Why ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ Still Matters

Maggie Smith and Pamela Franklin in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

If ever there were a book that wouldn’t be adapted today, it’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. About an eccentric 1930s Scottish teacher who played favorites, pimped out her students to a colleague, and distinctly favored fascism, it doesn’t exactly jibe with today’s helicopter parenting and political orthodoxy. Yet it’s arguably Muriel Spark’s best novel and certainly her most celebrated. As slim as it is crisp – technically, it could be described as a novella – it began its long life in the public eye as a segment in The New Yorker in 1961 before being published as a separate book. In 1968, it was adapted into the eponymous and much-celebrated play by Jay Presson Allen, who went on to write the screenplay for the iconic 1969 film starring Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie. Said Allen: “All the women who played Brodie got whatever prize was going around at that time.” In fact, Zoe Caldwell did win a Tony for her portrayal in the theater production, and Smith won a subsequent Oscar.

These days, you rarely hear the name Maggie Smith without the “Dame” preceding it, which may not merely be a sign of respect. Something about the eighty-one-year-old Brit’s regal bearing and perpetually knit brow makes it hard to imagine her as anything but an aristocratic older lady. But back in 1969, a thirty-five-year-old Smith was quite hot to trot, as they used to say – hot enough to convincingly summon the femme fatale schoolmarm, who always had a bevy of panting suitors as she misshaped young ladies’ minds. Coupled with a hint of that brittle disgust that practically eclipses her today, the “Downton Abbey” star was the perfect Brodie.

To be clear, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is hardly a treatise of female liberation; a Google search will dig up almost no discussion of Brodie as a feminist (or antifeminist) icon. Yet, as embodied by Smith, she offers a fascinating glimpse into a particular strain of twentieth- (and twenty-first) century womanhood. With a bob of strawberry curls, gimlet eyes and a generous mouth, her impossibly neat figure nipped in by orange and purple sheaths, she stands out brilliantly as she minces down corridors and garden paths in not very sensible pumps. The resident rebel teacher at Edinburgh’s conservative, all-female Marcia Blaine School in the 1930s, she overrides proscribed curricula to discuss in that very odd middle-class accent – all trilled r’s and audible italics – her favorites: the painter Giotto (not Da Vinci); Benito Mussolini, whom she declares “romantic … a man of action”; and a departed lover whom she describes in such rhapsodic detail (while absently dismembering a wildflower, no less) that she reduces one girl to tears. “Monica crrrrries so easily!” she exclaims.

It’s safe to say Brodie would have a hard time finding a job today.  But we believe her wholly when she pronounces, “I’m dedicated to you girrrrls and my prrrime.” At her undeclared age, Miss Brodie regularly refers to this personal peak with such fervor that it becomes nearly visible to her sensory-deprived scholars, like it’s a Josephina’s coat of many colors. And yet, though Brodie doesn’t wear spectacles (doesn’t even seem the type to wear spectacles), she’s terrifyingly myopic, especially when it comes to the welfare of these teenagers to whom she expresses devotion. It’s not just that she can’t see them outside her needs; it’s that she can’t see herself, either, as if even she is blinded by the scarves and dazzling hues she wraps around herself.

For a while her transgressions seem acceptable if eccentric – they’re mostly comprised of playing favorites (she has four “Brodie Girls”), unapproved art outings and picnics, and not-so-subtle romances with school singing master Mr. Lowther (Gordon Jackson) and school art master Mr. Lloyd (rosy-lipped Robert Stephens, Smith’s real-life husband at the time), a married Roman Catholic with children. Eventually, though, she takes things too far, and her charges – pitted against each other and her as erotic rivals – revolt, enlisting the school’s headmistress who’s sought to fire her for a while.

Director Ronald Neame takes too-obvious pleasure in Brodie’s come-uppance, zooming in perilously closely on her parted mouth and widened eyes as she’s told, “You’re a spinster; you’re dangerous; you’re past your prime, Miss Brodie.” It’s cruel lenswork but is consistent in keeping with this film’s not-so-latent exploration of the fascism and Calvinism – of the sadism and masochism – present in the molding of young (and older) female minds.  The visuals are where he tells this story best, to the degree that the girls’ facial features only slowly emerge from an institutional blur of grey woolies and black shiny shoes. It’s no wonder Brodie’s bright colors stand out like such a beacon of hope to these young women; when she’s reduced to a gray suit with just a piping of mauve, you feel like weeping.

Even when she falls – especially when she falls, in fact – you respect the full-throated passion with which Brodie grasps for straws, if not the straws themselves. For this credit is due both Neame and Smith, who paint with loving detail the terribly limited options of a single woman of a certain age. No wonder this schoolmarm develops a predilection for fascism; its starkness, if not palette, mirrors her life.

All told, Spark’s book may be preferable to this film, which forgoes her moral flexibility for an unfortunate soundtrack of tremulous violins and Freud-inflected analysis. Then again Spark’s smart tonics are preferable to almost everything. Still, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” shines through for decades and across seas – as a gleaming foreshadow of the “Dead Poets Society”-style cinema trope; as a vehicle for one of the plummier roles ever written for a female actor of a certain age; and as a model of supreme female subversion and sensuality.