A Few Thoughts on a Maybe-Reread of Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1961)

Prime_Jean_BrodieIn a single sitting, I recently read (reread? I’m not sure, I might’ve read it years ago, but have no memory of it, so it might as well be a first read) Muriel Sparks’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Sparks’s satiric take on the cult of personality. Said personality is, of course, Miss Brodie, and yet, by the end, though Sparks pokes, prods, and lampoons her eponymous anti-heroine, might there be a hint of redemption, a nod to Miss Brodie’s transformative power? I’m not sure. In many ways, Miss Brodie is detestable: arrogant, self-important, snobbish, a fascist. This final Brodie fact indicts her and is her downfall. (BTW, if you’re keen on not reading about Brodie with spoilers, I’d stop here.)

Miss Brodie, character, is about the triumph of charisma over ethic; the novel posits the idea, however, that ethic should supplant charisma. Who to embody this idea than one of Miss Brodie’s own pupils, her ethical foil and betrayer, Sandy Stranger, she who was “merely notorious for her small, almost non-existent eyes” (7) and utterly devoid of charisma. Other pupils also make up the Brodie set, recipients of Miss Brodie’s brand of self-aggrandizement and self-mythologizing, but Sandy stands out. Mary McGregor, though minor, also stood out: she was “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame” (8). Miss Brodie was cruel to her, heaped scorn upon her. Mary’s existence is made more poignant by its brevity: as the lofty third-person narration tells us on several occasions: Mary, quite young, desperately perishes in a hotel fire.

Is Mary’s innocent, youthful sacrifice yet one more of Miss Brodie’s sins, like her admiration of Mussolini, dismissal of the rules and requirements of education: her use of her pupils’ attention to cultivate and water her self-defining myths? Yet, nobody comes out at the end of this novel looking terribly admirable. Not even Miss Brodie’s foil, Sandy, who takes the veil to become Sister Helena, famous for having written a book of psychology, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Even Miss Brodie, so larger-than-life, in the way of adults to children, to her ten-year-old pupils, is diminished, brought low, and by the end, appears a fatuous creature.

The novel, and indeed Miss Brodie’s characterization, makes much of her love life: her great love, Hugh who died in the Great War; her second great love, the school’s art master, who is alas, married. So, Miss Brodie settles on the music master, not worthy of marriage, but she takes him on as a “project.” And her love affairs and stories about her past love affairs take on mythic proportions for her Brodie set of girls. But as the girls grow and understand more of the world, Miss Brodie goes from Brobdingnagian to Lilliputian: her affairs, pathetic; her opinions, puerile. The damning, hinted at throughout, takes on distinct proportions about half way through with this passage:

Up to now, Miss Brodie’s visits to Mr. Lowther [the singing master] had taken place on Sundays. She always went to church on Sunday mornings, she had a rota of different denominations and sects which included the Free Churches of Scotland, the Established Church of Scotland, the Methodist and the Episcopalian churches and any other church outside the Roman Catholic pale which she might discover. Her disapproval of the Church of Rome was based on her assertions that it was a church of superstition … her attitude was a strange one, because she was by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church; possibly it could have embraced, even while it disciplined, her soaring and diving spirit, it might even have normalized her. But perhaps this was the reason that she shunned it … So she went round the various non-Roman churches instead … She was not in any doubt … that God was on her side whatever her course, and so she experienced no difficulty or sense of hypocrisy in worship while at the same time she went to bed with the singing master. Just as an excessive sense of guilt can drive people to excessive action, so was Miss Brodie driven to it by an excessive lack of guilt. (85)

This was a key passage about Miss Brodie: the reason for her attraction and the reasons behind her downfall. Out of an arrogance of the superiority of her judgement and mind, she rejected the Roman Catholic Church. And yet, the narrator seems to suggest, therein may have lay her, if not salvation, maybe the possible fulfillment of her personality’s nascent promise. There is something quite magnificent about Miss Brodie, but there is also much foolishness and lack of humility. The cult of personality tempered can turn to good. What good, we’ll never known.

It is only given to Sandy to recognize and act against, in an act of betrayal, Miss Brodie’s sin and, in the end, to offer her a kind of absolution, but only after Sandy herself is absolved by the giving up of the worldly life to peer through the grille of a nunnery. (It is no small detail that Sandy clutches the grille tightly, without serenity.) The above passage is followed by this retrospective realization on Sandy’s part:

The side-effects of this condition [Miss Brodie’s lack of guilt] were exhilarating to her special girls in that they in some way partook of the general absolution she had assumed to herself, and it was only in retrospect that they could see Miss Brodie’s affair with Mr. Lowther for what it was, that is to say, in a factual light. All the time they were under her influence she and her actions were outside the context of right and wrong. It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time Sandy has already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave. (85-86)

As in the novel’s conclusion, which I’ll discuss shortly, the narrative hand taketh and the narrative hand giveth: there is condemnation for both Brodie and Sandy. Miss Brodie’s self-“absolution” is transgressive, especially outside the pale of the church that could have given it and offered discipline and an arena to exercise her expansive personality, tempered by doctrine and ethos (and frequent confession 😉 The force of Miss Brodie’s personality is such that it can separate children from “the context of right and wrong” (86). In conversation with a colleague, she rightly asked what made Sandy betray Miss Brodie. I suspect it may have to do with Sandy’s “creeping vision of disorder”.

The powers that be, like the headmistress, sought to bring Miss Brodie down. Many a time, the dour authorities try to coax damning information out of Miss Brodie’s set. And because they focus on Miss Brodie’s sexual peccadillos, they fail. Because Miss Brodie’s sin isn’t sexual (that is mere dressing to her arrogant assertion that she is a moral universe unto herself). No, it’s politics that bring Miss Brodie down, her admiration for the fascisti of Italy. And it is an interesting indictment: Miss Brodie sees them as the height of reason and order and yet, it is Sandy’s sense of a “creeping disorder” that sends her on her Judas mission, her childish, independent discernment that the declaring of oneself as sole moral keeper and arbiter is a tumultuous vision. Time, however, and humility allay Sandy’s judgement, for didn’t she set herself as Miss Brodie’s judge and jury?

When Sandy betrays Miss Brodie, she has started to seek an understanding of things religious and moral. In this first phase of her movement towards the church, Sandy turns to Edinburgh’s Calvinist past:

… it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. … [the] belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died … he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

Sandy was unable to formulate these exciting propositions; nevertheless, she experienced them in the air she breathed, she sensed them in the curiously defiant way in which the people she knew broke the Sabbath, and she smelt them in the excesses of Miss Brodie in her prime. … In this oblique way, she began to sense what went to the makings of Miss Brodie who had elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more. (108-109)

Let us take a moment to laugh and bow before Sparks’s brilliant observational capacities and satiric genius. Later Sandy refers to Miss Brodie’s machinations as carrying a “whiff of sulphur” (109). Therein lies Sandy’s and the narrative thrust’s ambivalence: Miss Brodie’s self-selection to grace is foolhardy at best, hubristic at worst. It’s almost as if Sandy later recognized that salvation lies in the freedom to sin, even in an “erroneous sense of joy and salvation”, a self-immolating allure. 

Sandy grows to consider Miss Brodie with affection and the “whiff of sulphur” which she attributed to her is mitigated by a forgiving redemptive light:

Sandy felt warmly towards Miss Brodie at those times when she saw how she was misled … It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly, and she never felt more affection for her in her later years than when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly. (111)

Can this fond forgiving of a woman’s foolishness overlook her fascistic ethos? I’m not convinced. And neither is Sandy, cloistered, clutching the bars of her self-chosen discipline. In the novel’s final scene, an inquisitive young man comes to ask Sister Helena, aka Sandy, about her youthful influences, the ones that led her to her book of psychology, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace:

“What were the main influences of your school days, Sister Helena? Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?

Sandy said: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” (127-128)

Muriel Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961; the Penguin version, published in 1965. I read the Penguin Essentials edition, first published in 2012. All quotations taken from this latter version.

6 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on a Maybe-Reread of Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1961)

  1. You’re in my wheelhouse now with Muriel Spark. She’s such a great writer. Yet of all of Spark’s that books I’ve read, I never got around to Jean Brodie, her most well-known one. I think because I have a hard time with books where the main character is unlikeable. The one I always go back to for a reread is “A Far Cry from Kensington”. Oh how I love that book!

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    • It’s such a succinct book!!! She is quite unlikeable, but the writing is so brilliant, the characterization. I think you might have to read it. I think I’ll read more of her. I’ll see if I have A Far Cry …

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  2. It’s a long time since I read it, but your review definitely brings back the experience of doing so. I didn’t know much about it before I read it and was not expecting what I found. It was thought-provoking, but not a book I want to return to. I like to have at least one sympathetic character to root for and there really isn’t one in this, imo.

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    • I think I would read more Muriel Spark, but I don’t think I would reread Jean Brodie. There really isn’t anyone to not necessarily sympathize with, but at least find some thematic affinity. The more time passes from my reading of it, and the bedazzling effect of Spark’s prose, the less I like it.

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