The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark, the great Scottish writer, was born in 1918 and died in 2006. Her books include Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means, but she is best known for her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The latter was made into a movie in 1969, starring Maggie Smith.

Spark’s novel is set at a school for girls, in Edinburgh during the 1930s. Miss Brodie is a charismatic teacher whose students are ‘vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorized curriculum’ (per the headmistress), and she is especially concerned with a certain group of girls whom she hopes to guide toward distinction. Among this group—“the Brodie set”—is the novel’s chief protagonist, Sandy Stranger. Sandy’s regard for Miss Brodie is conflicted. At times she sees her teacher as admirable, but this admiration waxes and wanes and eventually transforms into antagonism.

The character of Miss Brodie is a blend of bohemianism and fascism, and that latter label is not being applied in the fast and loose manner of our times. She is a fan of Mussolini and thinks highly of Hitler as well. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, she admits that Hitler was “rather naughty.” These and other factors, including Miss Brodie’s bullying of a girl named Mary Macgregor, incite in Sandy a spirit of revolt. Finally she denounces Miss Brodie who, as a consequence, is forced to retire.

The narration is loaded with artful repetitions and reiterations, plus a number of jumps into the future. For example, the reader learns early on that Mary Macgregor, in her twenties at the time, died in a hotel fire, and that Sandy became a nun. In an article that appeared in The Weekly Standard (September 27, 2010), Barton Swaim argued that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is told in first-person, and that the narrator is Sandy Stranger. But if that is so, then Spark kept Sandy’s presence as narrator so carefully concealed it seems pointless.  Readers can decide for themselves. As far as I’m concerned the novel is told in third-person, even if the author’s style is a bit peculiar.

A repetition that occurs in the course of the story concerns Sandy, now Sister Helena, clutching the bars of the grille when people come to visit her. This detail also shows up at the very end and is certainly significant. But what is its significance? Does it mean that Sandy’s cloistered life is like a prison to her? Or does it mean something less obvious—maybe that Sandy/Sister Helena is desperate to get something across to her visitors, but doesn’t know how to do so or doesn’t know what that something is?

In any case, it’s not a satisfying conclusion. The ending of the movie is better, I think: with Sandy (played by Pamela Franklin) walking off, knowing that her denouncement of Miss Brodie was justified, and yet grieving about it all the same.  

That being said, Muriel Spark’s novel is brilliantly written and well worth reading.