The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Summary

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel by Muriel Spark, first published in 1961.

  • The novel is set in 1930s Edinburgh and tells the story of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, and her relationships with her pupils.
  • Miss Brodie is a controversial figure, and the girls in her class are divided in their opinions of her. Some, like Sandy Stranger, are devoted to her, while others, like Jenny Gray, are more skeptical.
  • A new student, Joyce Emily Hammond, dies after leaving to fight in the Spanish Civil War at Miss Brodie’s suggestion. Miss Brodie is later fired for her fascist leanings.

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Last Updated February 22, 2024.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel by Scottish writer Muriel Spark, first published in 1961. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s, it centers on schoolteacher Miss Jean Brodie and her relationship with the "Brodie set," six girls she deems to be the "crème de la crème" of her class at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. The set includes Monica Douglas, Rose Stanley, Eunice Gardiner, Sandy Stranger, Jenny Gray, and Mary Macgregor.

The novel alternates between the past and the present, circling the question of which one of the girls "betrayed" Miss Brodie. It begins with a group of boys, aged sixteen at this time, talking to the Brodie set. Miss Brodie comes along and dismisses the boys, sharing with the girls the school's latest ploy to force her to resign.

Six years prior, Miss Brodie first gathers the girls and starts imposing upon them an unconventional education. Apart from topics such as the arts, theater, and politics, she also discusses her personal life with them. Once, she tells them about how her fiance, Hugh Carruthers, had perished in World War I.

Miss Brodie leads her students on an exciting tour of Edinburgh's cultural landmarks, ignoring the unemployment lines and praising Mussolini for eradicating such issues in Italy. She criticizes headmistress Miss Mackay's conventional education approach, advocating instead for awakening the innate talents within her students. 

On Sandy's tenth birthday, she has Jenny over for tea. The two are secretly working on "The Mountain Eyrie," a fantastical piece of fiction about Miss Brodie and her deceased fiance. Sandy has an overactive imagination, often conjuring make-believe scenarios to keep herself from getting bored.

The headmistress, Miss Mackay, and most of the staff resent Miss Brodie's unconventional methods. However, two teachers are her vocal supporters—the singing master, Mr. Gordon Lowther, and the one-armed art master, Mr. Teddy Lloyd. Once, Monica alleges seeing Mr. Lloyd and Miss Brodie kissing in the art room. Sandy and the rest of the set find this news exciting and scandalous, as Mr. Lloyd is married with six children.

In late autumn, a supposed ailment forces Miss Brodie to miss school for two weeks. However, when the Brodie set attempts to visit her at home, they find no one there. Sandy and Jenny surmise that Miss Brodie has entered a romance with Mr. Lowther, who lives alone in a mansion in Cramond.

Upon entering their senior year, the girls take the "classical" side over "modern" at the behest of Miss Brodie. This annoys Miss Mackay, who starts trying to win the girls' trust to gain incriminating information on the schoolteacher.

At the end of the Easter holidays, a man exposes himself to Jenny at the Leith River. However, Sandy convinces her not to tell Miss Brodie about the incident. They complete another fictional piece—this time, about Miss Brodie's love affair with Mr. Lowther—and bury the notebook behind a cave.

Even though they are now seniors, the girls continue to see Miss Brodie on Saturdays. She enlists two of them to relay their Greek lessons to her. However, these lessons are soon halted when Miss Brodie takes over the duties of Mr. Lowther's housekeepers, the Kerr sisters.

Insisting that the sisters are starving Mr. Lowther, Miss Brodie fattens him up through homecooked meals over a few weeks. Ellen Kerr is eventually brought to the headmistress to testify that she had found Miss Brodie's nightdress under Mr. Lowther's pillow. However, they lack further evidence to indict her of any inappropriate behavior.

The girls are invited to Mr. Lowther's house in pairs, where Miss Brodie questions them about Mr. Lloyd's classes. She is excited to learn that the art master has been painting a portrait of Rose in his home studio. Once the portrait is finished, Sandy exclaims that it is reminiscent of Miss Brodie. When she insinuates to Mr. Lloyd that she knows about his feelings for Miss Brodie, he suddenly kisses her.

Miss Brodie's trust in Sandy grows, praising her as having natural "insight" while Rose has "instinct." Sandy realizes that Miss Brodie expects Rose to become Mr. Lloyd's lover and her the informant. This preoccupation with Mr. Lloyd causes Miss Brodie to neglect Mr. Lowther for months. As a result, the latter turns his sights to Miss Lockhart, the science teacher, and marries her.

The school holds a remembrance service for Joyce Emily Hammond, a new student Miss Brodie had taken under her wing. She had run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War when the train she was traveling in was attacked.

After graduating from school, Sandy and Rose continue to sit for Mr. Lloyd's portraits. During the summer, while Mr. Lloyd's family is away in the country, he and Sandy become embroiled in a five-week love affair. Contrary to Miss Brodie's plans, Sandy becomes the art master's lover and Rose the informant. Miss Brodie chastises Sandy for this but is pleased to learn that Mr. Lloyd's paintings still resemble her.

At one point, Miss Brodie reveals to Sandy that she had urged Joyce Emily to go to Spain and fight for Franco. This information motivates Sandy to give Miss Mackay what she has been fishing for—a reason to fire Miss Brodie. After she tells her about Miss Brodie's fascist political leanings, the headmistress forces Miss Brodie to retire, disclosing that it was one of her girls who betrayed her.

Miss Brodie writes to Sandy that she is not sure which one of her girls betrayed her—a question that will haunt her until her death. Meanwhile, Sandy enters the Catholic Church and becomes Sister Helena. She eventually publishes a psychological treatise entitled The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Its success leads to her receiving many visitors at the nunnery. When one of them asks about her influences, she answers, "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."

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