Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark

(Click here for information on the 2014 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. First up, the June selection, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel is brief enough that it first saw publication in The New Yorker; a stage version appeared five years later, and the play was further adapted into a film in 1969, earning Maggie Smith an Oscar for Best Actress in the title role.

The story is set at a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh, and concerns the rise to “fame”  of The Brodie Set, six 10 and 11 year old girls who begin lessons in Miss Brodie’s classroom in the Junior School in the fall of 1930. Six years later they have progressed to the Senior School, but remain “unmistakably Brodie”- under the tutelage of the flamboyant, amoral Miss Brodie, the six girls have distinguished themselves amongst their peers, much to the suspicion of the school’s administration.

These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word “menarche”; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Bronte and of Miss Brodie herself.

Miss Brodie holds forth most frequently on the latter, spinning operatic tales to her rapt pupils about her doomed love affair with a soldier:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I was engaged to a young man at the beginning of the War but he fell on Flanders Field… He fell the week before Armistice was declared. He fell like an autumn leaf, although he was only twenty-two years of age.”

Miss Brodie explains to her students that because of the death of her true love, she has given herself over completely to their education, and they will receive the full benefit of the fact that she is a woman in her “prime’.

The novel is structured over numerous flash-forwards, as the Brodie Set remains seemingly devoted to their teacher throughout their lives, despite the fact that one of the girls will eventually “betray” her.

The reader may initially assume that a mystery is being set up as to the identity of the “betrayer”, but the jumpy time structure soon reveals that Sandy (famous for her elocution), who will convert to Roman Catholicism and retreat to a convent, is the rogue pupil, and Miss Brodie will go to her grave without ever learning her identity.

As the girls progress through school, Miss Brodie becomes more closely involved in their personal lives, and they in hers, as they extrapolate that their teacher has again fallen in love, this time with the school’s music teacher, Mr. Lloyd (gimlet-eyed Sandy notes that in her frequent retellings of the story of her lost love, the two become nearly indistinguishable). But alas! Mr. Lloyd is married, and Catholic to boot. Under the watchful gaze of her students, Miss Brodie embarks on an affair with the school’s music teacher, Mr. Lowther.

Unable to be with the man she truly loves, Miss Brodie does the only thing she can: try to manipulate one of her students into having the affair on her behalf.

Things Do Not End Well, although the school’s administration is never able to get Miss Brodie on “indecency”. Instead the final reveal is that Sandy’s betrayal was over politics: espousing Fascism on the eve of World War II is a big no-no.

Jay Presson Allen adapted the novel for the London stage in 1966, drastically changing the structure of the story. The 1969 film based on the play is even more conventional in its plotting.

The film version features far fewer characters (the Brodie Set is whittled down to four) and focuses on the love quadrangle between Miss Brodie, Mr.  Lloyd , Mr. Lowther and Sandy.

Maggie Smith, all diction and posture, brings a greater degree of sympathy to her portrayal of Miss Brodie. In the novel Miss Brodie remains something of a sociopath to the end, with Sandy having a later-life realization that the celebrated nonconformist is a boring and tiresome old woman, with the constant prattling on about “her prime” and how her student-acolytes will be the Crème de la Crème. 

Smith’s interpretation is both more tragic and more self-aware: she seems to realize that her fantasy of love with Mr. Lloyd is making her slightly ridiculous.

Also in the movie she stops short of actually endorsing Hitler.

Stray Thoughts and Observations:
Rod McKuen also scored an Oscar nomination for Best Song for the theme song, “Jean”, three minutes of treacle that I’ve had stuck in my head for three weeks now.

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6 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark

  1. The hit version of the Rod McKuen song by Oliver blighted the charts for fourteen weeks beginning a week or so before Woodstock.

  2. rejiester says:

    I confess: I could not get through this one. After the 75th mention of the word “prime” in the first 3 pages, I gave up! You are a stronger woman than I, Molly!

    • mondomolly says:

      But you missed out on so many tales of young Hugh falling like an autumn leaf on Flanders Field! 😉

      Also I am going to constantly announce that I AM IN MY PRIME in my best Dowager Countess voice, because that is just funny.

  3. Susan says:

    Just recently the Oliver version of the song came on the radio and both my husband and I commented that we both like it. I told him that it was from this movie and he was very surprised. However Wikipedia tells me that the Oliver version wasn’t the one used in the movie. Without finding your blog, I may never have known 🙂 . I’m not sure whether I ever actually saw the movie (if so it would have been on TV, not in a theater), or just heard enough about it to think that I did. Hmmm.

    • mondomolly says:

      I actually had no idea the song was from the movie (I heard on the radio all the time as a child, for some reason) until I watched it and suddenly the lyrics made sense 😉

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