"There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, and then as a book in 1961. The short novel has received extensive critical praise-- Time considers it one of the best hundred books written in English in the twentieth century—inspired a play, an Oscar-winning film, and a television series, and established the bright but deeply flawed Scottish schoolteacher as one of the most memorable characters in recent literature.
The first chapter begins in 1937, when the Brodie Set, Miss Jean's special girls, are sixteen. A new girl, a rebellious transfer student, vies to become part of their group. The death of this relatively minor character will have significant effects. Although older and no longer in her class at conservative Marcia Blaine School, the girls continue their friendship with each other and their former teacher.
The chapter then flashes back six years, to an early encounter between the girls and Miss Brodie, and then forward seven years, to events that transpire long after one of her favourites "betrays" her. The novel continues in this manner, shifting time and place. Most of the story occurs during the years the girls study at the elite private school, but we see glimpses of their lives into the 1950s.
The girls of the last Brodie Set have been cultivated by their teacher since the age of eight or nine. Brodie, an eccentric romantic, teaches material outside of the regular curriculum, so that her girls have heard of "Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters . . . and the word 'menarche.'" She inculcates a dislike of the school "team spirit" and the Girl Guides, yet she praises the European fascists and insists on order, her idea of order. She encourages the search for truth yet lies and spins stories about her own life; she espouses vaguely Bohemian ideals of art and Progressive ideas of education but insists on conventional decorum. She insists she can make her girls hers "for life" and continually directs them, as though they were actors in her play. One of her students, Sandy, later connects Miss Jean with the Calvinist God. The novel notes that many women like her existed in the 1930s, but few taught at traditional private schools, and this fact, more than any other, leads to scandal.
Spoilers. You may want to skip ahead to the section on the film.
For much of the novel, Miss Brodie finds her main opponent in the dowdy headmistress, Miss Mackay, who encourages Jean to apply at a more progressive school, and plots to remove her from Blaine. Brodie openly discusses these "plots" with her special girls. The Set includes the clever Monica Douglas, sensual Rose Stanley, athletic Eunice Gardiner, awkward Mary MacGregor, and insightful, imaginative Sandy Stranger and Jenny Gray. The transfer student, Joyce Emily Hammond, does not really penetrate the set before she meets her untimely end.
Jean Brodie romanticizes her past involvement with a younger man, Hugh, who died in The Great War. At Blaine, she becomes involved with two men, the married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, and the reliable musician, Gordon Lowther. While still children, Sandy and Jenny compose love letters, romantic tales, and even police procedurals around their teacher. Years later, Jean will attempt to set one of these girls up as Lloyd's mistress, in her own place.
Miss McKay attempts to use the rumours of sexual impropriety to eliminate Miss Brodie. She does not succeed. Only later, after the death of Joyce Emily Hammond, does a disenchanted Brodie Girl suggest that McKay use Brodie's political leanings against her. Fascism, Romanticism's darkest extension, has a hold on Brodie, and she has been imparting her naïve understanding of the movement to the girls.
That same student, years later, will acknowledge that, despite her flaws, Brodie had positive as well as negative influences on her life. By then, the teacher has died, a broken woman who always wondered which of her students betrayed her.
The novel does an excellent job of character: in particular, the complex personality of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark describes the world and its people with deft, thoughtful prose. She handles the fragmented time-structure effectively, often through the use of repetition. which may irk some readers. The approach allows us to see the characters and events as their thoughts and actions resonate through time.
"Sandy, please try to do as I say and not as I do. Remember, you are a child, Sandy, and far from your prime."
Although the novel achieved considerable popularity, many more people encountered Miss Jean Brodie in the 1969 film, itself heavily adapted from a 1968 stage version (the original starred Vanessa Redgrave). Both feature a linear time structure, and reduce the number of Brodie girls. Instead of the middle-aged spinster who can recall an affair, in 1914, with a younger soldier, she is perhaps thirty at the start of the film and in 1914 much younger than her ill-fated lover. The film also gives us a less complex Miss Brodie, something more of a caricature, though a memorable one.
Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for best actress, and she carries the film for many viewers. Her Brodie, at once compelling and ridiculous, clearly communicates why the girls would be drawn to her, and why the Headmistress would find her dangerous.
The film does a remarkable job of bringing the Brodie Set— the actors were in their late teens and early twenties— from age twelve to seventeen. Pamela Franklin is a revelation as Sandy, transforming from a curious, pubescent child in oversized glasses to a forthright seventeen year old who has an affair with a middle-aged man—which she ends, rather coldly, when she realizes he remains far more interested in her teacher. The director cast talented (and tiny) actresses to help with the illusion of growth and development. The film also employs a number of physical effects, including carefully framed shots, and specially-constructed desks and costumes.
Other strong performances mark the film. Robert Stephens manages to be both offensive and fascinating as Lloyd. Ann Way plays the Headmistress's secretary and toady, Gaunt, investing her fleeting appearances with a subtle repulsiveness.
The strong, largely comic performances help carry a somewhat dialogue-heavy script marked by both a slow pace and some dramatic excesses. If the writers have simplified the source, they have also heightened certain scenes for the camera and the mass audience. Rather than a minor, otherwise inconsequential character heading off to the Spanish Civil War to die, one of the key Brodie Girls does so. The change better serves to draw the audience into the event. The screenplay also adds an ironic twist to her death. This particular change doubtless spoke to the audiences of 1969, and the American involvement in Vietnam.
The film reveals nothing of the characters' futures. It finishes with the school term—and Miss Brodie's cries of, "Assassin!" (which do not appear in the original novel) as her Judas walks calmly off. Despite some excesses, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie holds up quite well, decades later, for its strong performances, excellent recreation of 1930s Edinborough, and flawed, fascinating protagonist.
Directed by Ronald Neame
Written by Muriel Spark, Jay Presson Allen, Jay Presson Allen
Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie
Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd
Pamela Franklin as Sandy Stranger
Diane Grayson as Jenny Gray
Jane Carr as Mary McGregor
Shirley Steedman as Monica
Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay
Gordon Jackson as Gordon Lowther
Isla Cameron as Miss McKenzie
Rona Anderson as Miss Lockhart
Ann Way as Miss Gaunt
Roses are Red
The film's theme song, "Jean," written by Rod McKuen, became a major hit in 1969. Both McKuen and pop star Oliver (William Swofford) released versions. Although the music suits the tone of the film, the syrupy lyrics seem to describe an entirely different Jean or, perhaps, a much younger version of the character. The movie, wisely, features only the tune.
The novel also became a short-run British television series in 1978. Geraldine McEwan as Jean Brodie presides over a class containing girls from the novel and other, original characters
Tom Schulman won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Dead Poets Society, but the claim, at least, of originality, must be challenged. The film takes the plot of the Brodie film, switches gender, glorifies the central character, and moves the setting to late 1950s Vermont.
It would be difficult to miss the similarities. Both take place at elite, single-sex private schools. Both feature an unconventional teacher as protagonist, one who incurs the antagonism of an old-fashioned administrator. Both teachers are Romantics who denigrate the traditional curriculum and methodology. Each opens new worlds for the students but, arguably, leaves them without the tools to negotiate those worlds. Both experience scandal when a student dies. Both cultivate a small set of followers, one of whom betrays the instructor.
The difference, of course, is that Prime examines Miss Brodie and her failings. Dead Poets Society fails to recognize any moral complexity or shortcomings in its central character. Miss Brodie has admirable characteristics, but substantial flaws that lead to tragedy. Dead Poets presents John Keating as a hero, whose fall results entirely from the forces of repression and tradition.
Robin Williams's Keating will entertain you, and perhaps inculcate an interest in reading, which I applaud. Jean Brodie, however, appears in a work made of stronger, more thought-provoking material. Of course, both are works of fiction-- and, as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie reminds us, it can be dangerous to mistake fantasies and clever fabrications for reality.