The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark
J.P. Lippincott, 1962
A visitor to Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, formerly Sandy Stranger and now a cloistered nun renowned for the publication of her work in psychology “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,” asks her “What were the main influences of your school days, Sister Helena? Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?” Her response? “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”
Miss Jean Brodie often tells her students “give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” This may explain why Sister Helena, even years after Miss Brodie’s death, still attributes all of who she is to that one influential teacher.
Most people could probably name a Miss Jean Brodie from their past. The teacher that expanded their minds and frightened them out of their wits. The teacher who gave them the greatest gifts of imagination, creativity, independence, individualism, intellectual rigor, and who also tried to crush these very qualities out of them. The teacher one never forgets and whom one never looks back on sentimentally or without a confusion of emotions.
Miss Brodie is a bundle of paradoxes. She is a free spirit, a progressive educator, an artistic, sensitive woman who is fascinated by the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler, mainly because of its ability to organize and regulate. Miss Brodie is able to cast off all societal conventions because she is in her prime, but she creates a set of incomprehensible rules for her girls such as one does not leave a window open more than six inches, for six inches is plenty and more is vulgar.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in the 1930’s in Edinburgh, Scotland but was published in 1962. The setting of Calvinist Edinburgh mirrors the dark, dingy, depressing atmosphere of post-war England. Although the moral conventions of the thirty’s are present in the plot, the open attitude toward sex of the sixty’s is prominent in the narration. That is not to say that the book advocates the sexual freedoms of the last half of the last century, although the authorial voice does not condemn them. But like most ideas addressed in the novel, sexual indiscretion is neither all good nor all bad. Good comes out of immoral acts, even the most immoral intentions. So does evil. Perhaps only fascism is judged as completely evil, but those who are attracted to fascism are not.
Sandy, now Sister Helena, says that “the influences of one’s teens are very important” even if “they provide something to react against.” Sandy was not raised Catholic, nor was she raised Calvinist, nor with any particular religious convictions at all. Miss Brodie exposed her young students to all kinds of spiritual views but disdained Catholicism for Catholics, she said, cannot and do not think for themselves. Yet, Sandy’s acceptance of Catholicism is a conscious and deliberate act, more so than Miss Brodie’s rejection of it. And it continues a conscious and deliberate decision, for although Sandy finds her true self in Catholicism, and the ability to discipline her insights about people into an influential book on morality and psychology, she does not find peace and comfort, nor is she freed from the influences of Miss Brodie.
The narrator of Jean Brodie seems to be an omniscient one, yet at the same time the story is filtered through the eyes of Sandy, the student most like Miss Brodie, the student most misunderstood by Miss Brodie, the student who, as Miss Brodie predicted several times, did indeed go too far one day. The narrative is not straightforward either but jumbled flashbacks and repetitive phrases piece the story and the characters together. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short book and easy to read and follow, but it is not a comfortable book. It’s as confusing and disturbing as memories of that teacher – you know the one – your Miss Jean Brodie.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is available at Doherty Library.
Benilde Montgomery, “Spark and Newman: Jean Brodie Reconsidered,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, Spring 1997, pp. 94-106. Reprinted in Novels for Students, Vol. 22.