‘You girls,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘must learn to cultivate an expression of composure. It is one of the best assets of a woman, an expression of composure, come foul, come fair.’
Thus is wisdom imparted by the heroine of Muriel Spark’s hilarious and tragic novel to her ‘set’ – a group of students at a girls’ school in between-the-wars Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is in her prime, and seeks to share her knowledge with a chosen few. With her unorthodox approach to education, clear favouring of this odd bunch of pupils, interest in the fascist movement sweeping Europe, and relaxed attitude to sex, she is mistrusted by her peers at Marcia Blaine school who see her at best as eccentric and at worst as heretical. She is a warped product of her time, striving to be modern while trapped in an environment that stifles her.
‘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.’
It is in flouting of tradition and expectation that Miss Brodie’s passion for life manifests itself, as in her small way she kicks over the traces of the mores of 1930s Scotland. However, it is also her downfall, as her pride in her ability to shape the lives of her girls blinds her to her betrayal by one of them.
You could read this as a funny short book about a peculiar school teacher, but it is much more than that. It’s about loyalty, betrayal and pride; it’s about belief, fate and love. And it’s about sex. Everyone is obsessed with sex, whether it’s Miss Brodie and her passion for the school’s art teacher that finds an outlet with his colleague in the music department, or her student’s fascination with her long-dead fiancé. As the novel shifts in time from the late 1930s (when the girls are 16 or 17), back to their earlier years at school, on to their lives as adults, and then back again to the 1930s, we see Miss Brodie’s love life become ever more complicated as she entangles her girls in it. Much of this is presented to you through the (very small) eyes of Sandy Stranger, who comes to both respect and despise the way in which Miss Brodie has set herself apart:
‘…she began to sense what went to the makings of Miss Brodie who had elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more.’
Ultimately, it is Sandy who influences Miss Brodie’s life in far more damaging ways than the elder woman could have imagined.