Literature / The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life..."
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Published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is probably Muriel Spark's best known novel. Set in Edinburgh's conservative Marcia Blaine School in the 1930s, it deals with the rebellious schoolteacher Miss Brodie and her 'set': whose futures and loyalties she seeks to control along Calvinistic and increasingly Fascist lines. This is put against Brodie's two romances: Mr. Lowther, Marcia Blaine's singing master: a church elder and bachelor, and Mr. Lloyd, the school's art master: a married Roman Catholic with several children, and the attempts of the school's headmistress, Miss Mackay, to remove Brodie from her post.

The novel has been adapted into a play, a film, and a mini-series. The best-known is probably the film of 1969, which starred Maggie Smith. She won an Oscar for her performance as Jean Brodie. The screenplay for the film stays fairly true to the spirit of the novel, but still changes quite a lot. Most noticeably, it prunes a few characters, reducing the set from six to four and combining the ill-fated new girl Joyce Emily Hammond with the dim-witted Mary MacGregor, and gets rid of the novel's use of prolepsis and flashback in favour of condensing the novel's later incidents into single scenes and by not mentioning the post-school fates of the girls.

The novel provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Sandy at times thinks Jean might be a lesbian, since she doesn't marry Mr Lowther.
  • Anachronic Order: The story is told in flashback. As the events at Marcia Blaine progress linearly, the fates of the Brodie Set are revealed before the ending.
  • Assimilation Academy: Marcia Blaine School is an interesting example as its conservatism is somewhat diminished in the face of Brodie's fascism. This is played up in the film: where the grey uniforms and interiors of Marcia Blaine are contrasted with Brodie's colourful outfits.
  • Broken Pedestal: Miss Brodie certainly becomes this by the end, although it is questionable whether Sandy's perception of her has simply changed due to age and circumstance.
  • Cool Teacher: Played with. Miss Brodie definitely motivates her pupils to learn beyond the curriculum, and thumbs her nose at school authorities, but her impact on her pupils is questionable.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Discussed. At one point Jean considers that Mary McGregor was the one who betrayed her, after years of being their scapegoat. A few of them say "I should have been nicer to Mary."
  • Deceptive Disciple: Sandy. Even after betraying Miss Brodie, she still keeps in contact with her.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Blithe Spirit Cool Teacher character. Miss Brodie's students all have their lives wrecked due to her influence, and she has no remorse about it.
  • Devoted to You: Teddy Lloyd for Jean Brodie.
  • The Ditz: Poor Mary McGregor.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Devoted, somewhat naive Mr Lowther who tries for years to convince his lover Miss Brodie to marry him (unaware that she sees him as unsatisfactory substitute for Teddy Lloyd). He avoids becoming a complete sucker by finally dropping her and becoming engaged to the chemistry teacher.
  • Double Think: Jean, in regards to her behaviour with Mr. Lowther, and her hopes for Jenny and Mr. Lloyd
  • Downer Ending: One of the girls has died, Jean Brodie is fired from the school and all her pupils have their lives wrecked due to her influence. She goes her whole life never knowing who betrayed her; only on her deathbed does she consider that it could have been Sandy.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The narration actually compares Brodie to Caesar.
  • Fiery Redhead: Jean Brodie.
    • Averted with Jenny, a pretty but unremarkable favorite of Miss Brodie who deludes herself into thinking that Jenny is "primitive and free."
  • Fascist Italy: Where Miss Brodie takes her summer holidays.
  • Foreshadowing: In a chemistry lesson, Mary gets scared and runs around from flame to flame. This foreshadows her eventual death in a hotel fire where she can't find her way out - at the age of twenty-four.
  • Girl Posse: Miss Brodie and her select girls, whom she calls la creme de la creme.
  • Glorious Leader: Played with in various ways. Deliberate parallels can be drawn between her and big political examples of this trope. Also, although some of her motivations are selfish and destructive, some are genuinely naive.
  • Gossipy Hens: The other female teachers at Marcia Blaine are not fond of Miss Brodie and her exploits.
  • Hot Teacher: Mr. Lowther and Mr. Lloyd certainly seem to think so. Mr. Lloyd himself falls into this trope, with several of the girls swooning over him. Mr Lowther gets some of this as well, with Sandy and Jenny having a couple of sexual fantasies about him.
  • I Reject Your Reality: Jean.
  • The Obi-Wannabe: What else can one call a teacher whose romantic delusions actually get one of her students killed?
  • New Transfer Student: Joyce Emily Hammond
  • Not So Different: Miss Brodie and her nemesis Sandy are both rigid and judgmental.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Jean assumes that Teddy is painting Rose because they will soon begin an affair. Teddy merely finds Rose a good model, and she only poses because she needs the money.
  • One-Gender School: As such, the girls fantasise about the two male teachers rather than students.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: And how.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: Miss Brodie puts Mr. Lowther in this role, she doesn't love him, but plans to marry him anyway. Later, Mr. Lowther puts Miss Lockhart in this role.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Sandy becomes this by the end
  • Taking the Veil: Sandy converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: What Miss Brodie plans for one of her girls and Teddy Lloyd. Fulfilled, but not as planned.
  • Teacher's Pet: All the Brodie set really.
    • Sandy initially conforms to this trope; but moves sharply away from it.
    • Joyce Emily fits this in later episodes; heck, she even dies trying to curry Brodie's favour.
  • Transfer Student Uniforms: This singles-out Joyce Emily Hammond.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: It can be a little odd to modern viewers/readers for how much Jean Brodie is into Fascism, as the story is set in a time when the political philosophy was somewhat romanticized by some members of the intelligentsia, and before it was so closely associated with brutal dictatorships and mass genocide
  • Treacherous Advisor: Since many of Miss Brodie's ambitions for her pupils, especially Rose/Jenny, simply involve using them to vicariously fulfil her own psychological needs, she could easily be seen as this trope.
  • Turn Coat: Miss McKay longs for one of Miss Brodie's girls to fill this role

The 1969 film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: Miss Brodie says to Sandy of Teddy "you know his religion" as a way to discourage her. This makes more sense in the book, which emphasises the school's Calvinist teachings. Part of Sandy's attraction to Teddy is because he's Roman Catholic and she eventually converts to become a nun herself. In the film, these elements are downplayed.
  • Adaptational Context Change:
    • Jean's nightdress being discovered in Mr Lowther's bed happens further along in the novel, and it's found by two teachers who try to use it to discredit her. In the film, it's found earlier by the girls during a weekend at Crammond - and it's more light-hearted, with the girls giggling about it.
    • Jean Brodie's Badass Boast about her ancestor Willie Brodie has a different effect in the film. In the book, she casually tells the girls about him during one of their afternoon teas. In the film, she shouts it at Sandy after discovering she's betrayed her.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • As noted under Lighter and Softer below, Jean Brodie is a bit more sympathetic in the film. It's shown she unambiguously cares for the girls, does not bully any of them and treats them as surrogate daughters. Her dismissal at the end is presented as a somewhat tragic thing.
    • Miss McKay is far more manipulative in the novel, where she tries to weasel information out of the girls at several instances. She tries to even make up slanderous rumours about Jean - such as her being an alcoholic - which she does not in the film.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Sandy, right at the end.
  • Because You Can Cope: I knew you would rise like a phoenix
  • Big "NO!": Assassin!
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • Male example - Jean Brodie's two suitors are the kind and down-to-earth Gordon Lowther (Betty) and the sexy artist Teddy Lloyd (Veronica).
    • Jean herself is the Veronica to Sandy's Betty, where Teddy Lloyd is concerned.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Miss Brodie fatally underestimates Sandy, seeing her mainly as a dependable spy.
  • British Accents: A key part of Maggie Smith's brilliant turn in the movie is her accent, based on the refined, middle-class Scottish accent of Morningside, Edinburgh. (As an aside, there's a funny story about Maggie Smith's attempt to research the accent.)
  • Broken Bird: Sandy becomes broken and cynical as a result of Teddy painting Jean's face on her body, Mary getting killed and finally realising what kind of person Jean really is.
  • Brutal Honesty:
    • Teddy Lloyd, when he tells Miss Brodie that she is a frustrated schoolmarm with dangerous delusions of grandeur. He is also brutally honest about himself when he calls himself a second rate artist.
    • Sandy who tells Teddy that he is an aging mediocre painter. She also calls the deceased Mary McGregor "stupid." And, of course, she also calls out Miss Brodie on her romantic delusions.
  • The Bully: Sandy and the other Brodie girls initially bully Mary behind Miss Brodie's back. However, after Mary tells them she has seen Miss Brodie and Teddy Lloyd kissing, she is fully accepted by them.
  • Composite Character:
    • The film removes Joyce and Rose, giving their storylines to Mary and Jenny. Monica is also merged with Eunice. Mary meanwhile gets to be the one who sees Jean and Teddy kissing instead of Monica.
    • Miss Gaunt becomes combined with the Kerr sisters, who investigate Miss Brodie against her will. As does Miss Lockhart, taking the Kerr sisters' roles as the one who doesn't disapprove of Miss Brodie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Miss Brodie, Teddy Lloyd and Sandy all have a knack for devastating put downs.
  • Dean Bitterman: Downplayed. Miss McKay is strict, unimaginative and fixated on duty. She is also correct about Miss Brodie's recklessness, however, and the harm it ultimately causes.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Sandy has bobbed hair at the start of the film. As she gets older and wiser, her hair grows longer. It's past shoulder-length by the end.
  • Fiery Redhead:
    • Jean Brodie - red haired and determined. She's quite quick to fire up at the headmistress.
    • Averted with Jenny, a pretty but unremarkable favorite of Miss Brodie who ludicrously describes her as "primitive and free."
  • Four Girl Ensemble: With the set down to four girls in the film, they fall into these roles initially. Mary is the childish one, Jenny the pretty one, Monica the mannish one and Sandy the wise one. But eventually Mary's naivete gets her killed, Jenny doesn't become a great lover as Miss Brodie predicted and Sandy has an affair with Teddy and betrays Miss Brodie.
  • Full-Name Basis: Mary McGregor is usually referred to by her full name, especially by Jean Brodie. Lampshaded by Sandy when she tells Miss Brodie that this was probably because she had trouble remembering who Mary was.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Sweet and naive Mary has her hair always in pigtails.
  • The Ghost:
    • Mary's delinquent brother who never appears on-screen. He provides motivation for Mary to run off to Spain and eventually get killed.
    • Teddy Lloyd's wife Deirdre. She appears in the book, where Sandy has tea at her house, but is offscreen in the film.
  • Having a Gay Old Time : An in-universe example. The Brodie girls (except for naive Mary) break down laughing at the words "the curse" in the Tennyson poem "The Lady of Shallot." Possibly inverted with modern viewers who may not know "the curse" is a dated euphemism for menstruation.
  • Heroic BSOD: This happens to Miss Brodie. Reality and circumstance begin to break down Jean's carefully-constructed and tightly-held romantic delusions, causing her to come to a psychological breaking point and dissolve into tears in front of her class - Jenny, who is Dante Gabriel Rossetti? Who is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jenny!?...Clara.
  • High School Dance: Featuring a gramophone, a punch bowl, dozens of senior girls in white dresses, beige stockings and black heels, but no males except for a handful of male teachers.
  • Hufflepuff House: With the Brodie Set down to four girls, Sandy has her place as Jean's most trusted girl, Jenny is the one to be painted by Teddy, Mary is The Woobie who gets killed and Monica has no role whatsoever. Possibly for this reason, Jean first assumes that Monica is the one who betrayed her.
  • Lighter and Softer: The character Jean Brodie is somewhat toned down compared to how she was in the novel. In the book she continually bullies Mary and is a fan of Hitler as as well as Mussolini.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: The wealthy orphan Mary [McGregor.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The ending shot shows Sandy walking down the street, tears slowly falling down her face. It implies she knows that betraying Jean was a Necessary Evil, but she still feels guilt over it.
  • Not So Different: Miss Brodie and her nemesis Sandy are both rigid and judgmental.
  • Replacement Gold Fish: A whole bowl of them.
    • Teddy Lloyd is a stand-in for Miss Brodie's first love, Hugh, who died during the Great War (although it's possible he is only a figment of her romantic imagination). Despite a genuine attraction to Teddy, however, Jean refuses to get involved with him and uses Mr. Lowther as a substitute.
    • Miss Brodie appoints her favorite girl Jenny (red-haired like herself) to be her proxy as far as Teddy Lloyd is concerned (bluntly lampshaded when he accuses her of trying to put Jenny in his bed in her place). When Jenny is no longer in her class, she chooses Clara, also red-haired, to replace Jenny, and even confuses the two of them when she has an emotional breakdown in class.
    • Mr Lowther when he tires of being strung alone by Miss Brodie transfers his interested to Miss Lockhart, the chemistry teacher.
    • Teddy Lloyd uses Sandy as a substitute model and lover for Miss Brodie, much to her hurt and anger when she catches on.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sandy to Brodie.
  • Skewed Priorities: Sandy calls Jean out on this towards the end, where she worries about things in this order - a) someone has betrayed her, b) who will be her proxy in Teddy's love affair, and c) Mary's death.
    "Are you aware of the order of importance in which you place your anxieties?"
  • Tall, Dark and Snarky: Teddy Lloyd is this to Jean's Wide-Eyed Idealist. Later, Sandy becomes this to Teddy Lloyd; true of the book in a lesser extent.
  • Tears of Remorse: Sandy's silent weeping at the end could be construed as this.
  • Think of the Children!: Sandy tells Miss Brodie that she is "not good for children." To some extent she is sincere here—shortly before she spoke to Miss McKay she made note of how Miss Brodie had another impressionable young girl, Clara, under her sway. But Sandy is also resentful of Miss Brodie's favoritism towards Jenny and Teddy Lloyd's love for Miss Brodie.
  • Turn Coat - Sandy. She has her reasons, however.
  • The Voiceless: Miss Gaunt, the mousy but rather sinister secretary of Miss McKay who enlists her in her effort to bring down Miss Brodie.

Alternative Title(s): The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

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