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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novella 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 bizarre, unforgettable character of Miss Jean Brodie 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.

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

Plot Summary

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 (among whom only the first two 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. In the Junior School, they meet the singing teacher, the short Gordon Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed Teddy Lloyd, a married man with six children. These two teachers form a love triangle with Miss Brodie, each loving her, while she only returns the affections of Teddy. Miss Brodie never, however, acts on her love for him except once to exchange a kiss, which is witnessed by Monica.

During a two week absence from school, Miss Brodie enters into a love affair with Lowther on the grounds that a bachelor makes a more respectable paramour. 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".

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, Miss Mackay tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. When two other teachers at the school, the Kerr sisters, take employment as Mr. Lowther's housekeepers, Miss Brodie tries to take over their duties. She moves in with him and 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 chemistry 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 immediately meet her death at the front lines.

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, finds Mr. Lloyd's stubborn love and painter's mind fascinating. 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 and the author of "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace", maintains that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due".When visitors come to visit Sandy at the nunnery, they ask what most inspired her to write the book. Sandy replies -- clenching the bars of the grille -- that it was a Miss Brodie in her prime.

Characters

Jean Brodie: "She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin. 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. 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. 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.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 twenty-four she dies in a hotel fire, killed by running to and fro inside the burning building.

Structure

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.

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. Miss Kay was the basis for the good parts of Brodie's character, but not the more bizarre; for example, Miss Kay did hang posters of Renaissance paintings on the wall, but not of fascists. There is no indication that any of Spark's teachers supported Generalissimo Franco. 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 an writer. Spark, like Sandy, converted to Roman Catholicism.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Spark's novel was turned into a play by Jay Presson Allen, which opened on Broadway in 1968, with Zoe Caldwell in the title role, a performance for which she won a Tony Award. This production was a moderate success, running for just less than a year, but it has often been staged by both professional and amateur companies since then.

However some have questioned whether the play is a particularly faithful adaptation. The number of girls in the Brodie Set is reduced from six to four (Mary McGregor, Sandy, Jenny, and Monica) and some of them are composites of girls in the novel. Mary McGregor is a composite of the original Mary McGregor and Joyce Emily, although mainly based on the original Mary the episode of dying in the Spanish Civil War is given to her, and rather more is made of this incident than in the novel. Jenny is a composite of the original Jenny and Rose, in spite of her name she has more in common with Rose, since it is she who Miss Brodie tries to manoeuvre into having an affair with Mr Lloyd.

Allen adapted her play into a film in 1969, which was directed by Ronald Neame. It is remembered for Maggie Smith's performance in the title role, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. There was also a notable performance from Pamela Franklin as Sandy, for which she won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress.

Interestingly Gordon Jackson played Gordon Lowther, and Rona Anderson, who was married to Jackson in real life, played chemistry teacher Miss Lockhart, whom Lowther married in the film. Robert Stephens, then Maggie Smith's real life husband, played Miss Brodie's married lover, Teddy Lloyd, and Celia Johnson played the austere and antagonistic school headmistress, Miss Emmeline MacKay. Rod McKuen was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song for "Jean", which became a huge hit for the singer Oliver in autumn 1969. The play also underwent modification for the film; it cut out a few scenes showing Sandy in later life as a nun.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was adapted by Scottish Television into a seven episode television serial in 1978, also written by Jay Presson Allen, and starring Geraldine McEwan. Rather than recapitulate the plot of the novel, the series imagined episodes in the lives of the characters in the novel, such as conflict between Jean Brodie and the father of an Italian refugee student, who fled Mussolini's Italy because the father was persecuted as a Communist.

References

External links

  • 1969 film
  • 1978 television serial

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