I’ll be honest – I only picked this little novella up from my shelves because I wanted to reach 52 books on Goodreads before the end of 2021. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, is the work that made her famous, and the first of her books that I’ve read (though it definitely won’t be the last). It follows “the Brodie set”, a group of six Edinburgh schoolgirls taught by semi-liberated spinster Miss Jean Brodie for two years as impressionable preteens, and singled out by her for special attention and care throughout the remainder of their adolescence. The novel is set in the early-mid 1930s, before the outbreak of war, and it covers politics, religion, love, Renaissance art, and psychology – all within 115 pages. If I had written this review and thought it all through before I wrote my Five Favourites post for 2021, it might well have been on my list. It is really a superlative book – as can be seen in this very long post about a very short book. (Note – it’s difficult to review this without talking about character development, which really drives the plot, though I have avoided details. I don’t think that spoilers matter here, to be honest – the narrator regularly refers forward to things that haven’t happened yet, and I knew the plot going in and still loved it).
Miss Brodie’s values are rather different from those of the other teachers in the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. She sees herself as an educator, repeating often that education comes from the Latin and means, “to lead out”. Miss Brodie regards it as her responsibility to lead her girls into adulthood, bringing out what is naturally within them – or, perhaps, what she has decided to recognise within them. She talks to them about all sorts of things not on the curriculum – long, discursive stories about her love life; her travels in Europe; praise of the arts and rejection of the sciences. Also, fascism. Miss Brodie is pretty into fascism. She has posters of the Italian fascisti up in the classroom, and talks with wide-eyed eagerness about the absence of unemployment in Italy and Spain. Perhaps unsurprising in light of this that the Brodie set becomes known through the rest of the school as clannish and insular, having been seduced by the special attention of their charismatic leader. This is the irony that underpins the book: Miss Brodie would claim that she is helping her girls to become individuals, but the minute they step out of the roles she has mentally assigned to them, she just doesn’t know what to do.
Although Miss Brodie is the title character, she is not the main character. That is the aptly-named Sandy Stranger, one of the girls in the Brodie set. Out of all the set, she approaches things with the most criticality – perhaps explaining why her teacher singles her out as a special confidante, thus disarming her inherent suspicion. One of the reviews I saw on Goodreads makes the case that the novella is actually written as a memoir by the grown-up Sandy, albeit in the third person, and I think that was likely Spark’s intention. We certainly get more of Sandy’s perspective than anybody else’s. The novella certainly has that memoir-like feeling of an adult observing childhood memories through the analytical lens of experience and distance. This then raises the question of how reliable Sandy is as a narrator – though I will leave that to other reviewers and assume a moderately reliable narrator, since this is already running long and I still have a lot of thoughts.
Whether it’s told by Sandy or by an anonymous third party, we get the inside view of her evolving thoughts, as she realises how Miss Brodie is trying to control and steer the girls into the paths she has chosen for them. As readers, we can see this in the way the characters are introduced. For example, “Rose, who was later to be famous for sex” – the narrator doesn’t exactly present this as Miss Brodie’s intention, more the idea that everyone just expected it to be true, but given the influence that their teacher had on their perceptions it’s difficult to separate the two – did Miss Brodie identify this trait in Rose, or did she deliberately develop it in her? Certainly Miss Brodie expects that, once Rose Stanley is old enough, she will have an affair with art master Teddy Lloyd. Miss Brodie is in love with him herself, but she has rejected him because he is married – instead assuming that Rose will sleep with him in her stead once she is old enough. Sandy recognises what the other girls do not: Miss Brodie wants her own fascisti, walking after her in the path she has laid out for them. That is why she belittles team sports and the girl guides. She resents anything that would cut into the sense of exclusive specialness that she has cultivated in her set. Even as Sandy recognises this, though, she still craves Miss Brodie’s attention – she still wants to be included – she decides not to join the girl guides.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie acts as a very effective critique of fascism. After all, fascism promises the security and inclusion that Sandy and her peers crave from Miss Brodie’s set, the certainty that comes from being slotted into pre-determined roles in society – but, like Miss Brodie, a fascist society clamps down the moment someone expresses their individuality in an unsanctioned way. The influence that Miss Brodie has on her girls is fascinating and chilling. For example, Mary MacGregor – one of the Brodie set, presented as rather slow and dim-witted – acts as the convenient scapegoat who can be blamed for anything that goes wrong. This starts out with Miss Brodie subtly singling her out but not outright blaming her – but this mentality seeps through into the girls, as of course it must. There is a memorable scene where Sandy is walking with Mary MacGregor and finds herself feeling bad for Mary, wanting to be kind and include her. She chastises herself for this compassionate instinct, choosing to suppress it in order to continue pleasing Miss Brodie and belonging in the Brodie set. Fascism must have its scapegoat. By keeping Mary in the set while simultaneously belittling and blaming her, first Miss Brodie and later the girls avoid having to face up to any of their own faults or mistakes.
As with any really good book, it’s impossible to read it without bringing your own context, and for me that means reading this from a teacher’s perspective. I teach university students, my mum and my brother are both teachers, and several of my friends are teachers of one sort or another, so I think and talk about education a lot. Because I was reading this with those eyes, I found it difficult to respect Miss Brodie from the off. We are definitely supposed to end up seeing her as ridiculous – but I think she is meant to seem impressive at the start, and fall apart in front of us over the course of the book. I found her rather pathetic the whole way through, albeit fantastically well-observed as a character. A teacher who needs her class to love her is a teacher who has never really grown up herself, and that is ultimately what Miss Brodie is trying to accomplish.
Miss Brodie wants to be central to the Brodie set’s lives, not just while she’s teaching them, but forever. No good teacher needs her students to like her, to be loyal to her. Not that I want my students to dislike me, exactly – I don’t much care what their reaction to me is, as long as I am helping them to be critical thinkers whose decisions are informed by evidence. In order to accomplish that, I certainly need to earn their respect and keep their attention – but their affection is irrelevant to whether or not they are learning. Miss Brodie becomes tragically obsessed with the loyalty of her girls over the course of the novel. She is much more concerned about what they think of her than whether she is helping them to develop into mature and sensible adults, irrespective of her high ideals at the start. There’s a throwaway comment that some of Miss Brodie’s students enter senior school still having to count on their fingers and struggling to spell simple words. For all she thinks of herself as a fantastic educator, leading her students boldly out into adulthood, she has failed to equip them with the skills they will require to keep on learning, keep on growing once they get there. It’s a magnificently observed story of pride and decline.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a masterclass in character development. Miss Brodie and Sandy Stranger are incredibly well-observed, as (to a lesser extent) are Teddy Lloyd, headmistress Miss Mackay, and Gordon Lowther the singing master. Within such a short work, Spark created characters who I am sure I will remember for a long time to come. I have no idea how she did it, and this is that rare book that I wish I could study in a classroom setting. I can’t wait to rewatch the film as an adult, as well as reading Spark’s other work, but it’s hard to see how either could live up to a work as fantastic as this!