Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie

Term Paper, 2000

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table Of Contents


I Introduction

II Main Part
1. On Muriel Spark
2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
2.1 Plot
2.2 Jean Brodie
2.2.1 The origins
2.2.2 An extraordinary teacher
2.2.3. The downfall of Jean Brodie’s power

III Conclusion

IV Outlook

V References
Primary texts
Secondary texts
Reference works
Reference to film
Further reading


Muriel Spark is a modern Scottish writer with a lot of different faces. Her work is very faceted and full of new ideas. This is the reason why she has a huge impact on Scottish literature. As a feminist writer she has developed her own style to cope with literature.

“[Sie stellt] ethische und philosophische Fragen in den Mittelpunkt und entwickelt experimentelle Erzählweisen. (...) Sparks Werk ist durchzogen von Einbrüchen des Unerwarteten, Unerklärlichen und oft Schrecklichen; es geht um das Wesen von Gut und Böse, um das Transzendente unter der Oberfläche und Grundfragen des Glaubens. (...) Der Erweiterung des Realitätskonzeptes dient auch die Überschneidung von Fiktion und dargestellter Wirklichkeit.“[1]

These remarks may lead to the conclusion that Spark’s fiction is an attempt to post-modern literature, which defines itself as breaking with old traditions and finding completely new ways of narrating and mixing reality with fiction.[2] It may not at least be the reason for her novels being so popular since the time Spark started writing them in the late 1950s.

In this paper special interest is drawn on Jean Brodie, the protagonist in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)[3] because she is one of Spark’s most discussed characters. First, there will be given biographical details to illustrate parallels between the fictional story and the author’s life. Then the plot of the novel will be summarized to build a basis for investigation and to avoid complicated explanations in the following interpretation of the fictional figure. Jean Brodie as a literary character will be looked at from different angles. First, the origins of the character will be searched in Muriel Spark’s biography, and than the fictional person will be investigated on the background of the novel. The aim is to show that Spark created a very strong female character in the first place, which, in second place, loses power during the course of the novel due to exactly her extraordinary strong characteristics.

II Main Part

1. On Muriel Spark

Thanks to Muriel Spark herself there is a very reliable source of her life: It is her autobiography. In Curriculum Vitae – A volume of autobiography (1992)[4] she depicts her life in a very detailed way. The reason for writing was not at least because according to her opinion other scholars have failed in writing a good biography of hers. “So many strange and erroneous accounts of parts of my life have been written since I became well known, that I felt time to put the record straight.”[5] Thus her[6] description of her life, which she could only put into practice with the help of numerous relatives, friends and other eyewitnesses, is a rich source for the analysis to come up because she obviously took parts of her life to create her novels. Special interest is drawn here on Spark’s childhood and youth because reading about these days in her autobiography automatically evokes in the reader the feeling of having read some of it in The Prime and The Girls of Slender Means (1963)[7].

Muriel Spark was born daughter of an English mother and a Scottish father in Edinburgh in 1918. The father, Bernard Camberg, was of Jewish origin, but this fact did not influence young Muriel’s life very much because religion did not rule daily life in the Camberg household. Generally there was an almost religions freedom when Muriel Spark was young, which was reflected in her class at school.

“Many religious persuasions were represented among the pupils. (…) It meant very little in practical terms to us. The Bible appeared to cover all these faiths, for I don’t remember any segregation during our religious teaching, (…).”[8]

Muriel’s mother, being English through and through, inspired her partly for the character of the teacher Jean Brodie in The Prime because the two women share certain features, such as the love for exquisite clothes and a flashy outer appearance.

But the most important and most striking influence which led to the literal birth of Miss Jean Brodie was Spark’s teacher at her own school: Christina Kay. In fact, it was the time at school which offered her the scene for The Prime. “I spent twelve years at Gillespie’s, the most formative years of my life, and in many ways the most fortunate for a future writer.”[9] What she experienced in her time at Gillespie’s High School for Girls found its way into her literary work. So not only does the Gillespie’s school history resemble the one of Marcia Blain School for Girls in The Prime, but in many ways it was the source for events and descriptions in the novel.

Muriel Spark grew up in the time after the “Great War” which also deeply influenced her life and thus her writing. She was literally a girl of slender means like the ones she describes in her novel with the same title. The Prime (1961), The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Mandlebaum Gate (1965) form a set of novels often discussed in comparison because they are all set on a historic background, which has somehow to do with the War: The Prime takes place in the 1930s, when fascism arose in Europe, The Girls of Slender Means is set in after-War London and The Mandlebaum Gate looks back on the happenings of these past decades via telling a story set in Israel at the time of the Eichmann trial.[10]

When she was 19 Muriel Camberg got engaged to Sydney Oswald Spark, a man 13 her senior. “It was a disastrous choice. Unbeknown (…) the poor man had mental problems, not obvious at the time.”[11] Hoping to live a more wealthy life they married. Now, named Muriel Spark, she followed him to live in Zimbabwe former Rhodesia / Africa. This journey took a dramatic turn in her life, indeed. It was there that she learned to cope with life[12] because her marriage resulted to be the biggest mistake she ever made. She could not bear neither the circumstances under which she lived nor the violent way her husband treated her. Together with her only son Robin she deserted her husband and initiated the divorce, which was a long and complicated process since it was not as usual as it is nowadays.

Back in the UK in 1944 she started a new life in London while Robin stayed with his grandparents in Edinburgh. Spark’s career as a writer did not start right away when she decided to live in the capital. First she had to fight her way through various jobs with low payment. Among them was a secret, but very interesting secretary job at the Foreign Office still during the World War II, which she used to make contact with influential people. After the war Sparks worked for different magazines like the Argentor or the Poetry Review, so in the field of literature already. Step by step she became better known and her critiques became more and more popular. She wrote and edited books on Wordsworth, the Brontё sisters, Mary Shelly and many others. There is also a slim volume of poetry published by her in 1952 (The Fanfarlo and other verse). Apart from her being a literary critic and poetess Spark was always inspired by the things that happened in her own life and so it was only a question of time that she started writing her own fiction. First she wrote some short stories, for one of which she won a highly reputable prize. But it was in 1957 that her first novel The Comforters was published. It was followed by numerous others. The novel of importance for this paper was number six and is counted to the ‘early works’. Spark’s last novel The Finishing School only came out in 2004. Almost all her stories are set in places where she used to live for some time in her life. The settings reach from Scotland and Great Britain over Switzerland and Italy to Africa and the USA. Her motives are as various and as divers as her own life was, so the odd reader of her work is never bored with the same topic.

During the decades her novels were debated to a great extend among the literary scene in Europe. Next to Memento Mori (1959), The Prime seems to be the one that is discussed the most.


[1] Kreutzer, E./Nünning, A.: Metzler Lexikon Englischsprachiger Autorinnen und Autoren (Metzler, Stuttgart: 2002); see: „Spark (Dame), Muriel (Sarah)“.

[2] Any further definitions and analysis’ of Spark’s work as post-modern are not part of this paper, but the fact that one can identify certain features of post-modernism in it has to be mentioned, nonetheless.

[3] In the following text: The Prime.

[4] Spark, Muriel: Curriculum vitae (Penguin, London: 1993).

[5] Ibid.; p. 11.

[6] She was especially angry that a former close friend of hers (Derek Stanford) wrote wrong details of her life on purpose to damage her reputation. Comp.: ibid.; p. 189 ff.

[7] Spark, Muriel: The Girls of Slender Means (Penguin, London : 1963).

[8] Spark, Muriel: Curriculum vitae; p. 53.

[9] Spark, M.: Curriculum vitae; p. 50 .

[10] Comp.: Paul, Anthony:” Muriel Spark and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”; In: Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters (Amsterdam, Netherlands: 1977; p. 176).

[11] Spark, M.: Curriculum vitae; p. 116.

[12] Comp.: Ibid; p. 119.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
The Contemporary Novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
524 KB
Muriel, Spark, Jean, Brodie, Contemporary, Novel
Quote paper
Conny Schibisch (Author), 2000, Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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