Likely Stories: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Feb 28, 2019

Wonderful story of a teacher who operates a bit off the beaten path.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies. 

I remember watching the film with Maggie Smith, and for some reason, years passed before I read the novel.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie arrived as a Christmas present, and I put all others aside.  My memories of the film have dimmed a bit, so I did find some interesting pieces of the novel.  As an English professor, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of an unconventional teacher.

Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.  She gathers a group of young girls and refers to them as the “Brodie Set.”  Spark writes, “By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth form, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking.  They had no team spirit and very little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Jean Brodie.  She still taught in the Junior department.  She was held in great suspicion” (2). 

The girls each had some aspect of their character for which they were famous as individuals.  Monica Douglas excelled at mathematics; Rose Stanley was famous for sex; Eunice Gardner, small, neat and famous for her gymnastics and swimming; Sandy Stranger was noted for her vowel sounds; Jenny Gray was admired for her speech; Mary Macgregor, the last member of the set, was as “a silent lump” and with her was Joyce Emily Hammond, a very rich girl and a delinquent.  Miss Jean referred to them as the “crème de la crème”  of the school.

Miss Brodie believed that, “Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science.  That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance” (25).  Spark continues, “This was the first winter of the two years that this class spent with Miss Brodie.  It had turned nineteen-thirty-one.  Miss Brodie had already selected her favorites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy, these parents being either too enlightened to complain or too unenlightened, or two awed by their good fortune in getting their girls’ education at endowed rates, or too trusting to question the value of what their daughters were at this school of sound reputation.  Miss Brodie’s special girls were taken home to tea and bidden not to tell the others, they were taken into her confidence, they understood her private life and her feud with the headmistress and the allies of the headmistress.  They learned what troubles in her career Miss Brodie encountered on their behalf.  ‘It was for the sake of you girls—my influence, now, in the years of my prime.’  This was the beginning of the Brodie Set” (25).  Some of the other teachers began plotting against Jean.

This story of the school, the faculty, administration, and struggles Miss Brodie faced, resemble some of the problems teachers face today.  As early, middle, and upper schools become increasingly under political influence, it is the students who suffer.   Muriel Spark’s story of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has lessons for all of us.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!