At the spot where Quartermile meets the Meadows, there are a series of murals themed around the area. One of those murals is dedicated to Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ - a book that is as devoted to Edinburgh as it is to the characters and plot. ‘They were crossing the Meadows,’ the mural speaks, ‘a gusty expanse of common land,’ referring to Miss Jean Brodie’s set of girls. Their destination? ‘The Old Town, for Miss Brodie had said they should see where history had been lived’.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is only a short novel, but the character of Miss Brodie in her prime is one that has stayed with me, and the hearts of many in Edinburgh - so much so that she is as much a historical figure as she is fictional character. This year marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, and as a result, a lot of light has been shone on her work, as well as many creative projects springing up around the novel, which was Spark’s most popular work. An exhibition of her personal belongings this year showed a telegram written to Spark from Maggie Smith, who played Brodie in the 1969 film adaptation of the book, thanking her for ‘creating such a wonderful character’ for Smith to play.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Miss Jean Brodie has such resonance as a character is because it is likely that she could have existed. Based off Spark’s own teacher, Miss Jean Brodie represents one of many women who had lost beaus in the the First World War, and were now living in ‘spinsterhood’. The war itself acted as a springboard for female empowerment - from the hoards of women going to work in munitions factories to projects like the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which saw the growth of 14 all female medical units working all over Europe in military hospitals. Moreover, the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 prohibited married women from working, leaving widowed women some of the few who were allowed to have economic independence through their work.
Yet previously, being widowed was not the key to female liberation that it is sometimes viewed as. Outside of very wealthy women, spinsters often went into workhouses and lived in absolute poverty, as late as the turn of the 20th century. This is not an image of particular dignity, and is definitely one that would have existed in the public memory. Yet Miss Jean Brodie is a regal figure in the face of what once would have been a life-shattering situation. She runs her classroom under her own rules, disregarding any sort of guidance from the educational board. She has multiple affairs with male teachers. She tells her ‘set’ that ‘these years are still the years of my prime,’ which she defines as ‘the moment one was born for’. The idea that value in femininity is something which dies as you age is a concept that our society is struggling to shake off today, yet Miss Brodie outwardly rejected it decades ago. She is the sort of teacher and role model that all young girls need.
This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but Miss Brodie was a fascist! That’s the whole point of the book! And yes, this is true. Miss Jean Brodie’s big secret (of sorts) is that she was a fascist. However, she can still be admired despite her political leanings. She speaks frankly and openly and never shrinks her views to be more pleasant, in one lesson dryly stating, ‘phrases like 'the team spirit' are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties’. This is not a woman who shrank her views to accommodate men. If anything, she embraced masculine strength in her political views, without sacrificing her femininity. Obviously this isn’t meant to be an endorsement of fascism. But Brodie’s personal philosophies - especially those of women’s agency - can be praised outside of her politics.
So, next time you’re walking across the Meadows, take a moment to remember Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. Remember that whilst Edinburgh’s history is often white, male and oppressive, there lies hidden stories of women who led by example, even if we have to look to fiction to discover them.
*Illustration by Claire Sandford*