Sue Cormack reviews the plot of the acclaimed novel and film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie first published in 1961 and adapted to cinema in 1969, which portrays some connections between Scotland and Spain in the 1930s during the Spanish civil war.
One of the enduring memories of my childhood is reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel written by Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark, which was followed by the acclaimed 1969 film version of the same name. Starring Maggie Smith (known to many as the Countess of Grantham in the television series ‘Downton Abbey’) in the title role it was to become a massive critical success. Both the novel and film are recommended reading and viewing for the long Edinburgh winter evenings.
Published in 1961 the novel, which is set in the mid 1930s, tells the story of five teenage girls at a private all-girls school in Edinburgh and their eccentric and autocratic teacher Miss Jean Brodie. With her so-called revolutionary and forward thinking ideas Brodie tries to influence and manipulate the girls at the school (Marcia Blaine School in the novel) which is widely thought to be based on James Gillespie’s.
Brodie has a highly romantic view, but deeply distorted, view of life coupled with a fascination with the politics of Mussolini, Hitler and – with the onset of the Spanish Civil War – Franco. In fact she is described a ‘born fascist’ by one of her pupils or ‘girls’ as she calls them. This reflects the 1930s, a highly-politicised decade when fascism on the one hand and communism on the other dominated vast swathes of political thought throughout Europe.
Brodie’s blind admiration for the fascist cause is put into action when she persuades one of her ‘girls’ – the naive and impressionable Joyce Emily Hammond (Mary in the film) – to join her brother in Spain, believing he is fighting for Franco and the nationalists, a cause which Brodie considers noble. However young Joyce Emily is tragically killed before witnessing any action when the train she is travelling in is attacked. In the aftermath of her death, which profoundly shocks the school, another pupil furiously confronts Jean Brodie for the devious way in which she has manipulated Emily into going to Spain. She adds, with supreme irony, that Emily’s brother was actually fighting on the republican side.
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This powerful sub-plot reflects Britain’s, and Scotland’s, involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly, for many young Scots like me and other schoolchildren growing up in 1960s and 70s Britain, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was responsible for introducing us to the subject of the Spanish Civil War, which didn’t figure much, if at all, in post-war British history books.
Although the British pre-war governments of the 1930s had a theoretical policy of ‘non intervention’ with regard to the conflict many Scots, Irish, English and Welsh signed up as volunteers to fight for both sides. The first British volunteer to be killed was a woman, a talented artist called Felicia Browne who joined a communist militia fighting on the republican side. She died in Aragon in the summer of 1936 during an attempt to blow up a rebel munitions train. Maybe her story and untimely death inspired Muriel Spark to create the character of Joyce Emily. Strangely and sadly not much is known about her.
Intelligence records show the names of about 4,000 people from Britain (including over 500 Scots) and Ireland suspected of travelling to Spain in the 1930s to join the international brigades battling against General Francisco Franco’s forces. Many were well-know literary figures like George Orwell, Stephen Spender and W Auden and others were unemployed miners in addition to trade unionists and students. Some when to fight for a cause they believed in. Others went for the adventure. There were also a number of British and Irish men and women who enlisted to fight for the nationalists.
Muriel Spark was never overtly political, but it is clear where her sympathies lay. Born in Bruntsfield, she spent a somewhat bohemian childhood in Edinburgh. Her father was Jewish, her mother a protestant Scot. She studied writing at Heriot Watt College (now university) in 1934 – 1936 and then worked for the intelligence services during WW2. After the war she took up writing professionally. Apart from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie her other novels include The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Doctors of Philosophy ( 1963). Having won many awards and honours she died in Italy in 2006 at the age of 88.
About the author
After working in television for many years as a researcher, journalist and press officer for both the BBC, Scottish Television and Channel 4 I changed direction dramatically and trained as a teacher. Currently I teach English as a foreign language to students from all over the world, helping them maximize their learning experience in her native city of Edinburgh, a job which I love. When I have time off I like to pack my backpack, travel and discover new cultures. My varied interests include cinema, skiing, current affairs and gardening.