out her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which first appeared in the New Yorker. This novel was published in England in 1961 and in the United States in 1962. Later, it was made into a play and then into a movie. Spark continued writing novels into the 1980s, often dealing with themes connected to religious conversion. Her 1981 novel, Loitering with Intent, deals with problems connected to autobiography and biography.

Muriel Spark lived in Central Africa during the years leading up to World War II. During that war, she resided in England and worked for the Foreign Office. Ultimately she settled in Italy. She was married and divorced and had one child, a son.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

Boys on bikes talk to five sixteen-year-old, fourth-form school girls, who are distinguished from one another by the way they wear their panama hats. These girls, along with one other, form “the Brodie set,” a select group formed six years before when they were Miss Brodie’s elementary-level pupils.

In their conservative 1930s Edinburgh school, Miss Brodie is known for teaching unconventional subjects. Her students have heard of “Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters … and the word ‘menarche.’” They count on their fingers, albeit quite accurately. Miss Brodie’s set has by now adapted to the more orthodox curriculum of the upper grades, but they continue to be connected to each other through their friendship to their former teacher, whom the headmistress and others find highly suspicious. Miss Brodie boasts that she is “putting old heads on [their] young shoulders,” and she affirms, “all [her] pupils are the crème de la crème.”

Miss Brodie’s set bears the imprint of their teacher and, like her, are famous, ostracized, and suspected of disloyalty. The set comprises Monica Douglas, a prefect and math expert; Rose Stanley, “famous for sex”; Eunice Gardiner, a “glamorous” swimmer and “spritely” gymnastics student; Sandy Stranger, “notorious for her small, almost nonexistent, eyes”; Sandy’s best friend, Jenny Gray, known for her elocution and plans to become an actress; and finally, Mary Macgregor, the “silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” The rich but delinquent Joyce Emily Hammond, a transfer student, tags along hoping in vain to become a member of the set.

Miss Brodie invites the set to dinner, revealing that there is “a new plot … to force [her] to resign.” These students are in her confidence, while other staff members are not. Some members of the faculty think Miss Brodie’s style would fit a more progressive school, but Miss Brodie, who is in her “prime,” is intent on remaining at Blaine, where she works as “a leaven in the lump.” Like Julius Caesar, Spark writes, Miss Brodie can only be removed from her post by assassination.

Media Adaptations

  • Adapted from the novel and based on a screenplay by Jay Presson, the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith in the lead role, was released in 1968. In 1988, the novel was made available on audiocassette, and the film was reissued on VHS during the 1990s.

The chapter concludes with a history lesson that Miss Brodie gives this set six years earlier, when they are ten, she is forty, and the year is 1930. She tells them the story of her lover, Hugh, who was at that time twenty-two years of age (six years younger than Miss Brodie). Hugh was killed the week before Armistice in 1918. Hugh, a countryman, had proposed to Miss Brodie, anticipating that they would have a quiet life together. It is an autumn day when Miss Brodie tells the girls this story; sitting outside, the girls brush leaves from their hair. Hugh “fell like an autumn leaf,” Miss Brodie says, making the girls cry. When the headmistress, Miss Mackay, approaches, the girls are silent. Later, Miss Brodie commends them for that, saying, “Speech is silver but silence is golden.” The chapter ends with the poignant information that Mary Macgregor is to die at age twenty-three in a hotel fire.

Chapter 2

Mary Macgregor, right after the outbreak of World War II, joins the Wrens. She continues to be clumsy and blamed. When she is deserted quickly by a new boyfriend, she looks back on her days in Miss Brodie’s class as the only time when she was really happy. The poignant description of her death in a 1943 Cumberland hotel fire juxtaposes a moment in class when, as a ten-year-old, she is faulted for having spilled ink.

Sandy Stranger, on her tenth birthday, asks Jenny Gray to tea. Over pineapple and cream they discuss “the happiest days of [their] lives.” Unlike Miss Brodie who has her prime, their parents got married and had sexual intercourse. The girls ponder the fact that the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, “must have committed sex with his wife” because “he” has had a baby. Delighted to be left alone, the girls review their short story about Hugh Carruthers, Miss Brodie’s fiancé, who was killed near the end of World War I. Sandy gets ink on her blouse and gets to go to the science room and have it removed by the beautiful Miss Lockhart.

Twenty-eight years later, in 1958, when Eunice is thirty-nine, she plans a return to Edinburgh and resolves to put flowers on Miss Brodie’s grave. In conversation with her husband, Eunice reports that Miss Brodie was forced to retire, having been “betrayed by one of her own girls,” and right after World War II she died. Eunice says Miss Brodie was “sane as anything” and “full of culture.”

In 1931, Miss Brodie leads her eleven-year-old students on a long walk through the “reeking network of slums” called Old Town. Sandy has a fantasy about Alan Breck from Kidnapped. She realizes that the school group constitutes the body of which Miss Brodie is the head; like a divine injunction they stick together. If Sandy were nice to the always-criticized Mary, then Sandy would break apart this united group. It reminds her of Miss Brodie’s admiration for Mussolini’s troops. Lecturing about John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, Miss Brodie seems oblivious to the signs of poverty in the street, to the street fight, and the obscene language directed toward the students. Sandy, who grows up to be the nun Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, always remembers the insight that “there were other people’s Edinburgh quite different from hers.”

Miss Brodie defines education: “ex, out, and duco, I lead… . To [her] education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” She insists that she draws out what is in her students and does not put ideas in their heads. She has an appointment with the headmistress but is not worried. She affirms that her “methods cannot be condemned” because they are not “improper or subversive.” After the walk, the girls are treated to tea at Miss Brodie’s flat.

Chapter 3

The “most sexual year” for the Brodie set is 1931, their last year with Miss Brodie before moving into the senior level. During this year, Miss Brodie becomes the focus of the two male faculty members, Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Lowther. Monica Douglas catches Miss Brodie kissing the married art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther are absent from school for two weeks during which time they become lovers. Jumping ahead to 1946, Miss Brodie tells Sandy over lunch about her attachment to these men.

In 1931, a man exposes himself to Jenny, who is later questioned by a female police officer. This woman, whom Sandy names Anne Grey, becomes the protagonist in one of Sandy’s daydream fictions. Miss Brodie takes more interest in the music classes, and when she needs art books from Mr. Lloyd’s room, she sends Rose for them. Sandy and Jenny notice that Rose is changed, that perhaps she has entered puberty. Later Miss Brodie speaks about her World War I lover, Hugh, who is now described as artistic. Jenny and Sandy amuse themselves by writing the correspondence between Mr. Lowther and Miss Brodie.

Chapter 4

The following school year (1932–1933) Miss Brodie’s set advances to the senior level, all of them taking the classical curriculum except for Mary, who takes the modern. The girls perform Miss Lockhart’s science experiments, and five of them study Greek while Mary studies German and Spanish. The headmistress divides the Brodie set and separately questions the girls, hoping to obtain incriminating information about Miss Brodie. One by one Miss Mackay’s schemes fail. In the senior school, Sandy remarks that “There’s not much time for sex research,” and Jenny for one believes she is “past … her early sense of erotic wonder.”

In late spring 1933, Mr. Lowther begins receiving the housekeeping services of the sewing teachers, Ellen and Alison Kerr; Miss Brodie takes a special interest in the job they do and intervenes in the kitchen. Miss Brodie attends church weekly, then goes to Mr. Lowther’s house. The Brodie set visit her there, two at a time. During these visits, Miss Brodie questions the girls about Mr. Lloyd. She is glad to learn that Rose is sitting for Mr. Lloyd. In the summer, Ellen Kerr and Miss Gaunt inform the headmistress, Miss Mackay, about the nightdress under the pillow on Mr. Lowther’s bed.

Miss Brodie vacations in Germany this year instead of Italy and returns to happily pronounce that Hitler is “a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini.”

Chapter 5

Sandy examines Mr. Lloyd’s paintings of Rose and thinks they all look like Miss Brodie. In one, Mr. Lloyd has overemphasized Rose’s breast. Sandy sees paintings of Eunice and Monica, also. Paintings of Mr. Lloyd’s wife and children do not look like Miss Brodie, but his paintings of the schoolgirls capture something of their teacher. Sandy insists with “near-blackmailing insolence” that Mr. Lloyd’s paintings reveal his fixation on Miss Brodie. Her attitude angers him, and he kisses Sandy intensely and then insults her.

As the girls become fourteen and fifteen, Miss Brodie confides in them about Mr. Lowther’s devotion to her, along with his simultaneous consideration of one of the Kerr sisters as a possible mate. Miss Brodie wants to confide more completely in one of the girls, and she selects Sandy for her confidante. By the summer of 1935, Miss Brodie can remark that all of her ambitions are fixed on Sandy and on Rose, who continues to sit for Mr. Lloyd. Miss Brodie says Sandy has insight and Rose has instinct.

Sandy feels deprived of the religion of John Calvin, which shapes the worldviews of Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters, and she says Miss Brodie “had elected herself to grace … with … suicidal enchantment.” She also concludes that Miss Brodie wants Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover and for Sandy “to act as informant on the affair.” However, as it turns out, Rose only models for Mr. Lloyd, and Rose is the one who carries the information back when Sandy has sex with him. Miss Brodie focuses more on her aspirations for Rose and ignores Mr. Lowther. After several months, Mr. Lowther’s engagement to Miss Lockwood is announced in the paper.

Chapter 6

At seventeen in 1937, the girls are still quizzed by the headmistress about Miss Brodie. They see Miss Brodie as an “exciting woman.” Though Mr. Lowther is happy with his wife, he continues to look at Miss Brodie with admiration. The new girl, Joyce Emily Hammond, also admires her. Taking Miss Brodie’s political views to heart, Joyce Emily disappears from school, and six weeks later students learn that she has run away to Spain and died in a train accident.

In the final year, only four of the original six girls are still enrolled at Blaine School. Mary has left to study shorthand and Jenny has transferred to a drama school. The academic and professional futures of the four are described.

Speaking explicitly to Sandy, Miss Brodie predicts that “Rose and Teddy Lloyd will soon be lovers.” Sandy, so full of fictions, realizes that this fantasy is not a game, not “unreal talk,” but real manipulation. Sandy realizes Miss Brodie “was obsessed by the need for Rose to sleep with the man she herself was in love with.” Sandy understands now that in truth Miss Brodie’s dramatic posturing masks a real intention to play God in the lives of her students: “She thinks she is Providence … she thinks she is the God of Calvin.” Rose is not manipulated into becoming Mr. Lloyd’s lover, however; she shakes “off Miss Brodie’s influence as a dog shakes pond-water from its coat.”

During the summer of 1938, Miss Brodie visits Austria and Germany and returns to announce the countries are “now magnificently organised.” Sandy becomes Mr. Lloyd’s lover, but from that relationship she values most his religion, Catholicism; subsequently Sandy becomes a nun. In that senior year, when quizzed by Miss Mackay, Sandy directs the headmistress to shift from scrutinizing Miss Brodie’s sex life to looking at her politics. Sandy says, “She’s a born Fascist.” Once revealed, this political position forces Miss Brodie to resign at the end of that school year. Ironically, as she wonders which of the students betrayed her, Miss Brodie tells Sandy that Sandy alone is “exempt from suspicion.” To which Sandy replies: “If you did not betray us it is impossible that you could have been betrayed by us.”

As a nun, Sandy publishes a book on psychology entitled The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. She is visited by people who admire the book and by other members of Miss Brodie’s set. To a young man who visits, Sandy admits being influenced by her childhood teacher. Eunice lays flowers on Miss Brodie’s grave. Monica asks Sandy about the betrayal, and Sandy asserts, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.”


Miss Jean Brodie

Miss Jean Brodie is an eccentric, egotistical, and idealistic lower-level teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the years leading up to World War II, Miss Brodie teaches in a theatrical manner and makes an impression on her prepubescent students, with whom she colludes in sabotaging the academic curriculum. Having lost her fiancé, Hugh Carruthers, in World War I, Miss Brodie becomes attached to the married art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and because of his marital status, she diverts her sexual attention to the bachelor music teacher, Mr. Lowther. Miss Brodie loses her job at the school when one of her favorite group of students betrays her fascist political sentiments to the headmistress, Miss Mackay.

Hugh Carruthers

Hugh Carruthers, age twenty-two, is killed one week before Armistice in 1918. He was the fiancé of Miss Brodie. Sandy Stranger and Jenny Gray coauthor a romantic story about Hugh and Miss Brodie. After Miss Brodie develops attachments for the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and for the music teacher, Mr. Lowther, her stories about Hugh infuse his character with traits transparently borrowed from the other two men.

Monica Douglas

Good at math, likely to be angry, and with a red nose and fat legs, Monica Douglas is one of the Brodie set. Monica sees Miss Brodie kissing Mr. Lloyd in the art room and tells the other members of the set about it.

Eunice Gardiner

Small, neat Eunice Gardiner belongs to the Brodie set. She is well known for her skills in swimming and gymnastics. On a tiring day, Miss Brodie would ask Eunice to do a somersault in class to provide “comic relief.” Later in life, in conversation with her husband, Eunice reports that Miss Brodie was “full of culture” and decides to locate the teacher’s grave and lay flowers on it.

Miss Gaunt

Miss Gaunt, sister of a minister and not a fan of Miss Brodie, teaches the Brodie set while Miss Brodie is off, apparently ill for two weeks. Since Mr. Lowther is absent during the same period, Miss Gaunt theorizes that “Miss Brodie has the same complaint as Mr. Lowther.”

Jenny Gray

Jenny Gray, one of the Brodie set, has excellent elocution and plans to be an actress. While in the lower grades, Jenny is the best friend of Sandy Stranger. During the school year 1931–1932, Jenny is shocked when a man exposes himself to her. Later, she and Sandy Stranger make up stories about the female detective who comes to interview Jenny, and they amuse themselves by writing a correspondence between Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther.

Joyce Emily Hammond

Joyce Emily Hammond is a rich outsider, a newcomer to the school. She hopes, perhaps by virtue of having two first names, to become a member of Miss Brodie’s set. Later, Joyce Emily takes up Miss Brodie’s suggestion to go to Spain to support Franco. Joyce Emily dies in a train wreck en route.

Alison Kerr

With her sister, Ellen, Allison Kerr teaches sewing at the Blaine School. The Kerr sisters volunteer to keep house for Mr. Lowther after school on weekdays and on Saturday mornings. The Kerrs are animated by their new role in serving Mr. Lowther, but Miss Brodie establishes her turf in his life by overseeing their cooking on Saturday morning and then spending the rest of the weekend with him, fattening him up.

Ellen Kerr

Miss Ellen Kerr is the older sister of Alison Kerr. When changing Mr. Lowther’s bed linens, Ellen discovers a nightdress folded neatly under one of the pillows. She and Miss Gaunt take this information to the schoolmistress, Miss Mackay.

Mr. Theodore Lloyd

One-armed Teddy Lloyd is the senior girls’ art teacher at the Blaine School. He and his wife have another child while Miss Brodie’s set are ten years old. Thus, the girls know he “has committed sex.” When the set are eleven, Monica Douglas claims she has seen Mr. Lloyd kissing Miss Brodie. Later, Mr. Lloyd paints several portraits of Rose Stanley, which Sandy Stranger says all look like Miss Brodie, and he has a sexual relationship with Sandy.

Miss Lockhart

Miss Lockhart is the Blaine School science teacher. She has short gray hair and a golfer’s tan. She cleans ink out of the girls’ blouses. When the ten-year-old girls get to visit the science room, they catch a glimpse of the chesty senior girls and the beautiful Miss Lockhart. After Miss Brodie loses interest in Mr. Lowther, he marries Miss Lockhart.

Mr. Gordon Lowther

Mr. Lowther is the music teacher for all grades at the Blaine School. With Mr. Lloyd, Mr. Lowther is attracted sexually to Miss Brodie and is considered one of her allies. Mr. Lowther lives alone in his parents’ home, receives housekeeping services from the Kerr sisters, and has a sexual relationship with Miss Brodie. When she loses interest in him, he marries Miss Lockhart.

Mary Macgregor

Mary Macgregor is “the last member of the [Brodie] set” for good reason. She is known as “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” In the first chapter, a flash-forward informs readers that Mary dies in a hotel fire at the age of twenty-three. Later, when others know of her death, they look back on being cruel to Mary in school and wish they had been kinder.

Miss Mackay

Miss Mackay is headmistress of Marcia Blaine School for Girls. She “believes in the slogan ‘Safety First,’” which is proven from Miss Brodie’s point of view, by the picture of Stanley Baldwin, once prime minister, on Miss Mackay’s office wall. A conservative educator, Miss Mackay suspects Miss Brodie’s teaching methods divert from school policy and wishes Jean Brodie would resign.

Rose Stanley

Rose Stanley, one of the Brodie set, is “famous for sex.” She models for Mr. Lloyd, even in the nude. As Rose goes through puberty, her transformation makes a hit with schoolboys but she does not have the sexual relationship with Mr. Lloyd, the anticipation of which gives Miss Brodie vicarious pleasure.

Sandy Stranger

One of the Brodie set, Sandy Stranger is “notorious for her small, almost nonexistent, eyes” and “famous for her vowel sounds” which “in the Junior school, had enraptured Miss Brodie.” Sandy would recite passages from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” causing Miss Brodie to affirm: “Where there is no vision … the people perish.” Sandy has the vision Miss Brodie lacks and, with her insight about Miss Brodie’s effects on the girls, decides to stop Miss Brodie. Sandy reports to the headmistress that Miss Brodie is “a born Fascist.” When she grows up, Sandy becomes a nun—Sister Helena of the Transfiguration—and publishes a well-received book on psychology.


Private School Education

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in a 1930s private school in Edinburgh. The interaction between the small staff, the personality of the headmistress, and the way teachers deal with students provide the framework for this novel’s action. The kinds of social behavior and classroom decorum typical of this privileged class and setting are dramatized. While Miss Brodie insists on the girls walking with their heads up and keeping their sleeves neatly cuffed, she colludes with them to circumvent the curriculum and subvert the headmistress’s authority. Pretending to teach the regular subjects of history and math, Miss Brodie instead elaborates on various unrelated topics, all of which are of great interest to her—her World War I financé, her vacations in Italy and Germany, her favorite Renaissance artists, along with information about cold cream treatment for skin and details about puberty. Her classroom is her stage, and Miss Brodie maintains that she is devoting her prime to her girls and that her girls are “the crème de la crème.”

Topics For Further Study

  • Research current law on the rights of students to disagree with their teacher or to protest school policy. Write an essay in which you evaluate those rights in light of the way your school handles dissent from students.
  • Write a characterization of a teacher you had who left an impression on you. Specify what lessons you learned from this teacher and how your view and evaluation of the teacher has changed over the time since you were in the that class.
  • Do some research about school clubs and the rules that determine membership. Write a paper in which you explore ways schools can be more democratic in their policies regarding groups.
  • Write an essay on victimization, beginning with what it is and how it often occurs with prejudice and racism. Research people who fought against the Third Reich during World War II. You might investigate the Polish resistance movement in Warsaw, efforts by the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto to accumulate arms and fight back, and efforts at Auschwitz—for example, the successful detonation of one of the crematoria by camp prisoners.

Sexual Maturation

At ten and eleven, the prepubescent girls are curious and shy about sexual matters. They have a sketchy idea about sexual intercourse and make up scenarios about how it occurs. They conclude that since Mr. Lloyd’s wife has had another baby, Mr. Lloyd “has committed sex” with her. Sandy Stranger sublimates her sexual interest into daydreams about fictional characters from Kidnapped and Jane Eyre. A man exposes himself to Jenny. Rose goes through puberty first and later becomes known among schoolboys for being sexy.

In the following couple of years, the girls begin to intuit Miss Brodie’s sexual attachment for the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and her pursuit of the music teacher as a way of “working it off on Mr. Lowther.”

Flash-forward passages describe the women these girls become. For example, Eunice speaks to her husband about her intention on their upcoming trip back to Edinburgh to locate and decorate Miss Brodie’s grave, and in another instance Jenny, now married many years, suddenly feels erotic energy for a stranger in Italy.

Rose models nude for Mr. Lloyd and Sandy becomes his lover. In all, the novel economically maps out the movement through adolescence to sexual awareness and sexual roles.


Miss Brodie repeatedly affirms her commitment to her girls, the proof of which is that she is devoting the prime of her life to their education. She makes an impression on them, attaching them to her by taking them into her confidence. She attaches personally and inappropriately to a chosen group of six students, whom she treats to outings at the theater and invites to her home for tea. Yet, Miss Brodie is verbally abusive to Mary Macgregor; every time she berates Mary as a “stupid lump,” Miss Brodie both betrays her responsibility as a teacher and denies Mary’s humanity.

While espousing loyalty to her students, Miss Brodie habitually sabotages school policy and Miss Mackay’s authority. Miss Brodie is also quick to sense plots to get her to resign. Thus she “teaches” betrayal and distrust. When her chosen set of students are in their senior year, Miss Brodie is sufficiently obsessed with her frustrated attachment to Mr. Lloyd that she attempts to manipulate Rose into becoming his lover. That she is thus willing to treat a student like a surrogate object of vicarious sexual expression constitutes a serious breach of ethics. When Sandy “betrays” her teacher, she is only acting out what she has observed for years in Miss Brodie herself.


Mary Macgregor is victimized at the Blaine School. She is ridiculed and scorned by Miss Brodie, and the other students follow suit, valuing their status with their teacher over being kind to Mary. Miss Brodie pushes innocent Mary out of art class, accusing her for instigating the misconduct begun by others. Miss Brodie and the students see Mary as a “stupid lump,” a thing to be kicked around with impunity. Only knowledge of her untimely death at twenty-three causes her persecutors momentarily to regret the way they treated her. Mary Macgregor’s victimization is a cue about the reality of fascist and Nazi racism and oppression. She dies in a fire in 1943, at the same time when millions of people are being reduced to ash in Nazi death camps. Thus, Mary’s role and fate in the novel are poignant testimony to the effects of domination and subjugation. In another way, Joyce Emily Hammond is also a victim. A rebel seeking a cause, Joyce Emily takes up Miss Brodie’s irresponsible recommendation that she go off to Spain and fight for Franco. Joyce Emily dies in a train wreck en route.



Characterization of the Brodie set is achieved in part by repetition of the girls’ famous traits. For example, Rose is “famous for sex,” Sandy Stranger is “notorious for her small, almost nonexistent, eyes,” and Mary Macgregor is famous for “being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” When the character reappears in the text, the famous trait is repeated, like a tag or code for identification. This pattern has a humorous effect, but it also reduces the characters to two-dimensional figures like those in comic strips. As the story develops the traits become significant in other ways. Rose may be famous for sex, but she does not become sexually involved with Mr. Lloyd as Miss Brodie anticipates. Sandy may have nonexistent eyes, but she has insight enough to understand the dynamic at work between Miss Brodie and Mr. Lloyd and to see evidence of it in Mr. Lloyd’s paintings. And Mary, though taken for a lump and victimized as a thing, is nonetheless a human being whose humanity is underscored by the description of her silent death. The image of her running back and forth in the hotel hallway, trapped in the fire and choked by smoke elicits compassion and undermines the comedy that works at her expense.

Treatment of Time

The story is told in chronological order covering the period from the fall of 1930 to the summer of 1939, yet at certain points the story suddenly leaps into the distant future, revealing important information that, in a more traditional story structure, would be withheld until it occurs in chronological order. In this way, the present of the novel is seen in contrast to the future, through the lens of retrospect it is reframed and can be reinterpreted. One example of how this technique works is in the several passages which show the students’ later assessment of Miss Brodie: Mary Macgregor, at twenty-three and recently dropped by a boyfriend, looks back on her school years as her happiest time. Eunice tells her husband of twenty years that she intends on their return to Edinburgh to lay flowers on the grave of Miss Brodie because she was “full of culture.” And Sandy, who betrays Miss Brodie and thus contributes to her being forced to resign, later admits that her career in psychology and success as an author results from the impression Miss Brodie made on her.

Historical Context

The Great Depression

The late 1920s and the decade of the 1930s witnessed a global economic depression. Prices inflated, currency lost its buying power, and millions of people lost their jobs. The New York Stock Market crash in late 1929 announced financial calamity to stockholders. Post–World War I Germany struggled to pay back its war debt from World War I, and unemployment in that country rose to almost 40 percent. The United Kingdom was less harshly hit by the depression. It witnessed unemployment increases during the 1920s but had in place government aid to address the problem. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie leads her students through the Old Town of Edinburgh where the streets are full of unemployed men, and where anger flares out at the sight of these privileged schoolgirls and their arrogant teacher.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s–1940s: By 1933, when Germany passes its own mandatory sterilization law for “defectives,” the United States is the world leader in mandatory sterilization of institutionalized people. In the United States some 30,000 are sterilized, all in institutions. In Germany during the 1930s, some 300,000 are sterilized in the attempt to ensure that traits like feeblemindedness (low IQ), pauperism (being poor), sexual promiscuity, and criminality are not passed on to the next generation.

    Today: People with inherited diseases such as Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease may choose not to have children in order to avoid passing on this inheritable trait. However, in most cases, the state position is that this decision is a personal one.
  • 1930s–1940s: The science of eugenics in Europe and the United States theorizes that many ills besetting the human race can be eliminated. The trials at Nuremberg reveal the Nazi atrocities performed in the name of eugenics research and the manner in which sterilization evolved to euthanasia during Hitler’s pursuit of the Final Solution.

    Today: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and cloning offer benefits and dangers to food production in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Stem cell research is a contested issue and, as of 1999, the growing of human embryos for the purpose of using stem cells is illegal in the United States.
  • 1930s–1940s: In 1944, Raphael Lemkin publishes Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which documents mass extermination and coins the word genocide. In one definition, genocide refers to the attempt to eradicate ethnic or cultural identity through mass murder. The Third Reich systematically murders at least 5.6 million European Jews, along with millions of other “undesirables” during World War II.

    Today: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Genocide Watch work to broaden the definition of genocide in order to include, for example, the mass murder of civilians by Stalin. These organizations also support an international tribunal where those accused of crimes against humanity can be brought to justice. In 1994, genocide occurs in Rwanda when extremist Hutus murder 500,000–1,000,000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic group.

The Rise of Fascism

Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) came to power in Italy in 1922 during a time of economic trouble and a pervasive sense that Italy had won World War I but had lost the peace. During the late 1920s, the fascist government intervened to save industries and increase employment. Gradually, Mussolini took more control of his government. At first he hesitated to support the election of Hitler in Germany, but by late 1936 cooperation was forming between Italy and Germany.

The Rise of National Socialism (Nazism)

Desperate for economic reprieve, humiliated by the outcome of World War I, and seeking easy answers, many Germans listened to the angry tirades of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) who blamed the depression on the Jews and the Communists. Defying the Treaty of Versailles that prohibited Germany from building a military again, Hitler promised a stronger Germany through military power. The National Socialist Party, of which he was the head, was elected in the early 1930s. By 1933, Hitler was named chancellor, and soon afterward that he dissolved the government that elected him and became an absolute dictator. Nazism idealized the so-called Aryan race, while subjugating Jews and other unacceptable groups. Germany’s grandeur was predicated on the extermination of European Jewry and the absolute domination of other European countries. With Mussolini’s support, Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. World War II began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939; France and Great Britain then declared war on Germany.

Critical Overview

To say The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was well received is an understatement. One of the finest works by the already well-established novelist Muriel Spark, this novel was heralded for its economic style, its charm and humor, and for its exploration of the dark side of idealism and commitment. Samuel Hynes, writing in Commonweal, stresses that the novel “is as good as anything Mrs. Spark has done… . It is intelligent, witty, and beautifully constructed.” In describing the protagonist and her students, a reviewer for Library Journal remarks: “Miss Spark’s account of the awakening and maturing of adolescent girls is realistic and at times amusing. Though the idol of their teens had feet of clay, she left an indelible mark on their lives.” Finally, Granville Hicks, writing in Saturday Review affirms that Spark “proved herself to be highly talented and remarkably versatile.” Compared to the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Iris Murdock, Spark is, according to Hicks, a writer who “goes her own way, and a fascinating way it is.” The novel he concludes is “admirably written … extremely amusing, and deeply serious.”


Melodie Monahan

Monahan has a Ph.D. in English. She teaches at Wayne State University and also operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan examines how autocracy subverts education and delivers different lessons in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

In Muriel Spark’s 1962 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the outside of the in-group, “the Brodie set,” is defined by the peripheral “silent lump” Mary Macgregor and the excluded newcomer Joyce Emily Hammond. It is 1936, and this clique of sixteen-year-old girls was formed six years earlier when, as newcomers to Miss Brodie’s class, they were drawn into her orbit. In the first pages readers are charmed by the witty caricatures and the funny portrait of this privileged girls’ school in Edinburgh, in which an eccentric spinster teacher directs her class to prop up their books and remember the subject of the moment just in case they are intruded upon by the headmistress. The classroom is a stage for Miss Brodie, who begins her performance with what she did on her “summer holiday.” Self-centered Miss Brodie is the real subject of the class. The impressionable and powerless ten-year-olds are swept up by their teacher’s bravura, by her explicit sabotage of school curriculum, and by her promise that, if they pay close attention to her, they can become “the crème de la crème.”

At the end of the first chapter, as Miss Brodie discovers Mary is not listening, readers learn that “Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame … at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire.” This information, with its telling simile, shifts the lens through which readers view the subject of this novel. On the one hand, the subject of privilege, academic hierarchy, even the childhood competition for insider status and the angst of not quite belonging, all have a nostalgic, autumn yellow sweetness. The story comes across as innocent and benign. On the other hand, foreknowledge and retrospect transform the view: suddenly the objectified “lump” Mary Macgregor, the class reject, is a human being, vulnerable, fated to suffer, and mortal; readers are reminded of other denigrated people who in 1943 disappeared in the fire of the Holocaust.

Readers in 1962 and afterward look with retrospect on this story of the 1930s: they know what was really brewing in that decade, and they know the Holocaust that blackened the decade that followed it. But in the 1930s and without the advantage of foreknowledge, Miss Brodie is naively infatuated with the orderliness of fascism, the tidy brown shirts, and the “magnificently organised” Nazi Germany and Austria. Back from vacations on the Continent, she praises Mussolini’s efficiency and Hitler’s reliability. She teaches her students to march with their heads up, and one of them, Sandy Stranger, understands that “the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti.” Indeed, Miss Brodie’s political posture nicely complements her self-concept as a European in her prime; it mirrors her arrogant egocentric teaching style. But the case of Mary Macgregor cautions readers to consider the humanity of the underdog and the oppressed. The characters Mary and Joyce Emily urge readers to consider the sequence of events that spool out from a given childhood moment as well as the destructiveness that results from elitism, however it is defined. Hierarchy causes underlings to vie for position and get in step; they in turn push away those below them. The elitism that enthralls Miss Brodie, both on a national and personal scale, requires victimization.

Mary Macgregor is a scapegoat and victim. In art class, when the students snicker at the way Mr. Lloyd uses his pointer to trace the buttocks of Botticelli’s gauzy female figures, Mary laughs without understanding why, her “giggles … caused by contagion.” Miss Brodie sees her laughing, “openly like a dirty-minded child of an uncultured home,” and jerks Mary out of her seat, pushing her from the room. This action judges Mary the “ringleader” and since she is “apprehended,” the other girls “were no longer in the wrong.” Mary is guilty because she is perceived to be acting like a person from a lower class family and that assumption reasserts the privileged status of the other students who incited her laughter in the first place.

When Miss Brodie leads her students into the Old Town, she ignores or does not see the poverty. She does not appear to hear the insults hurled at her and her lineup of little rich girls. She does not see the fight in the street. Sandy is uncomfortable and has an urge to be nice to Mary; Sandy even imagines “the possibilities of feeling nice from being nice to Mary instead of blaming her.” But Miss Brodie’s voice arrests the urge. Sandy views her companions as “a body with Miss Brodie for the head;” this insight leads Sandy to understand that she would separate herself from this single body if she were nice to Mary. The scene in Old Town demonstrates how privilege can turn a blind eye to the lack of it, and how group membership exists by virtue of its exclusivity. Mary walks behind the group, crying silently so Miss Brodie will not hear her. It is true that Miss Brodie and her chosen set of students are not directly responsible for the hotel fire in which Mary dies. But the manner of Mary’s death graphically depicts how trapped Mary is in her circumstances and how unheard she is in her pain. The point of describing her death is to emphasize that Mary is a human being, a person who is worthy of fair treatment and compassion—even if she is not as bright as other people. The scene in Old Town suggests how fascism spreads through the troops it enlists.

Miss Brodie assumes that her teaching “methods cannot be condemned unless they can be proved to be in any part improper or subversive.” Proving them so on both counts is easy. Joyce Emily Hammond, a rebel without a cause, hears Miss Brodie’s applause for Franco and takes to heart her teacher’s improper suggestion that she “go to Spain to fight for Franco.” Later, knowing full well that Joyce Emily dies en route in a train wreck, Miss Brodie foolishly insists, “she would have done admirably for him, a girl with instinct.” Miss Brodie does not value the girl’s life, nor does she see her own complicity in the girl’s death.

Moreover, in the manipulative, highly unethical triangulation in which Miss Brodie fancies the idea of her student, Rose Stanley, having sexual intercourse with the art teacher Mr. Lloyd, Sandy realizes that Miss Brodie’s toying with her students’ lives is not a game and not theoretical. Sandy sees that Miss Brodie “was obsessed by the need for Rose to sleep with the man she herself was in love with.” Enraged, Sandy condemns Miss Brodie: “She thinks she is Providence … she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.” Sandy intends to stop Miss Brodie, and she does it by telling the headmistress, “[Miss Brodie]’s a born Fascist.” This information leads to Miss Brodie’s forced resignation in the summer of 1939. Daring to speak this truth is what Miss Brodie later calls betrayal. Years later, when Miss Brodie and the girls know how Mary died, they sometimes regret their treatment of her. Years later Miss Brodie concedes that “Hitler was rather naughty.”

Arrogant, myopic, irresponsible, and unethical, Miss Brodie deludes herself that she is committed to her girls’ education. In fact, her false sense of superiority feeds their elitist attitudes, and her blind favoritism dismisses those who do not measure up. Sandy says Miss Brodie plays God. In a literal sense, Miss Brodie does not cause the train wreck that kills Joyce Emily Hammond, but the ideas Miss Brodie espouses contribute to that outcome. Moreover, the belief that Mary Macgregor is a “lump” and “always to blame” makes her akin to the nameless millions who became ash in the Nazi furnaces. What then is the end of autocracy, especially in the classroom, and what is the end of fascism? Both autocracy and fascism indoctrinate and charm; they inebriate the chosen with self-importance and require its adherents to climb up on the heads of others and then crush those underneath.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In the novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974), Spark seems to parody the Watergate scandal, using an abbey instead of the White House and Abbess Alexander instead of former President Richard Nixon.
  • In The Girls of Slender Means (1963), Spark writes about poor young women living in a boarding house during the summer of 1945 and their interaction with a cynical poet.
  • In Symposium (1990), Spark tells the story of a dinner party. The butler gives the guest list to thieves who rob the guests’ houses while they are away. During the dinner party, flashbacks reveal information regarding the guests’ lives.
  • Award-winning, twentieth-century playwright Lillian Hellman’s longest-running play, The Children’s Hour (1934), follows two women who run a private boarding school. When a delinquent pupil from an affluent, well-regarded family starts a rumor about the two headmistresses, tragedy ensues and the two women’s lives are forever changed.
  • In Rebecca Goldstein’s The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind (1989), forty-six-year-old philosophy professor Eva Mueller is fixated on a twenty-year-old college student of hers. The relationship helps Eva confront her father’s involvement with the Third Reich.
  • Set in the Middle Ages, Sherryl Jordan’s The Raging Quiet (1999) tells the story of Marnie, a woman who befriends the village outcast, Raven, a man people believe is insane but whom Marnie discovers is only deaf. Through a system of hand gestures, she is able to communicate with him. Then she is threatened with being ostracized, too. The novel explores the dangers in targeting people because they are different.
  • In Theodore Weesner’s Novemberfest (1994), a fifty-two-year-old professor of German at a New Hampshire college finds himself in a professional and personal crisis that causes him to relive a love relationship he had when he was stationed in Germany during the 1950s.

To lead autocratically requires great and myopic egocentrism. The individual on top sees the world from her own perspective; everything in the world gets interpreted in terms of the self and what the self wants. Theoretically, education expands awareness beyond immediate microcosmic knowledge toward the diverse worlds of others. It invites one to see humanity amid great diversity. In Old Town, Sandy realizes that “there were other people’s Edinburghs quite different from hers.” Miss Brodie remains blind to them.

Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly looks at how Miss Brodie’s romantic idealism may have been the best response to the changes that were taking place in the world of the novel.

One of the roles of grammar school can be considered to be sheltering growing, developing minds from the complexities of the outside world, and teachers are considered to be guides, to help young people cross the bridge into adult life. These expectations fail, however, when schooling takes place under stressful circumstances, or when an instructor is disdainful about adult life, warning students against it rather than teaching them coping skills. Something like this happens in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The story takes place in a unique social situation: not the extremes of wartime, but rather the uncomfortable lull between the two World Wars during the first half of the twentieth century. The extraordinary instructor, Miss Brodie, is not set on subverting the education system out of simple spite, but because she has higher goals for her students than the usual school curriculum offers. To inspire their artistic and spiritual sensibilities, she stirs up their sense of romantic possibility. Miss Brodie’s methods are not always undertaken with her students in mind; one might wonder, in fact, whether she really thinks of her students at all, or if she is lost in her own romantic fantasies.

Readers of the book encounter a postwar world where everyone is familiar with entitlement and with loss. It was published in the 1960s, when a generation of Britons was old enough to look back at the class system that had stood in place for centuries before the war, and remember pieces of it without really understanding its nuances. The book shows children of privilege, in a respected private school, comfortable with their lives and critical of each other in ways that only cliquish children can be. They interact with instructors who have learned that life can be considerably difficult.

The adults of the book are all broken by the ravages of time, damaged by the First World War, or oppressed by the burdens of religion. Preeminent among them is Jean Brodie herself, who purposefully disconnects from her surroundings but is astoundingly able to cope with the same problems that crush the spirits of those around her. Spark has loaded the novel with characters who might each have been contemptible if they were not written carefully enough to be recognizably real, and they draw from readers more pity than scorn. The question in the end is whether Miss Brodie herself is contemptible, pathetic, or even, given the times and the situation she lived in, triumphant.

At first, the situation at the Marcia Blaine School reeks of romantic possibility, which supersedes any sense of loss or tragedy that the students could derive from the world around them. In the book’s opening scene, for instance, the girls of “the Brodie set” flirt with a crowd of boys so undistinguished that three of the five of them have the same name. Even if the girls do realize that they are smarter and more all-around worthy than these boys, their egos are still held in check by their growing interest in the opposite sex. The chance that they, or for that matter any of the adults in the novel, might lose hope in the face of the squalor of Edinburgh in the 1930s is counterbalanced by the possibility for romance onto which they all hold.

The grimmest daily reminder of the First World War is the empty sleeve of their art instructor, Teddy Lloyd, who lost his arm in battle. These girls, who would have been born just after the war, have no personal connection to what life during wartime was like. To them, Lloyd could easily be seen as a broken, pathetic figure. That he is an art teacher, rather than an instructor in a more theoretical field such as literature or history, makes his infirmity just that much more poignant, because painting and sculpting are physical activities that rely on delicate control. Poignant though it is, Lloyd’s loss is never construed as horrible, because it gives Teddy Lloyd a romantic mystique.

Lloyd is a handsome man. That is more important to his students than his missing limb, indicating to modern readers the extent to which children of the post-war years must have been used to seeing amputees throughout their lives. Furthermore, Teddy Lloyd is not shy about using his good looks and romantic bearing to his own advantage: he is so self-assured, in fact, that he deals with Sandy Stranger’s implied threat when she points out his infatuation with Miss Brodie by kissing the teenaged girl and calling her ugly, rightly confident that she will be too enraptured by his charm to take any action against him (they later become lovers). More than his good looks and confidence, though, Lloyd is a romantic figure for the Brodie simply because their leader, Miss Brodie, romanticizes him.

It is clear that Miss Brodie has cast Lloyd into the same romantic role played by Hugh Carruthers, her dead fiancé, lionized in the stories that she tells her girls. Both men were victims of the First World War, and both have been made unavailable to Miss Brodie. In the case of Hugh, the separation is irreversible, due to his heroic death. As to Lloyd, Miss Brodie renounces her passion for him because of his Catholicism. Although she is not willing to admit to anything like respect for the Catholic Church, she still is not willing to cross the Church by having an affair with a married man who has several children. Miss Brodie’s image of herself as free from conventional morality is put to the test and bested by her relationship with Teddy Lloyd: He shows no hesitancy for taking her as his mistress, just as, later, he proves willing to have an affair with a student. Still, she refuses to become involved with a married man. The girls who look up to Miss Brodie, having limited experience with death (until later, when the Second World War would acquaint them with all of the sense of tragedy they observed in their elders), watch as the physical impediment of death changes to a moral hindrance that separates Miss Brodie from her happiness.

The short life and pathetic death of Mary Macgregor, often noted as the fool of the Brodie set, shows the maturation process that grief takes the girls through, a process that Miss Brodie herself misses. Spark lets her readers know from the second chapter that Mary is to die at age twenty-three, pointlessly and ingloriously, running up and down the hall during a fire in a hotel. This pathetic end shades her life with a dingy hue: readers are not allowed the fantasy of believing that she will come through the taunts of her classmates and of her instructor better for the experience. Spark points out that she was to remember her years with the Brodie set, who treated her as nothing more than an idiot, as the happiest years of her life. Still, Sandy and Rose later remember her as someone who they mistreated, and so they have their own lesson in how to think of the dead. Their response is much more stable than Miss Brodie’s exaggerated memories of Hugh, who will forever be a legend in her mind.

After excluding Teddy Lloyd as a lover, Miss Brodie turns her attention to Gordon Lowther, a bachelor music teacher who is stable but not exciting. Lowther lacks imagination, and so it would seem that he would be grateful for the opportunity to spend time with an artistic soul like Miss Brodie—or so she sees this case. While her youthful affair with Hugh was cut down by gunfire and her affair with Teddy Lloyd halted by her sense of honor, there is nothing to stop her from loving Lowther except for the fact that she finds him uninteresting. She clearly finds him to be “commonplace,” a word that she uses throughout the novel to describe things that she feels lack the appropriate artistic temperament. Her affair with him is presented as an act of pity and it reeks of desperation, dragging Miss Brodie down to the level of two spinster seamstresses, the Misses Kerr. When Miss Brodie defends her struggle for Lowther’s attentions in terms of her ancestor who was a desperate gambler and thief, the Brodie girls can see that she is willing to do whatever she can to win Lowther, just as long as it does not require feigning interest in him. Still, emotionally cold as she is, her loss of such an undistinguished man is a harsh blow to Miss Brodie’s general belief that romance is hers for the asking.

The battle for the heart of Gordon Lowther is lost while Miss Brodie has been on vacation to Germany, to observe Hitler’s Third Reich. Here, Miss Brodie’s romantic life parallels the rise of a new, dangerous social order that developed during the 1930s. The Kerr sisters, who at first seem the greatest threat to her conquest of Lowther, represent a previous, genteel generation, concerned with sewing and keeping house; in an earlier day they would have easily earned their place at Lowther’s house at Cremond. Having decided to compete against the Kerrs, Miss Brodie clumsily tries to outshine them at their own domesticity by feeding Lowther until he is unable to stuff any more food in his mouth. To their position she adds her own modern posture, becoming sexually involved with Lowther while refusing to marry him. Her fierce independence only holds his attention for a short time, though, before Miss Lockhart, an athletic (she golfs with Lowther) and competent (she handles explosives casually) woman, presents an even stronger version of femininity. Over all, Miss Brodie’s romantic ambitions slide toward the commonplace, from the mythical Hugh Carruthers to the dashing Teddy Lloyd to the commonplace Gordon Lowther, and she cannot even secure that final, least-appealing suitor for her own.

It is easy to see the appeal that an independent woman like Miss Brodie would have for the young girls who come into her class at age eleven, having lived in the sheltered world of school all of their lives. It is just as easy to see how, when they are in their upper teens and have experienced the world a bit more, they could see her as a desperate and unhinged woman, aligning herself with repressive political ideologies and declaring her pity for a man who up and marries someone else. In the end, she has lost her position and her lovers, and she could seem pathetic, if not for the fact that she never loses her self-assurance. Sandy, the student who makes it her mission to betray Miss Brodie, ends up struggling with her moral issues by becoming a nun, wearing her hands down by grasping at the grille of her cell, always a prisoner. Spark’s message appears to be that, in dealing with an increasingly harsh world, Miss Brodie’s self-delusion triumphs over cold realism.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Laura Carter

Carter is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter considers Spark’s discussion of free will as it relates to the novel’s protagonist, Miss Jean Brodie.

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark tackles the subject of personal freedom. In her novel, Miss Brodie’s free, independent spirit fares poorly under the weight of contemporary social dictates. Her need to openly express her own autonomy is overshadowed by decorum, shattering any illusions of personal choice and freedom. In the tradition of many novelists preceding her, Sparks raises important questions about the struggle for feminine autonomy in a restrictive society.

Miss Jean Brodie was a character inspired by Spark’s own childhood and adolescence in the center of Scottish culture. Hal Hager in a supplemental chapter of Spark’s work describes at the heart of the novel “a deliberately restricted, firmly grounded, localized group of characters whose lives are shaped by a single exceptional personality.” The exceptional personality he mentions is, of course, Jean Brodie, who he describes as one bent on breaking free of restrictive modes of thinking, feeling, and being. And all of the characters are limited in many ways. Readers are well acquainted with Miss Brodie’s flair for independence. She is a colorful creation—strong willed, forceful with her students yet acutely aware of the unorthodox, even unacceptable nature of her teaching methods in the context of her teaching environment. The practices she employs to instruct and shape “her set,” or the Brodie girls, encourage them to think beyond the confines of traditional female roles.

Spark’s work mirrors a rich history of female characters in literature who attempt to go beyond the boundaries of polite society to gain a sense of autonomy. Emily Brontë’s Kathy, heroine of Wuthering Heights, for instance, is transformed from a vibrant, beautiful young woman to a sickly, bed ridden, frail semblance of her former self whose stubborn love affair with a rogue or rough character leads to her ultimate demise or death. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper considers the phenomenon of women’s nervous disorders at the turn of the century and how the collective stifling of the feminine intellect leads to complete insanity, as the protagonist of the story begins to mingle with other poor female souls trapped behind the wallpaper. Finally, it is in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening that Edna challenges conventional nineteenth-century mores, weighing love, marriage and her own independence, only to turn to suicide as an avenue to her own freedom.

In all of these examples, female protagonists venture too far from their understood social roles resulting in their own peril. In none of the narratives do the characters openly pursue their true desires; rather, they suppress the urge towards self-expression. They are confined by the criticism of their contemporaries, unable by self-will and determination to live fulfilled lives. Freedom for them is an illusion, as is the power to choose one’s own path. They exist, rather, in the privacy of their own minds, and this is where the struggle arises. There has, for instance, been much debate about the end of Chopin’s novel. In a sea of choices, how could suicide surface as a viable option? A closer look reveals how limited Edna’s choices really were. She could choose to be with her lover, she could be married, or she could live alone. The thought of impropriety with a lover or the chance to marry, in other words, become another man’s possession, are unappealing. But to abandon her family for a solitary existence is equally unacceptable to her when she is expected to do otherwise.

Spark’s character makes for a fair comparison to Chopin’s Edna. Miss Brodie, it is revealed, rather than accepting any students, selects her “special girls” on their ability to keep her teaching philosophy, along with her life, a secret. She deems herself their protector, coping with any troubles she may have working on their behalf. For their sake, rather than follow the traditional school curriculum, Miss Brodie sets aside standard texts in favor of what is already there “in the pupil’s soul.” In order to protect herself in the classroom, she asks her students to conceal what she is doing, telling them at one point to prop up their history books as if they are reading them, in the event that she is discovered. And her solution to the end-of-term examinations is a simple instruction to her students: “I trust you girls to work hard and try and scrape through, even if you learn up the stuff and forget it the next day.” What drives Miss Brodie? “It is for the sake of you girls,” she claims, “my influence, now, in the years of my prime.” Her power comes from the loyalty of this carefully chosen, close-knit circle of young women. Wielding her influence over them, she anticipates any crisis that might arise with her employer by preparing her students for any probing and incriminating questions the headmistress might ask of them.

The reader also learns of her affairs with several teachers at the school. First, there is her unrequited love, Mr. Teddy Lloyd. An insistence on decorum or good behavior forces her away from Lloyd, and she is driven, she claims, to enter into a love affair with Gordon Lowther, another teacher at the school. In the 1930s this would have been publicly viewed as extremely bad behavior. The affair became one of Miss Brodie’s secrets, to be concealed by members of her set. Casual sexual relations with a man outside of marriage were an unspeakable offense for a woman. And, she resorts to equally unorthodox methods when Lowther marries another woman. Without the distraction of her lover, Miss Brodie redoubles her efforts with Lloyd, using two of her students to act as lover and informant, respectively, in an effort to maintain her hold on Lloyd. Misconduct, she claims, is an appropriate outlet for her, because she is “in her Prime.” A few of her students look beyond the powerful figure, recognizing the need for diversion that compels Miss Brodie, admiring her method of “making patterns with facts,” her “excessive lack of guilt” and her entitlement to a lifestyle “outside the context of right and wrong.”

In the tradition of those that have come before her, Spark’s character perishes by moving outside social mores or rules. Despite her attempts at maintaining secrecy, Miss Brodie’s improprieties result in her forced retirement from her beloved teaching position. Like those female characters that stray too far from the norm, her covert or secretive manipulations of her students, as well as her peers, leave her closed to any outside influence or criticism from anyone, constructive or otherwise. Any kind of objectivity regarding her activities is forsaken for the desire to enjoy her prime. And the results are even dangerous to Miss Brodie. Like Chopin’s Edna, Miss Brodie lives within the realm of her own desires amongst her students, but she is never truly free to share her teaching methodologies or personal life with those outside of the classroom. Rather than engage in an affair with Lloyd, she uses her young, impressionable students to fulfill her romantic fantasies. Her behavior as a teacher moves from admirable to reckless as she sinks deeper and deeper into her deluded state. Sandy contemplates this madness as her affections change for her teacher, suggesting that her teacher “thinks she is Providence,” or “the God of Calvin,” and that there were “many theories from the books of psychology categorized Miss Brodie.”

Historically, similar novels challenge philosophical notions of freedom. Spark’s novel is a philosophical model for determinism, a belief that every physical event, including human cognition and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. In physics, for example, the events of the universe operate within a set of fixed, knowable laws. Determinists believe that because of such laws, people are fundamentally incapable of independent choice, leaving no basis for morality. Spark’s text raises similar questions of culpability or blameworthiness. Could Miss Brodie have made different choices? Could she have risen above the dictates of her own environment and realized true freedom? Resoundingly the answer is no. The social restrictions of Miss Brodie’s time render her character powerless to change her destiny, resulting in her mental decline and subsequent retirement. It is Sandy who describes her teacher’s predicament aptly, claiming Miss Brodie “had elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it anymore.”

The structure of the novel also lends itself to this philosophical interpretation. Unlike the traditional novel, the fate of the characters in Spark’s novel is understood from the beginning. The information is relayed either via flashback or as the Brodie narrative unfolds. For example, it is in a flashback that the audience learns that Sandy has devoted the greater part of her life to a nunnery, after writing a psychological study inspired by Miss Brodie. Eunice reveals in another flashback that Miss Brodie was betrayed by one of her own girls and forced to retire early. There are also repeated statements made throughout the narrative concerning the fate of several characters. In the case of Mary McGregor, the reader is continually reminded of her tragic death by house fire. Statements concerning Mary appear throughout the narrative, reminding the reader that Mary was not only “stupid and always to blame,” but who, “at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire.”

Spark’s technique of repeating select phrases about the fates of those characters central to the novel throughout the work establish a framework by which the reader can piece together or more clearly realize or identify the actions of the character that contribute to specific outcomes. Mary’s fate is mirrored in one frantic reaction in the science lab, similar to the day she frantically runs “hither and thither” in the hall of a hotel, until she dies. Repeated phrases as well as the reiteration of specific character traits are a way to reinforce the notion that the characters’ reactions are part of their persona, just part of who they inherently are. Like determinism, this mode of character development seems to suggest that they are not acting as a matter of free will, but as a matter of course, the outcomes of their future lives have been determined and their fates, a matter of time.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie weaves in several elements, in terms of both plot and character, to demonstrate the limits to which Miss Brodie and her students can dictate the course of their own lives. Compared to authors the likes of Emily Brontë, Spark’s works from a traditional genre of literature of which female characters attempt to move past social and cultural restrictions to define themselves. Her novel is a rich exploration of the anatomy, not only of a character, but of the society that drives individual behavior. Spark’s study leaves the reader to grapple with questions not so easily resolved. In a broader sense, it mirrors the internal struggles inherent in contemporary society—the timeless struggle to be unique, to be autonomous, in a world that demands conformity.

Source: Laura Carter, Critical Essay on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Benilde Montgomery

In the following essay, Montgomery explains how the character Sandy’s conversion is motivated by the Catholic philosophies of Cardinal Newman, perhaps referencing Spark’s own conversion to Catholicism.

In her recent autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1993), Muriel Spark confirms that the theological writings of Cardinal Newman played an important role in her conversion to Catholicism. Indeed, she has made this claim before (“Conversion”), as has her former friend and coeditor, Derek Stanford, who suggests that Newman’s and Spark’s conversions were similar. Newman, he says, “had been a Catholic without recognizing it. In going over to Rome, he found what he was looking for—what, indeed, he was—though without liking it when he got there.” Although in Curriculum Vitae Spark comes to repudiate many other of Stanford’s claims about her, she does not deny this similarity and, in fact, uses Newman’s own point that conversion is “not a thing one could propound ‘between the soup and the fish’ at a dinner party” to defend her cutting short a discussion of her own. Nonetheless, while Spark avoids discussing the particular and difficult process of religious conversion in her autobiography, it is the frequent subject of her fiction, and at the center of her most famous fiction, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the process of Sandy’s conversion follows, not surprisingly, the outlines drawn by Newman and, as Curriculum Vitae suggests, imitated by Spark herself.

In Newman’s scheme, conversion is not a static business but a slow and continuing process. Therefore, conversion, for him, neither concludes nor leads to simple peace or repose. Restating ideas implicit throughout his work, but never more explicitly so than in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Cardinal Newman speaks in his Apologia of Catholic Christianity as an “arena” wherein “Authority” and “Private Judgement” are “combatants in [an] awful, never-ending duel.” Newman further insists that “it is necessary for the very life of religion, viewed in its large operations and its history, that [this] warfare should be incessantly carried on.” It should be said that this understanding of Catholicism is not unique to Newman. The Austrian Catholic historian, Friedrich Heer, for example, sees the history of Catholicism advancing dialectically between the poles of orthodoxy and heresy. And Thomas J. J. Altizer, commenting on both Newman and Heer, sees Catholicism as an “evolving faith” whose identity at any one time is “a consequence of its internal struggle with heresy,” apart from which “the Church would not and could not evolve.” So conceived—that is, as an “arena,” an “incessant warfare,” and “internal struggle”—Catholicism defeats the expectations of those who come to it seeking equanimity and calm, and indeed gives a positive and necessary value to their opposites, that is, to tension and conflict. Even Newman’s own boast that since his conversion he has “been in perfect peace and contentment” (Apologia) explodes in the face of facts. Newman’s biography shows that his later life was dominated not by repose but by warfare, and not with the established church from which he had withdrawn but with many inside the church he had joined: suspicious fellow Catholics, particularly the “orthodox” Manning and other ultramontanists who imagined Catholicism not as Newman’s dynamic arena of concrete history and struggle but as something static, aloof from its own history and therefore beyond change.

Interestingly, before reading Newman, Spark considered herself primarily a poet and wrote no fiction at all. This fact prompts Alan Kennedy to pinpoint Newman as the common denominator of both Spark’s religious conversion and her later literary career. Spark, indeed, had postponed her conversion to Catholicism wondering, “If I become a Catholic, will I grow like them?” (“Conversion”) She came to see, however, that “the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed” (Curriculum), and consistent with this, she claims that she speaks “far more in my own voice as a Catholic” (“Conversion”). Moreover, Spark seems to agree with her character in Loitering with Intent (1981) who defends Newman’s Apologia as “among the best” of spiritual autobiographies so thoroughly that she uses it as the model for her own. Even the title Spark chose for her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1993), echoes her spiritual mentor’s. So, too, does her choice of an intertextual style: Letters are reprinted, critical reviews are recalled and corrected, poems are reproduced, all, in Newman’s words, “to prevent misconception” (Apologia 35), and in Spark’s, “to put the record straight” (Curriculum). Although not so speculative and defensive as the Apologia, Curriculum Vitae ends like it: with its subject’s conversion to Catholicism but with no mention of the later tensions that conversion to Catholicism necessarily includes.

Because Spark believes that “the existential quality of a religious experience cannot be simply summed up in general terms” (Curriculum), she has left speculation on the tensions that accompany conversion to her fiction where, like Newman, her convert-protagonists find in their new Catholicism “incessant warfare” and “internal struggle.” For example, Caroline Rose of The Comforters keeps running into “spiritual risks” and, in the confusion of voices that she begins to hear, must constantly struggle to distinguish the natural from the supernatural. Barbara Vaughan of The Mandelbaum Gate is a “private judging Catholic” caught in a world where all religious and national identities converge, and where she must struggle to balance her sexuality and the demands of Catholic law. In The Girls of Slender Means, Spark explicitly associates Selina’s desire for “equanimity of body and soul, complete composure whatever the social scene,” with the very opposite of Catholicism. Her commitment to equanimity, even in the face of her own death, is the very “vision of evil” that Nicholas Farrington rejects to effect his own conversion, a conversion that brings him not peace but bloody martyrdom as a missionary Brother in Haiti. No less troubled by the discomfort of conversion is Spark’s most well-known Catholic, Sandy Stranger, the ill-at-ease cloistered nun in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie whose conversion, like Nicholas Farrington’s, includes the rejection of a vision of evil. Here Sandy rejects the vision offered her by the charismatic Miss Brodie, who, both crypto-Catholic and crypto-fascist, desires not only that her girls achieve Selina’s equanimity (“You girls must learn to cultivate an expression of composure… . Walk with your heads up, up like Sybil Thorndike, a woman of noble mien”) but also that they assume for her the risks of actual and concrete history that she, aloof and composed like the ultramontanist Catholics of Newman’s later years, dare not take.

Nonetheless, most critics, like Sandy herself, become obsessed only with the character of Jean Brodie and thereby misread the novel as only a character sketch of her. They thereby relegate Sandy to secondary status, paying little heed to the tension between the two characters at the center of the novel and to Sandy’s primary role as witness, judge, and “assassin.” After all, Sandy’s notoriously “small, almost non-existent eyes” observe most, if not all, the action, and more than any of the other Brodie girls, Sandy carries the weight and impact of Brodie’s philosophy, confiding to her inquisitor that above literature, politics, and theology, the most profound influence on her development was Miss Brodie. While the others remember Brodie sentimentally, she is at the very core of both Sandy’s vocation and of her book on the “nature of moral perception,” even as that book reacts against Brodie’s teachings. Placing the inquisitor both at the end and toward the beginning of the novel, Spark also suggests that much of the novel is Sandy’s reminiscence, a suggestion that provides Jay Presson Allen’s dramatization of the novel with its structure.

Further, in Curriculum Vitae Spark makes such clear links between her own life and Sandy’s that one suspects that one of the records Spark wishes to set straight is the importance of Sandy not only as a figure in her most popular novel but also as a key to understanding her own life. For example, in the novel Spark writes of Sandy Stranger that she

was sometimes embarrassed by her mother being English and calling her “darling,” not like mothers of Edinburgh who said “dear.” Sandy’s mother had a flashy winter coat trimmed with fluffy fox fur like the Duchess of York’s while the other mothers wore tweed or, at the most, musquash that would do them all their days.

In Curriculum Vitae, Spark writes of herself that

My mother, who was English, used to come and fetch me from school. It was my daily dread that she should open her mouth and thus betray her suspect origins. “Foreigners” were fairly tolerated but “the English” were something quite different. It was not only the accent that betrayed Englishness. It was also turns of phrase and idiomatic usage… . My mother also wore a winter coat trimmed with beige fox fur in the style of the then Duchess of York… . This was entirely out of place. My mother ought to have worn tweed or, in very cold weather, musquash.

Also, at a tea party in the novel, Sandy feels “offended and belittled” when Jenny’s mother remarks, “My word … they’ve [Sandy and Jenny] been tucking in!” At a similar tea party with her schoolfriend, Frances Niven, Spark records in Curriculum Vitae that one of Frances’s aunts said, “‘Look at them tucking in!’ I seemed to be the only child who heard this, and although I didn’t make any fuss, I was ridiculously affected.” These and numerous other verbal linkages invite readers to reappraise Sandy’s function in the novel and, through the specific terms demanded by fiction, to reconsider the nature of Spark’s own religious conversion.

Needless to say, not all critics have avoided Sandy and her conversion to Catholicism, but those who do speculate on it tend to read as negative both its dynamism and its accompanying tensions. In spite of what William Lynch, S. J., would call Sandy’s courageous “descent into the finite”—her willing embrace of those concrete particulars that for Brodie remain ill-conceived wishes—Sandy’s critics call her, among other things, “unpleasant” (Kennedy 185), “malicious” and an “aesthete” (Laffin 215, 221). She is said to be “disgusted with humanity” (Friedman 103); her conversion is seen by one critic only as “a retreat from everyday reality” (Bold 71), and by another as “unexplained and unfathomable” (Adler 599). Yet another critic sees the novel’s end dominated by a “justified Miss Brodie presiding calmly over a lost innocence” (Kermode 271). These readings, moreover, often suggest a sympathetic Miss Brodie as Sandy’s victim. Indeed, Allen’s screenplay not only ignores any reference to the religious context in which Spark so carefully sets her novel, it also draws Sandy as a jealous, spiteful teenager who ultimately joins the philistine assault on an otherwise charming spinster. Although Allen’s earlier playscript (about which Spark writes that she had the “distinct impression that my views, as author of the book, were not really welcome” [Curriculum]) at least acknowledges the fact of Sandy’s conversion, it places Sandy in a placid convent garden, an image more consistent with Miss Brodie’s pre- Raphaelite longings than with the realism of Spark’s novel and the dynamic “arena” and “never-ending duel” of Spark’s and Newman’s vision of Catholicism. Ironically, Ray Shaw’s review of a 1994 London revival of the play dismisses this convent scene as a weakness in the play which “does not add anything to it.”

The story of Newman’s conversion in the Apologia follows the theoretical foundations he laid down earlier in The Development of Christian Doctrine. There he defines “development” as “the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field” that “cannot progress at all without cutting across and thereby destroying or modifying and incorporating within itself existing modes of thinking and operating,” throwing off “whatever in them it cannot assimilate.” (Development) Indeed, Newman’s movement away from the established church toward Roman Catholicism imitates, at least intellectually, this pattern. Although the “great revolution of mind” that occurred during the Long Vacation of 1839 led him to conclude that the established church was in the same relationship with Rome as were the Christian heretical movements of the fifth century (Apologia), he did not seek formal admission to “the one Fold of Christ,” until October 1845, striving during the intervening years to modify, incorporate, assimilate, and, in some instances, throw off those “corruptions” within the established church he found inconsistent with the evolving Apostolic tradition. As Altizer points out, such a theory of doctrinal development (and in the case of the Apologia Newman’s personal, intellectual development) gives Christian heresy “a fully positive identity,” making it one of the necessary and historical poles of the dialectic that grounds and thereby names “integral Catholicism.”

Indeed, Nick Farrington’s “vision of evil,” a vision that for Spark “may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good” (Slender 118), has a similar, positive identity, as do the “barbarians” of the Cavafy poem Spark quotes in the novel: “And now what will become of us without the Barbarians? / Those people were some sort of a solution.” In Slender Means, these “barbarians” are associated with the defeated Nazis. In Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie is associated with fascism and has a similar and necessary function in Sandy’s conversion. Brodie’s presence in the novel is positive insofar as she is, like the “barbarians” of Cavafy’s poem and heresy within Newman’s scheme, something to negate, transcend, and leave behind as the “inevitable” counterpart and foil of orthodoxy (Altizer 184). Imbued with Calvinism and already having put on the mind of her Roman Catholic lover, Sandy eventually uses “the economy” (a concept Spark borrows from Newman’s Apologia) of Teddy Lloyd’s method not only to put a stop to the evil Miss Brodie but also to recognize that Miss Brodie’s notable defects “had not been without [their] beneficent and enlarging effects.”

Within the walls of the Marcia Blaine School, a school that Spark describes as having an “ordinary rule,” an “authorized curriculum,” and an “orthodox regime,” Miss Brodie is a self-proclaimed heretic. She declines to participate in the “never-ending duel” that Newman finds “necessary for the very life of religion” by declaring a separate peace in favor of “private judgement.” Creating a schismatic sect with herself as a rival Pope, she is not so much a “parody of the Christian Church” (Lodge 136) as she is the type of all Christian heresy: gnostic, disembodied, exclusive, discontinuous with a catholic and universal tradition, and immune to history. Specifically, in her “contempt for the Modern side,” Jean Brodie resembles most those late-nineteenth-century Protestants, Tractarians, and ultramontanist Catholics who, in Newman’s words, are “ever hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity” (Essays). Disillusioned at every turn by the concrete messiness of actual history and the primal reflexes of the body, these despairing, sectarian heretics, of whom Brodie is the specific instance, triumphed for a time in the production of, among other things, a “Syllabus of Errors,” parodied by Spark in Brodie’s list of do’s and don’t’s: A window opened 6 inches “is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar,” roll down your sleeves “at once, we are civilized beings.” Horrible to say, in their own prime, many of these antimodernist, ultramontanist Catholics fell, like Brodie, too easily into the arms of twentieth-century fascism.

Although the exceptional martyr may prove the rule, fascism flourished first in those parts of the world most self-consciously “Catholic.” Dare we remember that as the von Trapps escaped across the Alps, their coreligionist archbishop in Vienna, Cardinal Innitzer, was rushing to salute Adolf Hitler on his balcony and to support the Anschluss in a pastoral letter that ended with a carefully handwritten “Heil Hitler!”? Spark’s fictional counterpart of Innitzer is, of course, Miss Brodie, who, “by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church,” stands “in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm,” shouting “Hail Caesar! … radiantly to the window light.” In that image and others like it (Mary MacGregor, Brodie’s Jew, swallowed up in flames; Joyce Emily killed as she rushes toward Franco’s army), Spark lifts the novel out of the idiosyncratic and beyond the “isolated communities” (Parrinder 28) about which she is sometimes accused of writing. If readers and critics, too, succumb easily to Miss Brodie’s charms, we are in the company of those midcentury Scottish schoolgirls and those millions of other Europeans similarly seduced. In The Girls of Slender Means, evil wears an alluring Schiaparelli dress. In Jean Brodie, the heretical Miss Brodie ignores the boring history lessons of the “authorized curriculum” in favor of properly pronounced versions of aesthetic verse or frequently revised stories out of her own sentimentalized past, stories that have nothing to do with “the ordinary world.”

Nonetheless, Sandy’s movement toward Catholic orthodoxy could not have begun without the positive allure of this kind of heresy, even as that “beneficent and enlarging” encounter with Jean Brodie’s “Catholic temperament” provides her ultimately with “something to react against.” But, as with Newman’s reaction to the established church, Sandy’s rejection of that heresy is never absolute, but rather evolves as part of a continuous and “developmental” process. The seeds of Brodie’s heresy once planted in Sandy unexpectedly take root. Nurtured by Sandy’s unique imagination, they develop into the Catholic vision of Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, a name that evokes not only the conversion of Constantine but also his mother’s discovery of the True Cross. If Jean Brodie represents “completely unrealized potentialities,” as Spark maintains (“Keeping It Short”), these potentialities are realized fully in Sandy, for the novel inseparably fuses the rise and fall of Sandy Stranger and Jean Brodie, as well as the progress of Western history. In September 1939, as the war against Hitler begins, Sandy converts to Catholicism and Brodie is discharged from Marcia Blaine. In “the year after the war,” Brodie dies, and Sandy, like Brodie reborn and transfigured, enters the convent as Sister Helena and writes a famous book on moral perception.

As a child, Sandy Stranger is drawn to Miss Brodie out of loneliness and fear: Sandy is not a stranger (or herself, if you will) so long as she remains part of Brodie’s isolated sect. Although Brodie’s clashes with Miss Mackay teach Sandy an important truth, that “people glued together in grown-up authority differ,” “group-fright” seizes Sandy whenever she wishes to differ with Miss Brodie and be kind to Mary MacGregor, for “by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely.” Sandy’s instinct for goodness, however, eventually triumphs, because she leads what she calls “a double life.” This “double life” allows her to live both in quotidian reality and, at the same time, in the world of her own imagination. Fed by this imagination, whose rich quality Brodie’s lacks (Brodie, after all, expects the beautiful Rose to flower, not “pig-eyed” Sandy), she sees, even as a child, a clear, if innocent, analogy between Brodie’s “set” and Mussolini’s fascisti. Moreover, when, “chin up, up, up,” Brodie marches her girls through the Edinburgh slums and urges them all only to “pray for the Unemployed,” Sandy is “very frightened.” Apprehending the evil of economic deprivation in the analogy of a serpent, she sees the destitute move like “one dragon’s body,” a “snaky creature” shivering in the cold. Like Spark who reports on a similar trip to the slums of Edinburgh (Curriculum), Sandy learns here another less innocent, but more crucial, truth: Primal evil is not abstract but concrete and tangible, a reality Miss Brodie’s first history lesson in a snakeless “garden … underneath the secure shade of the elm” failed to include.

Because Brodie’s imagination never progresses beyond the “aesthetic,” she is incapable of considering “the moral” in any form. Although Spark describes Edinburgh’s Old Town as a “reeking network of slums,” Brodie regards it only as a curious artifact, a place where once “history had been lived” [emphasis mine]. She points out that “architecturally speaking, there is no finer sight in Europe.” Sure that Hitler’s social reorganization would “save the world,” Brodie can admit, at tea after the war, only that Hitler was “rather naughty.” Sandy’s imagination, on the other hand, develops beyond the aesthetic and, ultimately, to the religious. During her last semester with Miss Brodie, she becomes fascinated with the demonstrable facts of concrete and present history: with the details of Miss Brodie’s assignation in the art room; and, urging Jenny not to tell Miss Brodie, with the investigative work of “Detective Sergeant Anne Grey,” for whom she “quite deserted Alan Breck and Mr. Rochester and all the heroes of fiction” that Brodie has urged upon her. Lacking Sandy’s instinct and insight, Miss Brodie uses her imagination only as a distraction, a device either to relieve her boredom or to defend herself from the present and the actual. Unlike Sandy, she cannot resist the allure of more surface; and, consequently, in spite of her protests that art and religion come first, she is, outside Marcia Blaine, a common dilettante who understands neither very well. Incapable or unwilling to confront the reality of evil, and therefore unwilling to engage herself seriously with any objective norm, she would undoubtedly dismiss Newman’s saying that the very “essence of all religion is authority and obedience” (Development) with the same irony she uses to criticize Teddy Lloyd: “He’s a Roman Catholic and I don’t see how you can have to do with a man who can’t think for himself.”

Brodie, of course, does not stand still while Sandy develops. The growth of the one so interpenetrates the growth of the other that Sandy wonders “to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed.” Spark tells us that “it was not a static Miss Brodie who told her girls, ‘These are the years of my prime …’ but one whose nature was growing under their eyes, as the girls themselves were under formation.” She is quick to add, however, “that the principles governing the end of her prime would have astonished herself at the beginning of it.” To use Newman’s language, Sandy’s movement toward orthodoxy is a “genuine development,” while Miss Brodie’s growth can only be called a “corruption,” the kind of corruption that in the natural world follows upon “prime.” Specifically, Newman says that corruption is “the breaking up of life, preparatory to its termination [which] begins when life has reached its perfection, [it] being at the same time the reversal and undoing of what went before” (Development). He adds that “one cause of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past” (177). If Brodie began her prime mindful of her students’ welfare, she ends it, like all other political and religious fascists, obsessed with imposing a myth about a fabulous past on a vulnerable present. So variable are Brodie’s stories about her youthful beloved, Hugh Carruthers, the Fallen Leaf of Flanders Fields, that even the girls notice that Brodie easily accommodates past facts to serve fancy’s present end. Nonetheless, she is determined to fulfill her private fantasy with wounded Teddy Lloyd, even if she must play pander to her favorite girls and send another to a horrible and ironic death.

Yet, as Newman puts it, “the same philosophical elements, received into a certain sensibility or insensibility to sin and its consequences, leads one mind to the Church of Rome; another to what, for want of a better word, may be called Germanism” (Development). Having learned from Miss Brodie the aesthetics of Catholicism—Giotto, Dante, the Pope, the frighteningly well-ordered Italian and Bavarian “scenes”—Sandy receives these facts through a sensibility alive to the reality of evil and sin, a sensibility that Miss Brodie lacks. Not unlike St. Helena discovering the True Cross, Sandy returns alone not to Jerusalem but to the Old Town where she had had her original vision of primal evil. Here she begins to learn lessons that the heretical curriculum of Miss Brodie omitted: that sin and guilt are real, that God is the ultimate authority, and that the sin of presumption is a “suicidal enchantment” more potent than drink for spinsters, like Miss Brodie, “who could not stand it anymore.”

If Sandy ultimately finds the despair of Calvinism “something definite to reject,” and the presumption of Miss Brodie “something to react against,” she finds a middle way in Teddy Lloyd with whose mind Sandy becomes “deeply absorbed” and from whom she extracts his Roman Catholic religion “as a pith from a husk.” Because Brodie dismisses the body in favor of “higher things,” she not only persists in her insensitivity to sin, she also confuses respectability with morality: “We must keep our good name.” Like her other false prophecies, the “magnificently elevated above the ordinary” affair with Teddy that she engineers for the barely pubescent Rose explodes into a triumph for body and fact. The maimed and adulterous body of Teddy Lloyd that Brodie dared not touch becomes, however, the particular means through which Sandy finally recognizes the Catholicism that has been growing inside her. Wounded and sinful like the church itself, Teddy, quite tellingly, also sees as the church has seen since medieval times, interpreting his world in the terms of likeness and difference, those terms that undergird the Scholastics’ analogia entis itself. Rendering the invisible visible, Teddy’s transfiguring art captures both the realistic likeness of the Brodie girls and at the same time the face of Jean Brodie, that absent presence beneath and beyond them that makes them one. In doing so, he shows Sandy another kind of “double life,” not the isolating and imaginary life of her childhood but the kind of imagination through which Catholic Christianity understands itself. In it she recognizes a counterpart for her childhood’s instinctive longings. Like Spark, she too finds her own authentic voice. Unlike Brodie’s, Sandy’s development is, therefore, genuine and real. As Newman asserts, “There is no corruption if [a development] retains one and the same type … if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases … if it has a power of assimilation and survival and a vigorous action from first to last” (Development). Miss Brodie’s ancestor Willy died on a gibbet of his own devising; “betrayed” by her student Sandy, Jean Brodie ultimately dies of an “internal growth.”

So Sandy enters a cloister, writes a famous book, and we leave her, come to her own prime, clutching “the bars of her grille more desperately than ever.” Fully conscious of Miss Brodie and of how easily “corruption” follows upon prime, Sandy anticipates, I suspect, the difficulties of developing into her own future. To say, as Friedman does, that “conversion itself may not ‘save’ us” suggests that conversion is an isolated, static event rather than the dynamic process that Newman and this novel have described. Moreover, as “retaining one and the same type” is indicative of genuine development, Sandy Stranger’s conversion has up to this point satisfied Newman’s criteria: Unlike her youthful escapism, Sandy Stranger’s development has not left her less a stranger than she was before. Rather it has contextualized the existential reality of exile itself, putting Sandy Stranger in the company of people like Newman who years after his own conversion can say, no less despairingly than Sandy, “Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world” (Apologia). Reacting against and rejecting the authoritarianism of Miss Brodie’s fascism, Sandy Stranger enters the Catholic Church and thereby embraces another kind of authority, an authority grounded not in personal power but in a dynamic tradition that, Newman contends, does not tyrannize but rather provokes, in its “never-ending duel” with “private judgement,” the warfare that is the necessary condition for the very life of religion. As this same provocative authority once received Sandy into the secure and sectarian life of a convent, so now the same church, in the form of Sandy’s religious superiors, requires that she take a further step: to look beyond the shadows of the visiting parlor into the face of the world she was tempted to ignore. As in its own process of continuous conversion, the authority of the Roman Church, hearing the voice of Newman in its Second Vatican Council, rejected as internal heresy the sectarian and antimodern posture of Vatican I, Sandy too is asked by that authority to examine her own temptation to sectarianism that accompanies her own prime. Like her youthful membership in Brodie’s crème de la crème, the isolation of the cloister has provided her only a temporary shelter, one that she must now reconsider so that the positive and necessary warfare at the heart of genuine conversion may continue. If Sandy has found in the church “quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie,” Sandy’s development up to this point assures us that it is not she who will die of an internal growth, but rather those others who refuse to come to the window, and who like Spark’s Salina, have cultivated an “expression of composure,” and sit “when they received their rare visitors, well back in the darkness with folded hands.”

Source: Benilde Montgomery, “Spark and Newman: Jean Brodie Reconsidered,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, Spring 1997, pp. 94–106.


Hicks, Granville, “Treachery and the Teacher,” in Saturday Review, January 20, 1962, p. 18.

Hynes, Samuel, Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Commonweal, February 23, 1962, p. 567.

Review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Library Journal, January 1, 1962, p. 114.

Spark, Muriel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Harper-Collins, 1999.

Further Reading

Bottner, Barbara, Let Me Tell You Everything, Harper Collins, 1989.

The main character in this story, Brogan, is a bright high school student, full of feminist ideas, when she develops a crush on her social studies teacher. The protagonist confronts the imminent divorce of her parents, and her trip through teenage angst is both humorous and thought-provoking.

Drabble, Margaret, The Radiant Way, Knopf, 1987.

The ironic title of this novel comes from a children’s primer that depicts life as peaceful and cooperative, which is not quite the experience of the novel’s Cambridge University school chums from the 1950s who reconnect in London in the 1980s.

Newman, John Henry, Apologia pro Vita Sua, edited by Ian Ker, Penguin Books, 1994; new edition of work originally published by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864.

Newman accounts for his spiritual growth from youth through adulthood. A one-time Anglican, Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845, an event he discusses in this work.

Spark, Muriel, Curriculum Vitae: An Autobiography, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Spark credits the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman with playing a significant role in her conversion to Catholicism, which plays an important role in her fiction.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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