Short novels are not fashionable at the moment. I’ve read many 500+ page beasts recently and I can’t remember a single one where I didn’t think it could have done with a stricter edit. This classic (published 1961) is a breath of fresh air in comparison, with just 128 (plus introduction). The skill in which this story is told, to convey a lifetime of a woman who is both aspirational and tragic to watch, to see the attitudes of those girls she inducts into her set mature and move against her, in such a relatively small number of words is masterful.
This is the tale of a woman who is, in her own words, in her prime. An unmarried woman in her thirties whose fiancé fell at Flander’s Field, she carries out two love affairs with male teachers at the school, in the full knowledge of her girls (and, later, the school authorities). She is ahead of her time, though she operates within strict moral guidelines of her own making. Her actions at times are quite shocking, even by today’s standards. For a teacher to take a group of students to the houses of her lovers is unorthodox to say the least, and would lead to the dismissal of any teacher if discovered. To then actively encourage a love affair between a man whom she has renounced (since he is married and she will not break her own code of conduct) and one of her girls is rather odd, but in character for this progressive woman. At this time it was still expected that a married woman should not work. Jean Brodie’s entire identity seems tied up with the compulsion to teach her girls, no matter what it takes, and it is seemingly for this reason that she rejects marriage.
Of her set there are five girls: Sandy, Monica, Rose, Mary and Eunice. One of the charms of this book is watching them grow, seeing them become women who unwittingly thwart Jean Brodie’s plans for them. There later comes the ‘outsider’, Joyce Emily Hammond, whose desire to join the set and please Miss Brodie leads to her fatal decision to run away to Spain and join the Spanish Civil War. Her influence on her girls is really what, in the end, leads to her downfall, betrayed and at last discredited by the school authorities who for years have tried to find good reason to dismiss her. Written with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jean Brodie’s fascination and admiration for Mussolini and Franco is a grave mistake. Her undoing is her inability to bend, or to accept other opinions to her own, and it is one of her own who finally rebels against her.
Although this book is set very firmly in 1930s Edinburgh, it is not difficult to imagine the bold and unconventional Miss Brodie still creating a stir today. I have been taught by teachers who had their clique of favourites (though I was never one of them). She is most definitely an iconic figure, and this book worthy of all its accolades.