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56 pages 1 hour read

Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) is a novel by Scottish writer Muriel Spark. It explores the relationship between a group of six female students and their eccentric teacher, Jean Brodie, over the course of roughly 15 years. Using nonlinear narrative techniques, including flashbacks and flash forwards, the novel examines the influence of adults on adolescents, particularly in the context of their sexual and spiritual development. Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s and early 1940s, it also incorporates contemporary European political and social issues—particularly the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler—as it questions the nature of power and knowledge.

This guide refers to the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition (2018).

Content Warning: This guide refers to scenes involving sexual assault, grooming of students, and support for fascist ideologies.

Plot Summary

In 1936, a group of six students at the Marcia Blaine Day School for Girls in Edinburgh has formed a close relationship with their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie has been the girls’ teacher since 1930 and considers them her “special set,” aiming to influence them at an impressionable age. The girls are notorious for their relationship with Miss Brodie, and each girl has a distinct personality and set of interests. Sandy Stranger has a beautiful reading voice and unusually small eyes; Rose Stanley is a blond tomboy famous for being sexually alluring; Eunice Gardiner is a skilled swimmer and gymnast; Monica Douglas, a prefect, is known for her temper and her skill in science and mathematics; Jenny Gray is a graceful aspiring actress; and Macy Macgregor, awkward and shy, is the group’s scapegoat. The group is often followed by Joyce Emily Hammond, who is new to the school and has struggled with behavioral problems.

Miss Brodie frequently deviates from the school’s approved curriculum, praising Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and taking vacations to Italy in the summer. Miss Brodie shares romanticized stories about her late fiancé, Hugh, who was killed during World War I. The school headmistress, Miss Mackay, sees the class crying during a story about Hugh, but the girls claim that Miss Brodie was only lecturing about history. Miss Brodie praises their silence, telling them she will make them the crème de la crème. This effort will be part of what Miss Brodie calls her “prime,” although she does not clarify what this term encompasses.

In a flash forward, the narrative reveals that Mary will be killed in a hotel fire at the age of 23.

Back in 1930, 10-year-old Sandy and Jenny have a tea party for Sandy’s birthday. They talk about Miss Brodie’s prime and agree that she is superior to their parents because she has never been married or had sex. They work on a fictional story they have been writing about Miss Brodie and Hugh. They agree not to publish the story until they are in their own primes.

In class, Miss Brodie teaches “The Lady of Shalott,” a medieval-inspired poem written in 1832 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The girls attend music lessons taught by Mr. Lowther, a small man with red-gold hair who often touches Rose’s hair during class. Notably, Miss Brodie attends music lessons with them. The girls also enjoy getting ink on their blouses intentionally so that they can visit Miss Lockhart, the science teacher, who removes the ink. Miss Lockhart is beautiful, calm, and practical. By 1931, Miss Brodie has chosen her special set and starts bringing them to her house for tea. She tells them to keep their conversations secret.

In a flash forward to 28 years later, Eunice, now a nurse, tells her husband about Miss Brodie. She wants to visit Miss Brodie’s grave when they are in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie died right after World War II, having been fired from the school when a member of her special group betrayed her to the administration. Eunice says Miss Brodie never found out who betrayed her.

Back in 1931, Miss Brodie takes the girls on a walk to Edinburgh’s Old Town; the girls are shocked at the poverty and violence they see. The group approaches St. Giles’ Cathedral but does not enter. Miss Brodie has been asking them about religion more frequently. Miss Brodie tells Sandy and Rose that she has been called to Miss Mackay’s office on Monday and is sure her educational methods will be questioned. She says Miss Mackay cannot fire her unless her methods are improper, and as long as the girls are minimally prepared for their exams, she is doing her job. Sandy decides not to go to Miss Brodie’s with the others and instead goes home to add another chapter to the story about Miss Brodie and Hugh. In a flash forward, the narrative reveals that Sandy will become a Roman Catholic nun and take the name Sister Helena of the Transfiguration.

At the beginning of the school year in 1931, Miss Brodie tells the students about her summer travels to Rome and London, continuing her praise of Mussolini. When Miss Mackay comes in to remind them that they must all do well because they will be moving up to senior school the following year, Miss Brodie is annoyed. She later removes apples from her desk to share with the students, a discreet gift from Mr. Lowther, and urges them all to stay quiet about it.

While most of the teachers at Marcia Blaine do not like Miss Brodie, the only two male teachers, Mr. Lowther and the senior art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, have begun competing for her affection. They are both handsome men with red-gold hair, but Mr. Lloyd is married with six children and lost an arm during World War I. Miss Brodie attends art classes with the students, where Mr. Lloyd often lectures about Italian paintings. The girls giggle when he highlights female body parts during his lectures, leading Miss Brodie to call them uncultured. One day, Monica claims to have seen Miss Brodie and Mr. Lloyd kissing in the art room, and the other girls—especially Sandy—question her about it, unwilling to believe that it could be true. They also notice that Miss Brodie is agitated during Mr. Lowther’s singing classes, finally asking Monica if she might have seen Miss Brodie kissing Mr. Lowther, which Monica denies angrily. In a flash forward, Monica visits Sandy at the convent, and Sandy tells Monica that after they graduated Miss Brodie confessed that she had indeed been kissing Mr. Lloyd. Miss Brodie says he was the love of her life, but she could not be with him because he was married.

Miss Brodie suddenly goes on leave for two weeks, allegedly to recover from an illness. The girls learn that Mr. Lowther is also on leave at the same time, and Miss Gaunt, a substitute teacher, hints that Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther have the same ailment. When both teachers return, the girls believe Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther are in love. Miss Mackay asks the girls if they plan to join the Modern side or the Classical side of the senior school. Miss Brodie prefers the Classical side and all the girls except Eunice choose that path. Mary, however, does not have the grades to join the Classical side. Miss Mackay also questions the girls about their relationship with Miss Brodie and her teaching methods. They answer obliquely and report back to Miss Brodie about the conversations.

In another flash forward, Miss Brodie tells Sandy that although she was in love with Mr. Lloyd, she had an affair with Mr. Lowther. She speculates about who betrayed her, and Sandy becomes bored with the conversation, as she was the one who betrayed Miss Brodie.

During the Easter holidays of 1931, a man exposes himself to Rose while she is walking along a local river. A female policewoman questions Rose, and although Sandy never meets the policewoman, she becomes obsessed with her. Sandy tells Rose not to tell Miss Brodie about the assault. During the group’s last few months in junior school, Miss Brodie adds details to her stories about Hugh. Sandy and Rose finish their story about Miss Brodie, writing an ending in which she has sex with Mr. Lowther. They hide the story in a cave and never return for it.

In 1932, the Brodie set moves up to senior school. Miss Mackay continues plotting against Miss Brodie, allowing Mary to take Latin in exchange for reporting on Miss Brodie’s activities, but Mary does not understand the arrangement. Miss Mackay splits up the Brodie set by assigning them to different houses within the school. However, they stay loyal to Miss Brodie, still visiting her flat. Sandy and Rose remain interested in Miss Brodie’s personal life. Miss Brodie tells them she has arranged for the Kerr sisters, two spinsters, to work as Mr. Lowther’s housekeepers. Afraid of losing her influence over the girls, she has Jenny and Sandy teach her Greek on Saturday afternoons and spends Sundays at Mr. Lowther’s home, where she supervises the Kerr sisters.

By spring of 1933, Miss Brodie has become convinced that the Kerrs are not preparing enough food for Mr. Lowther, so she starts spending Saturdays there as well, cooking him enormous meals. She invites the girls over in pairs, where she drills them about Mr. Lloyd’s art classes. They reveal that he has begun inviting them to his home studio to sit for portraits, though Rose has been sitting for Mr. Lloyd more than anyone else. Miss Brodie asks for details about Mr. Lloyd’s home life and then tells them about her upcoming trip to Germany and Austria.

Two years later, Sandy tells Mr. Lloyd that his portraits of Rose all look like Miss Brodie. She is spending more time at the Lloyd house and becomes friendly with Deirdre Lloyd. One day, Mr. Lloyd kisses Sandy roughly, then tells her as she recoils that she does not have to be afraid of him because she is ugly. Miss Brodie continues her casual relationship with Mr. Lowther and steadfastly refuses to marry him. Ellen Kerr finds Miss Brodie’s nightgown under Mr. Lowther’s pillow, and he is forced to leave the school. By the summer of 1935, Miss Brodie has begun to make a plan involving Sandy and Rose. She encourages Rose to keep modeling for Mr. Lloyd. Sandy becomes increasingly interested in religion. She realizes that Miss Brodie wants Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover and Sandy to reveal it. In a flash forward, the narrative reveals that Sandy will become his lover and Rose will reveal it.

Meanwhile, Miss Mackay encourages Miss Brodie to teach at a different school. Miss Brodie refuses. Sandy knows that Miss Brodie has stopped having sex with Mr. Lowther, despite Miss Brodie’s claims that she could marry Mr. Lowther if she wanted. At the end of the term, however, Mr. Lowther and Miss Lockhart become engaged. Miss Mackay keeps interrogating the girls about Miss Brodie, but they do not share anything.

Joyce Emily Hammond arrives at Marcia Blaine. She has been kicked out of other schools for behavioral issues. She wants to join the Brodie set because they are the most infamous group at Marcia Blaine, but they are not interested in her. Joyce Emily tells Miss Brodie that her brother was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War and she wants to volunteer too. She soon disappears, and the students learn that she went to Spain and was killed when her train was attacked.

The Brodie girls finish school and go their separate ways. Miss Brodie tells Sandy that Rose will inevitably become Teddy Lloyd’s lover, and Sandy realizes Miss Brodie sees herself as a godlike figure. Rose, however, shakes off Miss Brodie’s influence quickly. In the summer of 1938, Miss Brodie goes to Germany and Austria while Rose and Sandy keep visiting Mr. Lloyd at his home studio. After Deirdre Lloyd takes the children on vacation, Sandy and Mr. Lloyd start a sexual relationship. Miss Brodie returns and tells the girls how organized the Nazis are, claiming they will save the world. She is surprised to learn about Sandy and Mr. Lloyd’s relationship. After five weeks, Sandy loses interest in Mr. Lloyd. Miss Brodie reveals that she convinced Joyce Emily to go to Spain and fight on the pro-Franco, fascist side. Disgusted, Sandy tells Miss Mackay that Miss Brodie is a fascist, and the following year Miss Brodie is forced into retirement.

Miss Brodie writes to Sandy repeatedly for the next several years, wondering who betrayed her to Miss Mackay. The only person she does not suspect is Sandy. The rest of the girls in the group visit Sandy at the convent every summer, where they continue talking about Miss Brodie after the latter’s death in 1945. The novel ends with Sandy, now Sister Helena, telling a young male visitor that her greatest influence was Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

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By Muriel Spark