Discussion location: The Rope Walk (it’s becoming a favourite, good value ham & eggs, lots of space for discussions)

Chosen by: Susan

Reason for choice: Has read it every decade, starting as a teenager (loved it and wanted to be one of Miss Brodie’s girls), interested to see how opinion had changed.

Most members ever attended, 11/12!


Since its publication in The New Yorker in 1961, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has become a British classic; making Time magazine’s Top 100 English-language novels (1923-present) and earning Spark international fame.  However, when the Chair opened with “It’s a book!”, and somebody (possibly me) stated that it was more of a pamphlet, one could guess what type of discussion was going to ensue.

Set primarily in the 1930s, the novella spans several decades in the lives of an Edinburgh teacher at a girl’s school, Miss Jean Brodie, and her select group of girls, known as the ‘Brodie set’, who are ten years old when the novel commences.  The story focuses on Miss Brodie’s unusual teachings, such as her unconventional view of history; her love affairs with fellow teachers Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd; and her effect on the lives of the girls, in which one of them eventually betrays Brodie.

Although this sets an interesting premise, any sense of intrigue was destroyed as, within the opening three pages, Spark had told the reader the end of the novel – Brodie’s betrayal. This alone would not have been a complete failure if the purpose of the novel was to elucidate the rationale for the betrayal, but the novel utterly failed to explain Sandy’s reason for betraying Miss Brodie, and why it was Sandy, rather than one of the other girls.

Moreover, the novel included much repetition of lines like “Rose who was famous for sex”, without really explaining the rationale behind such statements. Throughout the novel, Spark merely scratched the surface, creating some interest and then failing to fulfil it by delving deeper. Where there could have been a potential story, such as the character’s motivations and respective stories, this was unfulfilled; one cannot help but think, due to the diminutive length of the novel, which prevented character development and left a frustrating lack of depth.

I hear you thinking that we’ve moaned about length before (no jokes please!) – it’s not that we are necessarily a group of people who prefer a long novel, but that a writer must really be selective and highly focused to enable the reader to get lost in an 127-page novel, which Spark failed to do. Furthermore, by merit of its subject, we could not help but compare it to more recent novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, where a similar premise has been expanded so much that one feels the characters are literally part of their own life.

Sadly, the length of the novel only allows for a few of ‘the set’ to be explored in any depth, such as Rose and Sandy, and so there seemed little point including so many girls without really developing their characters. Some theatre adaptations have chosen to condense the cast into fewer characters; adding more depth of character by combining the traits of the girls.

This aside, the novel does take time to fully describe the character of the protagonist, Brodie.  At the outset, the reader, like the girls, is spellbound by Brodie and her avant-garde teachings.  In resisting popular thought, she places herself amongst the forerunners of women’s rights.  However, as the novel progresses, Brodie is exposed as a manipulative, arrogant, self-obsessed woman who lives through her pupils. Moreover, instead of a revolutionary, she is shown to be a fascist, enforcing her opinions on impressionable minds; and at the moment of her betrayal, the pity was for the girls who successfully made it through Brodie’s set, rather than for Brodie herself.

Despite the previous criticisms, the novel did have some redeeming features; the beautiful descriptions of ghostly Edinburgh, the identifiable recollections of school cliques, favourite teachers etc; the enjoyable notion of Brodie making her girls always answer her in full sentences and some subtleties in the reflective writing style.  Moreover, it ‘sparked’ (see what I did there?) some interesting discussions around the notion of one’s “prime” and when exactly that is, if you are aware being in it, and what we would have been ‘famous for’ at school.

Ultimately, the length of the novel and lack of explanation left us with too many unresolved questions and no real understanding of the purpose of the book, other than a romanticised memory; though the highly visual descriptions meant it would be easily imaginable, and probably more enjoyable, as a film or play.  Granted, Spark has paved the way for later ‘unconventional teacher with select group of students’ novels, but aside from its place in history, we failed to see why this ‘classic’ has endured.

Overall rating: 4/10 – Sorry Muriel.

Plot synopsis

In 1930s Edinburgh, Miss Jean Brodie is the teacher of six ten-year old girls, Sandy, Rose, Mary, Monica, Jenny and Eunice; who are selected by her and are known as the “Brodie Set”. Brodie is an unconventional teacher, giving her students lessons in personal life, art history and fascism; leading ‘the set’ to be well known throughout the school.  However, we are aware that one of the set will eventually betray Brodie, leading to her losing her job as a teacher.

Miss Brodie becomes involved in a love triangle with fellow teachers, Mr Gordon Lowther, the music teacher, and Mr Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher and handsome, one-armed war veteran who is married with six children. Both teachers are in love with Miss Brodie, who is in love with Mr Lloyd but does not engage in an affair with him, other than one kiss; and does engage in an affair with Mr Lowther as he is a bachelor.  Sandy becomes obsessed with Brodie’s involvement with Mr Lloyd and Mr Lowther and imagines herself as a police officer seeking evidence regarding their affairs.  Headmistress, Miss Mackay encourages the girls to betray Brodie’s unusual politics so they can dismiss her.

The girls, now aged 12, move on to senior school where Miss Brodie maintains contact with them by inviting them to her house and continuing to mentor them.  The girls also visit Mr Lowther’s house, where Miss Brodie asks them about Mr Lloyd, despite Mr Lowther being present.  Mr Lloyd asks Rose to sit for a portrait, however each of his portraits look like Miss Brodie. On one of these occasions, Mr Lloyd kisses Sandy.  Miss Brodie decides that Sandy will be her confidante as she is the most trustworthy, and that Rose will have an affair with Mr Lloyd as she is the most attractive.  As she neglects Mr Lowther, he marries Miss Lockhart, the science teacher.

Now seventeen, the Brodie set separate; Eunice becomes a nurse, Mary a typist , Monica a scientist and Jenny leaves school to become an actress and Rose marries a handsome man.  Joyce Emily, who attempted to join the Brodie set is encouraged by Miss Brodie to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and is killed.  Eighteen year old Sandy, fascinated by psychology and Mr Lloyd’s obsession with Miss Brodie, embarks on a five week affair with him whilst his family are on holiday.

Although Sandy is not really interested in Mr Lloyd, she is interested in his love for Miss Brodie and his religion. She leaves him, betrays Miss Brodie as a fascist to Miss Mackay and becomes a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and author of a book on psychology.  In her dying minutes, Miss Brodie fathoms that it was Sandy who betrayed her; and Sandy tells a young man asking about her book and her influences, that she was mainly influenced by Miss Brodie.