The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Summary
by Muriel Spark

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Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

At issue in this short novel are two competing notions of education: the nonconformist individuality of Miss Jean Brodie’s set and the team spirit and school loyalty insisted upon by Miss Mackay, the headmistress of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. The story is told in multiple time frames so that the girls of the Brodie set can reflect back from a mature perspective upon the events of their school days.

Brodie believes that she has entered her “prime” in 1930, and this perception influences her teaching, which becomes all the more idiosyncratic and personal. She ignores the standard curriculum and teaches her students about art, culture, and politics in line with her own proclivities. After the Brodie set graduates into the senior school, she has two of her favorites, Jenny Gray and Sandy Stranger, teach her Greek “at the same time as they learned it.” She has a passion for culture and knowledge.

In later life, after her forced retirement, Brodie admits to Sandy that she fell in love with Teddy Lloyd, the art master, but did not become his mistress because he was a married man. Instead, she had an affair with the music master, Gordon Lowther, a bachelor, in 1931. Miss Mackay and the moral Miss Gaunt, another schoolmistress, have their suspicions about this affair and encourage the sewing mistresses, Miss Ellen and Miss Alison Kerr, to serve as Lowther’s housekeepers, so as to spy on him. Eventually, Miss Ellen finds Brodie’s nightgown under a pillow at Lowther’s house, and Miss Gaunt sees that Miss Mackay is promptly told, though Miss Ellen cannot prove that the nightgown belonged to Brodie. As a consequence of this evidence, however, Lowther loses his position as choirmaster at the church of Mr. Gaunt, Miss Gaunt’s brother.

During the 1933 school term, Sandy discovers that others of the Brodie set—Rose Stanley, Monica Douglas, and Eunice Gardiner—have been sitting as models for Teddy Lloyd and that all of them were drawn to resemble Brodie. Brodie will not enter into a clandestine affair with the married Lloyd, but two years later, she decides that Rose Stanley should become Lloyd’s lover.

In 1935, Brodie begins to confide in Sandy, who tells her that Lowther has been seen playing golf with Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Since Brodie has refused to marry him, Lowther proposes marriage to Miss Lockhart, and they are married between terms. With Lowther married, Brodie broods all the more over her romantic obsession with Lloyd.

In 1937, when the girls of the Brodie set are seventeen years old, Joyce Emily Hammond, who always wanted to join the Brodie set but was never quite accepted, leaves school and runs away to the Spanish Civil War. She is killed when the train on which she is riding is attacked. During the summer of 1938, Brodie visits Germany and Austria and is much impressed by Adolf Hitler’s leadership. While she is gone, Sandy has a five-week love affair with Teddy Lloyd. Discussing the affair later with her teacher and confidante, Sandy learns that Miss Brodie encouraged Joyce Emily to go to Spain to fight for Franco. In war as in love, Brodie permits her girls to live out her fantasies.

Outraged by this news, Sandy goes to Miss Mackay and gives her the justification for Brodie’s removal, not for her sexual behavior (any misconduct cannot be proved) but for her politics, explaining, “she’s a born Fascist.” Consequently, Brodie is forced to retire during the summer of 1939 on the grounds that she had been teaching Fascism. At the same time, Sandy converts to Roman Catholicism; later, she enters a convent to become Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.

Discouraged by her betrayal (but uncertain about which of the girls betrayed her), Brodie is now clearly past her prime. Much later in life she begins to gain the insight that she should have had earlier. Toward the end of the novel, Monica Douglas tells Sandy that before she died, Brodie suspected that Sandy had betrayed her, but one...

(The entire section is 3,688 words.)