A group of five teenage boys and five sixteen-year-old girls are socializing near the gates of the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, Scotland, the boys positioning their bicycles so as to form “a protective fence…between the sexes.” The girls belong to the “Brodie set,” named after their former teacher Miss Jean Brodie. This is what they have been called ever since they were students at the Junior school, and even their headmistress (later identified as Miss Mackay) calls them this “in scorn”; the girls moved from the Junior to the Senior school at the age of twelve.
The boys and girls are on the brink of sexual maturity and are very conscious of their sexuality: the “protective fence” of bicycles is a sign of this consciousness as well as of sexual tension. For the members of the Brodie set, these boys represent a way of life altogether different from that which they’ve known at Blaine with Miss Brodie, a life not organized around Miss Brodie but rather shared with a male partner.
Even when they are students at the Junior school, the Brodie girls are recognizable as Miss Jean Brodie’s pupils because they were “vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the authorized curriculum”—everything from Mussolini (the fascist Prime Minister of Italy during World War II) to methods of cleaning the skin with cream and witch-hazel, from Miss Brodie’s love life to “those who considered the Bible to be untrue.”
Miss Brodie is an unorthodox teacher, instructing students not in accordance with the authorized curriculum but her own interests, which are socially unconventional, even radical, and often inappropriate. This both expands her students’ horizons, but also denies them a well-rounded education.
By the age of sixteen, the girls have adapted to the other authority figures at the school, yet remain unmistakably influenced by Miss Brodie. They are famous schoolwide in the sense that they are held in suspicion and disliked; they have no team spirit and have little in common with each other than remaining friends with Miss Brodie, who still teaches at that time in the Junior department despite being “held in great suspicion.”
The Brodie girls’ group identity is generated by their friendship with Miss Brodie and how she’s influenced them, but also by the fact that the other girls at Blaine perceive the Brodie girls as a group. It is ironic that the Brodie girls have no more solid common ground than friendship with Miss Brodie herself.
Each girl in the Brodie set is famous for something. Monica Douglas, red-nosed and fat-legged, is a prefect famous for her mathematical ability and violent anger. Rose Stanley is famous for sex. Eunice Gardiner, small and neat, is famous for “her spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming.” Sandy Stranger is notorious for her “small, almost non-existent, eyes” and famous for her vowel sounds, which long ago so enraptured Miss Brodie that she asked Sandy to recite a stanza from Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” “‘Where there is no vision…the people perish,’” Miss Brodie had said on that occasion. The prettiest and most graceful member of the Brodie set is Jenny Gray, who is Sandy’s best friend and wants to be an actress.
The girls all have very different interests – no common ground at all. Nonetheless, Miss Brodie’s charisma alone draws them together and preserves their group identity. We later learn that what the girls are famous for doesn’t necessarily reflect who they really are. For example, though Rose is famous for sex, she never talks about sex, much less indulges in it. Even though Sandy has small eyes, she has very perceptive “vision”: she is psychologically insightful, deeply analytical.
The narrative returns to the scene of the boys and girls socializing. One of the five boys, named Andrew, is insulting Jenny about her way of speech. She tells him not to be a lout, but he and two other boys (both also named Andrew) just mimic her, to the laughter of the girls present. Just then the final member of the Brodie set, Mary Macgregor, comes along, accompanied by an outsider to the set, Joyce Emily Hammond, a very rich girl and delinquent sent to Blaine as a last resort. Joyce Emily is trying very hard to become a member of the Brodie set, but there is no chance of it.
Mary’s arriving late on the scene reflects her status as a social outsider, even though she is a member of the Brodie set. Group identity tends to be very rigid in the novel, which explains the impossibility of Joyce Emily becoming a Brodie girl. Joyce Emily’s desire to become a member of the set, and even more importantly to have a connection to Miss Brodie, will play a crucial role later in the novel.
Joyce Emily says that a teacher is coming, and two of the Andrews depart on their bicycles while the other three boys defiantly remain. The teacher turns out to be Miss Jean Brodie herself. She excuses the boys, walks a way with all of the girls, but soon excuses Joyce as well, leaving the Brodie set “to their secret life as it had been six years ago in their childhood.” Following behind, Sandy remembers one of Miss Brodie’s sayings from that time: “‘I am putting old heads on your young shoulders…and all my pupils are the crème de la crème.’”
Miss Brodie is very protective of the Brodie girls’ group identity and directs their lives, in a sense, which is shown by her dismissal of the boys and Joyce Emily. Her image for education—putting old heads on young shoulders—suggests the unnaturalness and intrusiveness of her methods, and also foreshadows Mr. Lloyd’s troubling portraits, in which he literally paints Miss Brodie’s head onto the girls’ shoulders.
As they walk together, Miss Brodie invites the six girls to supper, and insists that Jenny come even though she has plans with the Dramatic Society; for there is a plot afoot, Miss Brodie says, to force her to resign her teaching post (there have been such plots afoot before). It has been suggested that Miss Brodie apply to “one of the progressive schools,” but she thinks these schools “crank,” eccentric, and insists that Blaine needs her to elevate their program. “‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life,’” Miss Brodie says. The Brodie set “smile[s] in understanding of various kinds.”
Miss Brodie demands that she be the center of her girls’ lives, even at the expense of their own interests, like Jenny’s in the Dramatic Society. It is ironic that the eccentric Miss Brodie dismisses the progressive schools for being eccentric—perhaps she does not want to teach at such a school for fear of fading into the crowd of eccentric teachers there, preferring to be considered unique, at the heart of a dramatic situation. That the girls smile in various kinds of understanding suggests that they are caught by Miss Brodie’s charisma but don’t entirely understand her.
Rose asks who is responsible for the plot, and Miss Brodie says that they would discuss that together at supper, assuring the girls nonetheless that those who opposed her would not succeed. The girls agree. Miss Brodie concludes by saying that she is still in her prime, tells the girls that “‘it is important to recognize the years of one’s prime’”; then she boards a tramcar and departs.
This is the first mention of Miss Brodie’s “prime” in the novel—it is, to her mind, the height of her charisma and influence, over her girls, over the Blaine administration, and, we later learn, over men as well. Miss Brodie may well be ironically past her prime in this scene, though: she is on the brink of being betrayed by one of the Brodie set and terminated.
The narrative shifts to six years before. Miss Brodie is leading her new class of ten-year-old girls to the garden for a history lesson. On the way, they stop outside of the headmistress Miss Mackay’s office, where a poster of Stanley Baldwin (a British Prime Minister) is hanging, with the words “Safety First.” Miss Brodie tells her class that Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first, not safety. This is the girls’ first intimation that Miss Brodie is at odds with the rest of the teaching staff and, indeed, that adults could differ from one another at all.
Miss Brodie shows the girls here that all adults need not be the same, that they can take exciting, life-enlarging paths that conflict with social convention and propriety. Indeed, we might agree that Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are loftier, more transfiguring ideals than safety. However, it is precisely Miss Brodie’s disregard for safety which results, if only indirectly, in the death of Joyce Emily years later.
Outside, Miss Brodie then instructs her girls to hold up their books as if doing their history lesson, but tells them instead about her summer holiday in Egypt, among other subjects like skin care. She asks who the greatest Italian painter is, and when one girl responds that it is Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie says, “‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.’”
Although Miss Brodie introduces the girls to high culture, she does so dogmatically, even when it comes to questions of taste like who the greatest Italian painter is. She takes her own opinions for absolute truth.
Next Miss Brodie tells the girls that her prime has truly begun and that they themselves must be able to recognize their primes and live life to the full during those years. Observing meanwhile that Mary is looking at something under her desk, Miss Brodie asks her what it is: “‘a comic paper,’” Mary replied. Miss Brodie tells Mary that she is too old for comic papers, takes “the colored sheets” of Tiger Tim’s from her, and tears the comic paper up “beyond redemption.” She then returns to the subject of her prime, checking to make sure that Sandy has been paying attention, which she has.
The paintings of da Vinci and Giotto are here contrasted with Mary’s comic paper, an example of low culture. Ironically, though Miss Brodie herself is straying here from the authorized curriculum, she rather severely punishes Mary for doing likewise, suggesting that she is something of a hypocrite: Miss Brodie thinks it permissible to break rules so long as the rules aren’t her own.
Later that same autumn, during the hour for English grammar, Miss Brodie also tells her class about a man she had been engaged to (later identified as Hugh). He had died during World War I on Flanders’ Field a week before the Armistice. After interrupting herself to chastise Sandy for having her sleeves rolled up, Miss Brodie goes on: her fiancé had been poor, a countryman from Ayrshire (a county in Scotland), and upon proposing he had told her, “‘We shall have to drink water and walk slow,’” which, Miss Brodie explains to her class, meant that the couple would have to “‘live quietly.’” When Miss Brodie asks Rose what “We shall have to drink water and walk slow” means, the young student just regurgitated her teacher’s own translation of the saying.
It is inappropriate that Miss Brodie should spend class time discussing her love life, but it is in this way that she lends a romantic and tragic tint to her life, which draws the girls in. Discussions like these especially stimulate Sandy’s sexual curiosity, which only further draws her to the sexually charismatic Miss Brodie. Even though Miss Brodie claims that an education is a “leading out," she often hypocritically demands that her girls be able to regurgitate exactly what she has told them, which is both dogmatic and intrusive.
As Miss Brodie is telling the story of her fiancé, Miss Mackay approaches. Several of the girls in the class are crying at this point over Hugh’s fate, and their headmistress inquires as to why. Miss Brodie explains that she has been telling a story as part of their history lesson; Miss Mackay in turn tells the girls that they should not be crying over history at the age of ten. After Miss Mackay goes, Miss Brodie tells her class that they did well in not answering Miss Mackay’s question: “‘Speech is silver but silence is golden’” she says. She then quizzes Mary as to what she has just said, but Mary hasn’t been paying attention. “‘If only you small girls would listen to me,’” Miss Brodie had said, “‘I would make of you the crème de la crème.’”
One way Miss Brodie exerts her authority over her pupils is by creating an atmosphere of confidentiality and secrecy, which flatters her girls’ sense of inclusion and maturity. It is also by slowly feeding them secrets that Miss Brodie earns her students loyalty and at the same time tests just how loyal they are. Whereas Sandy dutifully regurgitates what Miss Brodie says, Mary is not as quick; perhaps this offends Miss Brodie’s vanity, which may contribute to an explanation as to why Mary later becomes Miss Brodie’s scapegoat.