selections from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

These girls formed the Brodie set. That was what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve. At that time they had been immediately recognisable as Miss Brodie’s pupils, being vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorised curriculum, as the headmistress said, and useless to the school as a school. These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch‐hazel over honest soap and water, and the word “menarche”; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Brontë and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less. (1-2)

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“O where shall I find a virtuous woman, for her price is above rubies.” (2)

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“Where there is no vision,” Miss Brodie had assured them, “the people perish.” (4)

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“I am putting old heads on your young shoulders,” Miss Brodie had told them at that time, “and all my pupils are the crème de la crème.” (5)

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“These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that.” (6)

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“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.” (7)

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“I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” (8)

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“I won’t have to do with girls who roll up the sleeves of their blouses, however fine the weather. Roll them down at once, we are civilized beings.” (9)

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“You did well,” said Miss Brodie to the class, when Miss Mackay had gone, “not to answer the question put to you. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is golden.” (10)

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“I wouldn’t like to have sexual intercourse,” Sandy said.

“Neither would I. I’m going to marry a pure person.” (18)

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It was well-known that millionaires led double lives. (19)

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tussore (n.)
coarse silk from the larvae of the tussore moth and related species.
“Go to the science room and have the stain removed; but remember it is very bad for the tussore.” (22)

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“Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science.” (24)

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velour (n.)
a plush woven fabric resembling velvet, chiefly used for soft furnishings, casual clothing, and hats.
It is time now to speak of the long walk through the old parts of Edinburgh where Miss Brodie took her set, dressed in their deep violet coats and black velour hats with the green and white crest, one Friday in March when the school’s central heating system had broken down and everyone else had been muffled up and sent home. (26-27)

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“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “that is the sort of thing they like.” (31)

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Sandy, Rose Stanley and Monica Douglas were of believing though not church‐going families. Jenny Gray and Mary Macgregor were Presbyterians and went to Sunday School. Eunice Gardiner was Episcopalian and claimed that she did not believe in Jesus, but in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Sandy, who believed in ghosts, felt that the Holy Ghost was a feasible proposition. The whole question was, during this winter term, being laid open by Miss Brodie who, at the same time as adhering to the strict Church of Scotland habits of her youth, and keeping the Sabbath, was now, in her prime, attending evening classes in comparative religion at the University. So her pupils heard all about it, and learned for the first time that some honest people did not believe in God, nor even Allah. But the girls were set to study the Gospels with diligence for their truth and goodness, and to read them aloud for their beauty. (35-36)

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“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there,and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls’ heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite.

[…]

“So I intend simply to point out to Miss Mackay that there is a radical difference in our principles of education. Radical is a word pertaining to roots—Latin radix, a root. We differ at root, the headmistress and I, upon the question whether we are employed to educate the minds of girls or to intrude upon them. We have had this argument before, but Miss Mackay is not, I may say, an outstanding logician. A logician is one skilled in logic. Logic is the art of reasoning.” (36-38)

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It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime; or that (since such things are relative) she was in any way off her head. She was alone, merely, in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blaine’s. There were legions of her kind during the nineteen‐thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war‐bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare,education or religion. The progressive spinsters of Edinburgh did not teach in schools, especially in schools of traditional character like Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls. It was in this that Miss Brodie was, as the rest of the staff spinsterhood put it, a trifle out of place. But she was not out of place amongst her own kind,the vigorous daughters of dead or enfeebled merchants, of ministers of religion, University professors, doctors, big warehouse owners of the past, or the owners of fisheries who had endowed these daughters with shrewd wits, high‐coloured cheeks, constitutions like horses, logical educations, hearty spirits and private means. They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word “guaranteed” on a jam‐jar really meant. They went to lectures, tried living on honey and nuts, took lessons in German and then went walking in Germany; they bought caravans and went off with them into the hills among the lochs; they played the guitar, they supported all the new little theatre companies; they took lodgings in the slums and, distributing pots of paint, taught their neighbours the arts of simple interior decoration; they preached the inventions of Marie Stopes; they attended the meetings of the Oxford Group and put Spiritualism to their hawk‐eyed test. Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell.

They were not, however, committee women. They were not school‐teachers. The committee spinsters were less enterprising and not at all rebellious, they were sober churchgoers and quiet workers. The school‐mistresses were of a still more orderly type, earning their keep, living with aged parents and taking walks on the hills and holidays at North Berwick.

But those of Miss Brodie’s kind were great talkers and feminists and, like most feminists, talked to men as man‐to‐man. (43-44)

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kirk (n.)
1. a church.
2. (the Kirk or the Kirk of Scotland) the Church of Scotland as distinct from the Church of England or from the Episcopal Church in Scotland.
“Mr. Logan, Elder though you are, I am a woman in my prime of life, so you can take it from me that you get a sight more religion out of Professor Tovey’s Sunday concerts than you do out of your kirk services.” (44-45)

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The summer holidays of nineteen‐thirty‐one marked the first anniversary of the launching of Miss Brodie’s prime. The year to come was in many ways the most sexual year of the Brodie set, who were now turned eleven and twelve; it was a crowded year of stirring revelations. In later years, sex was only one of the things in life. That year it was everything. (45)

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“As you know, I don’t believe in talking down to children, you are capable of grasping more than is generally appreciated by your elders.” (47)

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“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things.” (47)

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The question of whether Miss Brodie was actually capable of being kissed and of kissing occupied the Brodie set till Christmas. (55)

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Towards the end of the Easter holidays, to crown the sex‐laden year, Jenny, out walking alone, was accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith. He said, “Come and look at this.”

“At what?” said Jenny, moving closer, thinking to herself he had picked up a fallen nestling from the ground or had discovered a strange plant. Having perceived the truth, she escaped unharmed and unpursued though breathless, and was presently surrounded by solicitous, horrified relations and was coaxed to sip tea well sugared against the shock. (70)

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I love to hear you singing “Hey Johnnie Cope.” But were I to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King of Arms I would decline it.

Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.

With fondest joy,
Jean Brodie (78)

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Miss Mackay laid another scheme and the scheme undid her. There was a highly competitive house system in the Senior school, whose four houses were named Holyrood, Melrose, Argyll and Biggar. Miss Mackay saw to it that the Brodie girls were as far as possible placed indifferent houses. Jenny was put in Holyrood, Sandy with Mary Macgregor in Melrose, Monica and Eunice went into Argyll and Rose Stanley into Biggar. They were therefore obliged to compete with each other in every walk of life within the school and on the wind‐swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb. It was the team spirit, they were told, that counted now, every house must go all out for the Shield and turn up on Saturday mornings to yell encouragement to the house. Interhouse friendships must not suffer, of course, but the team spirit . . .

This phrase was enough for the Brodie set who, after two years at Miss Brodie’s, had been well directed as to its meaning.

“Phrases like ‘the team spirit’ are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties,” she had said. “Ideas like ‘the team spirit,'” she said, “ought not to be enjoined on the female sex, especially if they are of that dedicated nature whose virtues from time immemorial have been utterly opposed to the concept. Florence Nightingale knew nothing of the team spirit, her mission was to save life regardless of the team to which it belonged. Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit if you read your Shakespeare. Take Helen of Troy. And the Queen of England, it is true she attends international sport, but she has to, it is all empty show, she is concerned only with the King’s health and antiques. Where would the team spirit have got Sybil Thorndike?—She is the great actress and the rest of the cast have got the team spirit. Pavlova . ..” (82-83)

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On Saturday afternoons an hour was spent on her Greek lessons, for she had insisted that Jenny and Sandy should teach her Greek at the same time as they learned it. “There is an old tradition for this practice,” said Miss Brodie. “Many families in the olden days could afford to send but one child to school, whereupon that one scholar of the family imparted to the others in the evening what he had learned in the morning. I have long wanted to know the Greek language, and this scheme will also serve to impress your knowledge on your own minds. John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five, and what John Stuart Mill could do as an infant at dawn, I too can do on a Saturday afternoon in my prime.”

She progressed in Greek, although she was somewhat muddled about the accents, being differently informed by Jenny and Sandy who took turns to impart to her their weekly intake of the language. But she was determined to enter and share the new life of her special girls, and what she did not regard as humane of their new concerns, or what was not within the scope of her influence, she scorned.

She said: “It is witty to say that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, or that a circle is a plane figure bounded by one line, every point of which is equidistant from a fixed centre. It is plain witty. Everyone knows what a straight line and a circle are.”

When, after the examinations at the end of the first term, she looked at the papers they had been set, she read some of the more vulnerable of the questions aloud with the greatest contempt: “A window cleaner carries a uniform 60‐lb. ladder 15 ft. long, at one end of which a bucket of water weighing 40 lb. is hung. At what point must he support the ladder to carry it horizontally? Where is the c.g. of his load?” Miss Brodie looked at the paper, after reading out this question as if to indicate that she could not believe her eyes. Many a time she gave the girls to understand that the solution to such problems would be quite useless to Sybil Thorndike, Anna Pavlova and the late Helen of Troy. (86-87)

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rota (n.)
1. chiefly Brit. a list showing when each of a number of people has to do a particular job. Compare with “roster.”
2. (the Rota) the supreme ecclesiastical and secular court of the Roman Catholic Church.
She always went to church on Sunday mornings, she had a rota of different denominations and sects which included the Free Churches of Scotland, the Established Church of Scotland, the Methodist and the Episcopalian churches and any other church outside the Roman Catholic pale which she might discover. (90)

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Her disapproval of the Church of Rome was based on her assertions that it was a church of superstition, and that only people who did not want to think for themselves were Roman Catholics. (90)

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“It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.” (92)

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Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right‐angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides. (92)

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“How many children?” said Miss Brodie, her teapot poised.

“Five, I think,” said Sandy.

“Six, I think,” said Jenny, “counting the baby.”

“There are lots of babies,” said Sandy.

“Roman Catholics, of course,” said Miss Brodie, addressing this to Mr. Lowther. (97)

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“How do you know the nightdress was Miss Brodie’s?” demanded Miss Mackay, the sharp‐minded woman, who smelt her prey very near and yet saw it very far. (99)

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There was a wonderful sunset across the distant sky, reflected in the sea, streaked with blood and puffed with avenging purple and gold as if the end of the world had come without intruding on every‐day life. (101)

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It always seemed afterwards to Sandy that where there was a choice of various courses, the most economical was the best, and that the course to be taken was the most expedient and most suitable at the time for all the objects in hand. (108)

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The Lloyds were Catholics and so were made to have a lot of children by force. (108)

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“Nothing infuriates people more than their own lack of spiritual insight, Sandy, that is why the Moslems are so placid, they are full of spiritual insight.” (113)

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Everyone likes to visit a nun, it provides a spiritual sensation,, a catharsis to go home with, especially if the nun clutches the bars of the grille. (129)

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Miss Brodie was forced to retire at the end of the summer term of nineteen‐thirty‐nine, on the grounds that she had been teaching Fascism. Sandy, when she heard of it, thought of the marching troops of black shirts in the pictures on the wall. By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie. (134)

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“It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due,” said Sandy. (136)

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