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Jean Brodie is a fictional character in the Muriel Spark novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961); and in the play and 1969 film of the same name—both by Jay Presson Allen—which were based on the novel, but radically depart from it in the interest of theatre and poetic licence.
The character takes her name from the historical Jean Brodie (aka Jean Watt), common law wife or mistress of Willie Brodie—whom the fictional Miss Brodie claims as a direct ancestor; thus, she is the fictional namesake of the real Jean Brodie. The real Willie Brodie was indeed a cabinet-maker and fashioner of gibbets; he was a deacon of the Kirk o' Scotland; he did rob the Excise Office; and he was executed on a gibbet that he may indeed have designed himself.
Likewise, his fictional descendant—though much more human and likeable—may be described as ending up hoist by her own petard. The story of William and Jean Watt Brodie was preserved for posterity in the play Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life—A Melodrama in Five Acts and Eight Tableaux by W. E. Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson. The play opened at the Prince's Theatre in London on 2 July 1884, with Mr. E. J. Henley as Deacon William Brodie and Miss Minnie Bell as Jean. Mr. Henley reprised his performance at Montreal on 26 September 1887, this time with Miss Carrie Coote in the role of Jean Watt/Brodie.
In the novel, Miss Jean Brodie is a school teacher at Marcia Blaine, a conservative girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland. She is a charismatic spinster who appears to be out of place in her surroundings. In 1930, she declares that her prime has begun and sets out to make sure her class gets the full benefit of her Prime by making sure they are aware of drama, art and fascist beliefs. Out of her class she selects her favourite girls and attempts to mould them into the crème de la crème. In the novel, these are Sandy, Monica, Jenny, Eunice, Rose, and Mary MacGregor. There is also a tomboy, Joyce Emily, who attempts to force her way into the Brodie set, but she is summarily dismissed by Miss Brodie. Sandy eventually becomes a cloistered nun, Sister Helena; Mary MacGregor is killed in a hotel fire; and Joyce Emily enlists in the Spanish Civil War, where she is killed.
The other teachers and the headmistress, Miss Mackay, bemoan the fact that Miss Brodie's "special girls" are different from the rest, displaying none of the team spirit the school tries to encourage. Years after Sandy and the others have moved on to the Senior School (where Miss Brodie does not teach) and into the world, Miss Mackay has an appointment with Sandy in which she bemoans the fact that "it's still going on"—that is, that Miss Brodie is training up another round of young girls who will come to think they are better than the other girls. Sandy then betrays Miss Brodie by telling Miss Mackay of her penchant for fascist political indoctrination (previously, Miss Mackay had tried and failed to get rid of Miss Brodie by catching her in some kind of sex scandal)—which, at a school like this one, will not be tolerated by the parents. She is easily gotten rid of, and suspects that it was Mary who betrayed her, even though it was Sandy.
In the novel, Miss Brodie dies of cancer in 1946.
The play and film show marked departures from the novel. As adapted for stage and screen by Jay Presson Allen, the story is told in a largely linear fashion. It begins in 1932, after Miss Brodie has returned from her summer holidays in Italy, having realised her prime is upon her. The essentials of the character and the story are the same, though some characters are different and/or meet different ends. Mary MacGregor, for example, does not die in a hotel fire that happens years after graduation but she is killed while in her final year at Marcia Blaine, when she goes to join her brother who is fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She dies when the train in which she is travelling is blown up.
In the play we see a few scenes showing Sandy in later life as a nun. In the film we do not know what becomes of Sandy or any of the other girls after graduation, because that is where it ends. Whereas in the book Miss Brodie is betrayed by Sandy after she and the girls have all left school and gone out into the world, the play and film put the betrayal before graduation, some weeks before the end of the school year in 1936. Sandy does it in reaction to the death of Mary MacGregor.
Most literary critics agree that Miss Brodie was written as a representation of "the God of Calvin", and there are indeed many similarities between her and the Calvinist portrayal of God. In the story, she selects a handful of girls from her class to become "her girls". The girls are not chosen for any particular reason but simply because they are "her favourites". This is strikingly similar to the Calvinist teaching of Unconditional election which teaches God chooses His Elect to go to Heaven, based on His own will rather than any reflection of the person's character. Indeed, Miss Brodie attempts to transform these girls into the crème de la crème, again similar to the Calvinist teaching that the Elect will mold into God's image.
The most striking similarity however is the way Miss Brodie attempts to predestine the lives of her girls and those around her. She is determined that one of her girls becomes the lover of the school's art master as her proxy and seeks to make this happen. Another incident involves her encouraging a girl in her class to run to Spain and fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, resulting in her death. This compares with the Calvinist teaching of Predestination, that God has already set out a path for everybody. One of her girls, Sandy Stranger notices this similarity saying:
She thinks she is Providence ... She thinks she is the God of Calvin, the beginning and the End.
Ultimately, Miss Brodie's attempts to be the Calvinist God drive Sandy to the Roman Catholic Church. This is similar to Muriel Spark's own experience of converting to Roman Catholicism after growing up in Calvinist dominated Edinburgh.
In the climactic scene of the film, Miss Brodie confronts Sandy and is pointedly told that she is "not good for people, and children should not be exposed to" her. Realizing she has no hope of appealing her dismissal from Marcia Blaine (the name of the school), Miss Brodie can do nothing but call the words after Sandy as she walks away, "Assassin! ASSASSIN!!!" The film closes poignantly with a shot of Sandy tearfully walking along after graduation, as we hear a voice-over of Miss Brodie saying, "Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life!"
Miss Brodie is described as a "born fascist" by one of her girls. An active teacher while fascism was gaining popularity in Europe, she openly admires Benito Mussolini and praises him to her class. She frequently tours Italy returning inspired by what she sees as Utopia. When Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, she changes her holiday destination to Berlin, believing Hitler's brownshirts to be more organised than Mussolini's blackshirts. When Sandy meets her for tea in the Braid Hills Hotel in 1946, Miss Brodie concedes that "Hitler was rather naughty". Her advocation for fascism is put into direct action when she persuades a troublesome girl to fight for Francisco Franco, which leads to tragedy.
Reference in later works
The character Domenica Macdonald in the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith, taking place in contemporary Edinburgh, is compared to Jean Brodie by another character in the book itself (though sharing none of Brodie's attraction to fascism) and the comparison was taken up by critics. McCall Smith also cites the book as one of his favourite humorous books.