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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  
First edition cover
Author Muriel Spark
Cover artist Victor Reinganum
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date 1961
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Preceded by The Bachelors
Followed by The Girls of Slender Means

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short book[1] by Muriel Spark, by far the best known of her works. It first saw publication in The New Yorker magazine and was published as a book by Macmillan in 1961. The unforgettable character of Miss Jean Brodie, out of place at Marcia Blaine School, brought Spark international fame and boosted her into the first rank of contemporary Scottish literature. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie enjoyed multiple dramatic adaptations: a stage play in 1968, a film starring Maggie Smith in 1969, and a TV serial in 1978. The play and the film reshuffled some of the correspondences between the characters and the plot elements. The TV serial took even greater liberties with the original.


Plot summary

This summary tells the story of the novel mostly in chronological order, which is not true of the original book.

In 1930s Edinburgh, six ten-year-old girls are assigned Miss Jean Brodie, self-described as in her prime, as their teacher: Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice (only the first two of them are major figures). Miss Brodie, intent on their receiving an education in the original sense of the Latin verb educere, "to lead out", gives her students lessons on art history or her love life and travels. Under her mentorship, the girls begin to stand out from the rest of the school as distinctively Brodie. However, in one of the novel's typical flash-forwards, we learn that one of them will later betray Miss Brodie, causing her to lose her teaching job, but that she never learned which one. (This is typical of the novel's style: scenes from the future lives of the characters are revealed, piece by piece, in flash-forwards throughout the novel.)

In the Junior School, they meet the singing teacher, the short Mr Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed war veteran Mr Lloyd, a married Roman Catholic man with six children. These two teachers form a love triangle with Miss Brodie, each loving her, while she only loves Mr Lloyd. Miss Brodie never, however, overtly acts on her love for Mr Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica. Miss Brodie and Mr Lowther, however, have a sexual relationship.

Miss Brodie and Miss Mackay in the dramatic adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

During a two week absence from school, Miss Brodie enters into an affair with Mr Lowther on the grounds that a bachelor makes a more respectable paramour: she had renounced Mr Lloyd as he was married. At one point during these two years in the Junior School, Jenny is "accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith".[3] The police investigation of the exposure leads Sandy to imagine herself as part of a fictional police force seeking incriminating evidence in respect of Miss Brodie and Mr Lowther.[4]

Once the girls are promoted to the Senior School (in the seventh year of school, around age twelve) though now dispersed, they hold on to their identity as the Brodie set. Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. All the while, the headmistress Miss Mackay tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. Miss Mackay, in the novel (but not in the 1969 film) younger than Miss Brodie, had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a 'progressive' school; Miss Brodie declined to move to what she describes as a 'crank' school. When two other teachers at the school, the Kerr sisters, take part-time employment as Mr Lowther's housekeepers, Miss Brodie tries to take over their duties. She sets about fattening him up with extravagant cooking. The girls, now thirteen, visit Miss Brodie in pairs over at Mr Lowther's house, where all Miss Brodie does is ask about Mr Lloyd in Mr Lowther's presence. It is at this point that Mr Lloyd asks Rose, and occasionally the other girls, to pose for him as portrait subjects. Each face he paints ultimately resembles Miss Brodie, as her girls report to her in detail, and she thrills at the telling. One day when Sandy is over visiting Mr Lloyd, he kisses her for peering at him with her little eyes.

Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose should have an affair with Mr Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Another student, Joyce Emily, steps briefly into the picture, trying unsuccessfully to join the Brodie set. Miss Brodie takes her under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side, which she does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is travelling in is attacked.[5]

The original Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit before graduating, Mary to become a typist and Jenny to pursue a career in acting. Eunice becomes a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy, with a keen interest in psychology, is fascinated by Mr Lloyd's stubborn love, his painter's mind and his religion. For five weeks during the summer, now eighteen and alone with him in his house while his wife and children are on holiday, she has an affair with him.

Over time, Sandy's interest in the man wanes while her interest in the mind that loves Jean Brodie grows. In the end, she will leave him, adopt his Roman Catholic religion, and become a nun. Beforehand, however, she meets with the headmistress and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Miss Brodie. She suggests Miss Mackay try accusing her of fascism, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment will Miss Brodie be able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her. After Brodie's death, however, Sandy, now Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and the author of "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace", maintains that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due".[6] One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, "Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?"

Sandy said: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."[7]

With that the novel ends.


Jean Brodie

"She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin."[8] In some ways she is: in her prime she draws her chosen few to herself, much as Calvinists understand God to draw the elect to their salvation. With regards to religion, Miss Brodie "was not in any doubt, she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master."[9] Feeling herself fated one way or another, Miss Brodie acts as if she transcends morality.

Sandy Stranger

Of the set, "Miss Brodie fixed on Sandy," taking her as her special confidante.[10] She is characterised as having "small, almost nonexistent, eyes" and a peering gaze. Miss Brodie repeatedly reminds Sandy that she has insight but no instinct. Sandy rejects Calvinism, reacting against its rigid predestination in favor of Roman Catholicism.

Rose Stanley

In contrast to Sandy, Rose is a beautiful blonde with instinct but no insight. Though somewhat undeservedly, Rose is "famous for sex," and the art teacher Mr. Lloyd, taking an interest in her beauty, asks her to model for his paintings. In every painting, however, Rose has the likeness of Miss Brodie, whom Mr. Lloyd stubbornly loves. Rose and Sandy are the two girls in whom Miss Brodie places the most hope of becoming the crème de la crème. Again contrary to Sandy, Rose "shook off Miss Brodie's influence as a dog shakes pond-water from its coat."[11]

Mary Macgregor

Dim-witted and slow, Mary is Miss Brodie's scapegoat. Mary meekly bears the blame for everything that goes wrong. At the age of 24 she dies in a hotel fire, killed by running to and fro inside the burning building.


Spark unfolds her plots not sequentially, but piece by piece, making extensive use of the narrative technique of prolepsis (flash-forward). For example, the reader is aware early on that Miss Brodie is betrayed, though sequentially this happens at the end of their school years. Gradually Spark reveals the betrayer, and lastly all the details surrounding the event are told. Spark develops her characters in this way, too: Joyce Emily is introduced right away as the girl who is rejected from the Brodie set. With this technique, the narrator of the story is omniscient and timeless, relating the entire plot all at once.

Spark creates deep characterizations which are realistic in their human imperfections. Hal Hager, in his commentary on the novel, writes of Sandy and Miss Brodie:

The complexity of these two characters, especially Jean Brodie, mirrors the complexity of human life. Jean Brodie is genuinely intent on opening up her girls' lives, on heightening their awareness of themselves and their world, and on breaking free of restrictive, conventional ways of thinking, feeling, and being.[12]

Autobiographical basis of the story

While the name of Jean Brodie may be taken from a real person (see Jean Brodie), the character of Miss Brodie was based in part on Christina Kay, a teacher of Spark's for two years at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Spark would later write of her: "What filled our minds with wonder and made Christina Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened."[12] Miss Kay was the basis for the good parts of Brodie's character, but also some of the more bizarre; for example, Miss Kay did hang posters of Renaissance paintings on the wall, but also of Mussolini and Italian fascists marching.[13] Spark grew up in heavily Presbyterian Edinburgh, while Franco's supporters were almost unanimously Roman Catholic. Christina Kay looked after her widowed mother, not the music teacher who was in love with her. She encouraged the young Muriel Spark to become a writer. Spark, like Sandy, converted to Roman Catholicism.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The novel has been adapted for stage, film and small screen.

First came a stage play in 1968. A film starring Maggie Smith in 1969 was essentially a further adaptation of the play. In 1978 a UK TV serial was aired which starred Geraldine McEwan.


  1. ^ Frank Kermode, Introduction, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, pp. xi
  2. ^
  3. ^ Spark, 70.
  4. ^ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, p. 67.
  5. ^ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, p. 116.
  6. ^ Spark 136.
  7. ^ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, p. 125.
  8. ^ Spark 129.
  9. ^ Spark 90.
  10. ^ Spark 113.
  11. ^ Spark 127.
  12. ^ a b Spark 148.
  13. ^ "In the Footsteps of Muriel Spark". Presenter: Hannah Gordon Guest: Alan Taylor. The History Zone. BBC. BBC Radio Scotland. 2009-08-18.


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