Novel published 1961, filmed 1969.
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life” is the maxim of Jean Brodie, a teacher, first, last and always, even if she doesn’t regard the curriculum with respect. Her girls will be the creme de la creme. Her problem, however, is that she is teaching at a very traditional school while she herself is unorthodox to the point of extremity. A spinster in 1930’s Edinburgh, she lost her fiance Hugh in the Great War. But Miss Brodie’s spinsterhood is not withering on the vine. She is in her prime and enjoying it, particularly with two of her fellow schoolmasters! Her indiscretions cannot be proven, however. The Brodie set (as her favourite pupils are called) is loyal and the Calvinist headmistress cannot gather the evidence to dismiss her on grounds of immorality. Until one day she is betrayed ……
The novel is full of drama: Miss Brodie vs the establishment of the Marcia Blane school for Girls; Miss Brodie’s love interests: Mr Lloyd, her true love but married and therefore he who- must-be-renounced; Mr Lowther, a bachelor in need of mothering. The maxims she impresses on her girls are many:
I am putting old heads on your young shoulders ….
It is well, when in difficulties, never to say a word, neither black or white. Speech is silver but silence is golden.
Saftety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.
Her liaisons a source of fascination to girls on the cusp of puberty. The conversations between her pupils are quite priceless as is a letter they write, ostensibly from Miss Brodie to her lover.
I was proud of giving myself to you when you came and took me in the bracken on Arthur’s Seat while the storm raged about us. … I may permit misconduct to occur again from time to time as an outlet because I am in my Prime.
However, there is a darker side to Miss Brodie’s alternative curriculum. She is a fascist, albeit a romantic one. Her holidays are spent in Italy/Germany and she returns from these enthusing about the systems and order she finds in these countries. It is this side of her character that leads to her undoing … and, which stops her from being entirely sympathetic in the reader’s eyes. Despite her liberalism and profound love for the arts, she is a control freak, a Calvinist god in her aspirations, seeking to influence her girls way beyond their time in her classroom …. and, like the fascist leaders she admires, her influence is not always benign.
Spark’s prose crackles with wit and satire. This gives the book a lightness which belies its darker undertones. I suspect that multiple readings will be rewarded with gems missed first time through.
My favourite paragraph from the very first page has nothing to do with Miss Brodie – describing the school uniform:
The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. But there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.
O happy days! Not 1930’s Edinburgh in my case, but 1970’s Blackburn. The hat was velour and bottle green and the variations with which it could be worn were amazing!
Dame Maggie Smith, as she now is, deservedly won an Oscar for her 1969 portrayal of Miss Jean Brodie. Muriel Spark co-wrote the screen play and, while there are significant differences from the novel, those changes intensify the action. The time span is condensed. The novel starts in 1930 and ends with Miss Brodie’s death. Miss Brodie is betrayed after her set has left the school. The film condenses the action into just 4 years. The Brodie set never leaves the school. The set is also reduced in number, the characters within amalgams of multiple personalities from the novel. Fabulously Miss Brodie’s one-liners remain. Her conflicts made explicit. The letter, which remains hidden in the novel, is discovered in the film and becomes a catalyst for an almighty confrontation between Miss Brodie and the headmistress, Miss MacKay. Maggie Smith playing an absolute blinder. So too does her then real-life husband, Robert Stephens, in his role as Brodie’s married lover, desperate for her to return to his arms.
But finally, back to the school uniform. The novel’s deep purple becomes a bland and boring grey in the film. The change made probably to emphasise the butterfly colours of Miss Brodie’s stylish wardrobe.
I couldn’t get hold of the film in the UK so I flew in a copy from the States for the princely sum of £5. Never was a fiver better spent.