The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a 1961 novel by Scottish writer Muriel Spark, is the story of an unconventional teacher in a conservative Edinburgh girls’ school (Marcia Blaine School for Girls) in the early 1930s. She has her own “set” of six girls (“Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she says, “and she’s mine for life.”) and “progressive” teaching methods that make her a target of the “establishment” figures in the school, personified by stuffy headmistress Miss McKay. The ever-vigilant Miss McKay and others in the school would do anything to get the goods on Miss Brodie with the objective of getting her fired. They suspect her, on principle, of gross immorality and a multitude of sins and vices, short on specifics as they are. (We have here a perfect example of a novel incorporating the literary theme of “one against many.”)
Two male teachers (rare as they are in this environment) in the girls’ school are besotted with Miss Brodie. There’s Teddy Lloyd, the one-armed art master (he lost his arm in the “Great War”) and Gordon Lowther, the ginger-haired singing master. Teddy Lloyd already has a wife and a houseful of children, but this doesn’t dampen his interest for the unmarried Jean Brodie. Gordon Lowther, bachelor, lives in a big house all alone and seems to bring out the mother instinct in Miss Brodie and other of the female teachers. The two sewing mistresses, sisters named the Misses Kerr, do some housework for Mr. Lowther, and it’s in the performance of these duties that they find Miss Brodie’s nightdress folded underneath the pillow on his bed, the implication being that Miss Brodie and Gordon Lowther are sleeping together (and probably doing more than sleeping). As affectionate as Miss Brodie feels toward Gordon Lowther, she is in love with Teddy Lloyd, the art master, and he is in love with her. Miss Brodie, as she is eager to tell everyone, is a woman in her “prime.” Her prime is theoretically the best time of her life and she devotes her prime not to any mere male but to the edification of her students.
The girls in Miss Brodie’s set are all exceptionally smart and talented, except for the doltish girl named Mary, who dies at a young age in a hotel fire, the implication being that she is too dumb to figure out how to escape a burning building. All in the set adore Miss Brodie slavishly and spend a lot of time in her company away from school, visiting points of historical interest or just talking over tea in Miss Brodie’s home. Miss McKay, the headmistress and Miss Brodie’s avowed enemy, has little private talks with each of the girls in the set, hoping to find out what exactly it is about Miss Brodie that makes her so different from the other teachers. All in the set remain faithful to Miss Brodie, but one of them will eventually betray her and Miss Brodie will go to her grave (dead from an “internal growth” at age fifty-six) not knowing which one it was.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a concise (156 pages), ironic, gem-like novel that is fun to read and never very challenging. We find in Miss Brodie one of the true “characters” in 20th century fiction. She claims to have had a fiancé named Hugh who died in World War I, but we wonder after a while if he is just somebody she made up. And, despite her dalliances with Mr. Lowther and Mr. Lloyd, she seems a natural-born spinster, made for finer things than just being somebody’s wife. In her admiration for Hitler and Mussolini (at a time when they are seen as a terrible threat to the rest of the world) and in almost every other way she can think of, she challenges convention. (“Safety does not come first,” she says in response to a poster on the wall at school. “Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.”) She refuses to join the “crowd” or the “herd,” even if doing so would make life easier for her. She is one of those who will always be at odds with the authority figures of the world. It’s a small club, but it exists.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp