In her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark brings to life an eccentric, egocentric, and charming teacher in a private Edinburgh school during the 1930s. Miss Brodie’s six students, known collectively as “the Brodie set,” move through the grades. Miss Brodie sabotages school curriculum as she grandstands her own passions, both personal and academic. She colludes with her students regarding her status in the school and trouble she has with the headmistress. Miss Brodie is memorable for these students, recalled in their later lives, as repeated flash-forwards reveal.
Indeed, it is in putting this 1930s story in personal and historical perspective that some of its darker meaning emerges. In the pre–World War II days, autocratic, orderly, and foolish Miss Brodie is infatuated with Mussolini and Hitler. Inclined to think of herself as European, Miss Brodie praises fascism, her very taste for it a sign of her cultivation. Deluded by the appeal of absolute domination, with its apparent order and efficiency, Miss Brodie forgets that each person, however low and powerless, is a human being with rights. In her ridicule of Mary Macgregor, in her irresponsible direction to Joyce Emily Hammond to go off and fight for Franco, and in her attempt to sexually manipulate Rose Stanley, Miss Brodie sets morality aside and denies the humanity of her students. Mary’s death in a fire in 1943 connects this denial to the greater obscenity occurring at the same time on the Continent in the death camps. In sum, readers are at first charmed and amused, and then jolted into pondering the serious, indeed dangerous, side of this nostalgic portrait of the 1930s and pubescent childhood.