Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Go To

"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:

  • All of the Other Reindeer: Joyce Emily Hammond is disliked by the Brodie set for having a different uniform and expensive allowance.
  • 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.
  • Advertisement:
  • Butt-Monkey: Mary Macgregor is bullied by everyone in the Brodie set, including Miss Brodie herself.
  • 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."
  • Cute Clumsy Girl: Mary is described as clumsy but it endears her to the others.
  • 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.
  • Fascist Italy: Where Miss Brodie takes her summer holidays.
  • Fix Fic: Sandy and Jenny write their own version of Miss Brodie's story, where Hugh returns.
  • Foil: Miss Lockhart for Miss Brodie. Whereas Miss Brodie has her set of preferred students, Miss Lockhart sees all of hers equally. Miss Brodie is all about art and culture, while Miss Lockhart is about science and study. Miss Lockhart is who Mr Lowther ultimately picks.
  • The Fool: Mary is at first not allowed to study the classics because of her poor grades. Miss Mackay lets her study Latin in exchange for information on Miss Brodie. But Mary is too clueless to understand what she wants.
  • 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.
  • Having a Gay Old Time: Subverted. Teddy says Miss Brodie is "a bit queer", but Sandy does suspect that her teacher could be a lesbian.
  • Heel Realization: Years later all the girls (Miss Brodie included) regret how they bullied Mary.
  • 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?
  • Never My Fault: Miss Brodie never once considers that she's responsible for the terrible things that happen on her watch.
  • 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.
  • Oblivious to Love: The Brodie set realise that both Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd fancy Miss Brodie before she herself does.
  • One-Gender School: As such, the girls fantasise about the two male teachers rather than students.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: And how.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: It's said that the Brodie set have little in common with each other.
  • 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.
  • Tag Along Kid: Joyce Emily, a new transfer student, who follows the Brodie set around.
  • Taking the Veil: Sandy converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Mr Lloyd is this, and Mr Lowther wonders if this is why Jean Brodie won't marry him.
  • 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.
  • Third-Option Love Interest: Teddy is married to a woman called Deirdre but has unresolved sexual tension with Jean Brodie. Then Sandy has an affair with him too. Jean was planning for Rose to fill this role.
  • 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 Mackay 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.
    • Sandy never attempts to get Teddy fired or punished in any way for having affairs with his students. In the book Sandy has dinner at his house, where she meets his wife Deirdre and their daughters - and it's implied she doesn't confess the affair out of sympathy for them. They don't feature in the film, and Sandy's personality is much more forceful, making it a little odd that she'd betray Jean to get her fired but not Teddy.
      • Sandy does not see Teddy as dangerous, but rather as a sap who was bewitched by Jean. She has no more problem with him having affairs with his students than Jean does—what she does have a problem with is Teddy preferring Jean to her. She gets back at him for this by calling him a mediocre painter, and moves on.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Sandy is much more confident and forceful in the film than she is in the book.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Sandy confronts Jean after she is fired and calls her out, before walking out of her life forever. In the book Jean never finds out who betrays her, Sandy remains at her side until her death in 1940 and she later becomes a nun.
  • 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 Mackay 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.
    • The girls accept Mary into the fold immediately and, although they bully her, she properly becomes part of the group after she sees Jean and Teddy kissing. In the book Joyce Emily (who Mary is combined with) is hated immediately and never properly becomes part of the group. Mary is part of the group in the book but is bullied the whole time.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Sandy's betrayal of Jean in the film appears to be partially motivated by jealousy, and she calls her out epically for it, giving her a "Reason You Suck" Speech towards the end. In the book, she remains at Jean's side until her death, and Jean never finds out who betrays her.
  • 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.
  • 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 Mackay is strict, unimaginative and fixated on duty. She is also correct about Miss Brodie's recklessness, however, and the harm it ultimately causes.
  • Death by Adaptation: While Mary does die in the book, it's much later in life in her twenties. Here she dies in the third act after attempting to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Jean Brodie's is to dismiss a Girl Guide who starts talking about her achievements, and to focus on Mary.
  • 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.
  • The Glasses Gotta Go: Sandy removes her glasses while she's romancing Teddy.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Jean actually when she discovers that Mr Lowther might be romancing Miss Lockhart.
  • 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.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: An almost literal example. Sandy runs to Jean's house with news of Mary's death and bangs frantically on the door. Jean, who had been in the shower, does not hear her and Sandy is gone by the time she comes to the door. This serves as the final time Sandy goes to Jean for help, and she betrays her shortly afterwards.
  • 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, crepe streamers, 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.
  • Hot Scientist: Miss Lockhart is the chemistry teacher and eventually marries Mr Lowther.
  • 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.
  • Intimate Open Shirt: Teddy Lloyd wears his shirt like this in his studio where he paints Jean, and later has an affair with Sandy.
  • 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. The other girls are in shock when they hear how much money she gets from the bank.
  • 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.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Pamela Franklin's Scottish accent slips in her climactic scene with Jean. Especially the line "you professed to be a great admirer of conquerors". There is a slight justification if you go by the book - where Sandy's mother is English - explaining why she might have a few English phrases in there too.
  • 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. The Hugh character certainly seems more like a fiction in the film, with every description of him reflecting Lowther and Lloyd, since Brodie seems quite youthful (Smith being 35) to have really been having a long full blown affair with someone in 1917.
    • 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 along 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. It is hinted in the school dance seen that Monica may be Teddy's next substitute for Miss Brodie.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sandy dishes them out both to Teddy Lloyd and Jean Brodie after she's betrayed her.
  • 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?"
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Jean Brodie's death is not covered in the film. This is due to the film ending with Sandy finishing school, and Miss Brodie does not die until the 1940s.
  • 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 Mackay 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 betrays Jean after Mary has gotten killed and she's seen Teddy for who he really is.
  • The Voiceless: Miss Gaunt, the mousy but rather sinister secretary of Miss Mackay who enlists her in her effort to bring down Miss Brodie.

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


Example of: