Literature: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life..."

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:

  • 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.
  • Deceptive Disciple: Sandy.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • One-Gender School
  • 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:

  • Alone in a Crowd: Sandy, right at the end.
  • Because You Can Cope: I knew you would rise like a phoenix
  • Big "NO!": Assassin!
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fiery Redhead: Jean Brodie.
    • Averted with Jenny, a pretty but unremarkable favorite of Miss Brodie who ludicrously describes her as "primitive and free."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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