The Beauty Filter

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Foreword: At the risk of sounding one million years old, there’s a TikTok I haven’t been able to get out of my head since this whole thing (“whole thing”) began. A boy, college-aged, sits in front of his computer and films himself testing out the video-conferencing software Zoom. Both to the camera, and to himself (these two things are the same now), he says, with perfect dramatic pauses dappled throughout, “They have…the beauty filter…on the online school.” He checks and unchecks a box that says “Touch up my appearance,” and his skin blurs and unblurs with luminous clarity. His background is not whatever is behind him in reality, but a stock photograph of a scenic European town. He addresses this as well, “Yeah, I’m taking Italian class…on the Amalfi Coast.”

It is a wonderful piece of comedy, equal parts shallowness and despair. Unless you are in school or have children in school or know someone in school, it is possible that amidst everything (“everything”) you are not aware of the tragedy that is “online school.” With the suspension of in-person instruction, most colleges and universities have pivoted to remote instruction. Remote instruction looks like many things: chatrooms, video conferencing, message boards. I don’t know if any student prefers it; I can tell you with certainty that no teacher does. Is it effective? I have no idea. How many people have ever learned—actually learned—something from an article they read online? 

What it feels like is this: I log onto my computer and my students file into a video conferencing room where instead of their faces, I see their initials and a microphone icon with a red X over it (signifying they have self-muted). Then for over an hour, I perform the act of contemporary American literature education. It is definitely not teaching. It is insane. I feel insane. Whereas I once relied on a laid back personality and calm affectation to make a class that seems like vegetables taste like pasta, I’m now shouting “Does that make any sense?” into the void, waiting for yeses to populate in a chatroom on the side. I can’t even write this essay without toggling between upwards of two dozen tabs alerting me of any old bullshit; how am I supposed to expect a group of college students to do the same? 

Regardless, as I log on to teach my biweekly class in the middle of an unprecedented global event, I check my appearance in the web camera test. I make sure to wear a clean shirt. I put on a small layer of foundation. I want to look like I’m keeping up with my appearance, especially as I sink into the depths of depression. I’m grateful, if for nothing else, that there is always the beauty filter. 

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Okay, lesson one: Dame Muriel Spark, the author, the origin of today’s lecture, a 20th century author, a modernist, a direct influence upon any chatty, lightly bitchy novel that exists today. Her novels are straightforward and concise. If you’re the type who thinks that all movies should be 90 minutes long, I bet you would like her books. None of the ones I’ve read—though I’ve a long way to go until completion—are more than 200 pages. They are largely premise-driven: “What if?” Spark asks. What if the devil showed up in Peckham? What if the personal dramas of a thankless job got in the way of writing a novel? (Hard to imagine, but.) I took to her writing immediately. Martin Price once wrote of her work: “She writes with cool exactness, a firm voice (each tale has its own) and compassionate wit.”

Indeed, her work is funny and sharp. The satire is clean. I would not go so far as to call her characters lovable, but I do love them. I’m in awe of the economy of her language. No $5 words. Her plots are simple. There are no moments of overwrought emotion. Life is not like that, Spark suggests. Life is little and odd. It doesn’t have to be more than that. 

As a student of literature, I’m fascinated by Spark the person as well as Spark the author. Though she was married only three years—her maiden name was Camberg—she kept her ex-husband’s name for the duration of her career. She moved with a female friend to Italy, then to New York, then she returned to Italy. Was she a lesbian? Probably not, but I’m also asking it aloud. I’m telling you this because she had the rich, complicated interior life of many a beloved 20th century male novelist. Yet, Spark is mostly known as a “writer’s writer,” which is to say, highly underrated and underrecognized (which is also to say, a woman writer). 

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Okay, lesson two: Miss Jean Brodie. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark’s most famous work, is a character study. It’s about a woman—the titular Miss Jean Brodie—who teaches at an all-girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh. Before we meet Brodie herself, we meet the Brodie set: a group of six students who follow Brodie around the Marcia Blaine School and then around Edinburgh itself. The Brodie set, Spark writes, “were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking. They had no team spirit and very little in common with each other outside their continuing friendship with Jean Brodie.” They are, in modern terms, teachers’ pets. 

Miss Jean Brodie, as both the title and the text mention, is in her prime: she has forsaken the traditional path of marrying young in lieu of teaching. Though Brodie and I are around the same age, the times in which Spark has placed her make her a spinster. Still, she has a mission. “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders,” she announces, “and all of my pupils are the crème de la crème.” Brodie’s students must be perfect, which is to say: they must be her. When she stares out across a classroom, she does not want to see a field of, say, wildflowers: unique and overgrown but straining towards the sun all the same. She wants two dozen mirrors, reflecting her youth back at her. She wants not her prime but several primes. I do not believe this desire is, at its root, malicious, but it is certainly not good. 

The genius of Spark as a writer is that, though the novel is titled for Brodie—whose influence touches every word on the page—The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is, first and foremost, about the Brodie set. The set is only as good as Brodie makes them (—or were they already good to begin with?). We see Brodie not through Brodie’s point of view, but rather the girls’. Specifically one Sandy Stranger, a perfect last name if I ever heard one. For it is Sandy Stranger’s memory, as well as hazy snippets from her peers, that paint the portrait of the prime of one Miss Jean Brodie.

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Okay, lesson three: Dame Maggie Smith. It will never not be hilarious that a whole generation of moviegoers were introduced to Dame Maggie Smith through her performance in the Harry Potter franchise as Professor Minerva McGonagall—the most decidedly un-Brodie-like performance across her entire filmography. 

Ronald Neame’s 1969 adaptation of the novel (which, in the interim, was also adapted into a play of the same name) begins not with the Brodie set but with Brodie herself. Walking out of her little Edinburgh rowhouse and hopping onto a bicycle, the camera follows Smith’s Brodie—sharp cheekbones and long eyelashes and neat blonde waves. She is all close-mouthed smiles and sympathetic eyebrows. Her posture is perfect. She is stunning. Rightly so. “Safety does not come first,” Brodie scolds in the novel, framing the headmistress’s respect for Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his slogan as ludicrous. “Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.” Brodie ought to be a bohemian dream, a liberal arts student’s fantasy. A teacher who loathes the government and loathes the bureaucracy, who refuses to do what so many educators are strong-armed into doing: teach to the test. 

There are people who are teachers, and there are teachers who are people. Most teachers are the former: they have a rich interiority, no doubt, but when they show up at work, they’re a Teacher. In layman’s terms, they have boundaries. Necessary. We love boundaries. More people should have them, in my authorial opinion. Brodie, sadly for her students and wonderfully for us, is the latter. 

Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie (1969) | 20th Century Fox

“Can anyone tell me who is the greatest Italian painter?” Brodie asks, head over her shoulder with a confident smirk.

“Leonardo di Vinci, Miss Brodie,” a freckled red-head answers.

“That is incorrect, Jenny,” Brodie says, unfurling a print. She is smiling, still. She knew the answer would be wrong when she asked the question. “The answer is Giotto. He is my favorite.”

Smith won the first of her two Academy Awards for this role, and though we do not always think of the Oscars as the most reliable judge of taste, a broken clock is right—hm, once every two years? It’s easy to see why the girls in the film worship her; I worship her. After a new student tells her she’s a member of the Girl Guides (the across-the-pond equivalent of Girl Scouts), Smith gives her a dead-eyed stare and nods to get her to stop speaking. “Indeed,” she comments, flipping through pages on her desk, “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” It’s cold, it’s cutting. If a modern teacher said this kind of thing, they’d get an email from a parent in a second. 

Still: it’s funny. Smith is so funny. She has always been a master of delivering coolness and feigning respect. When the headmistress beckons her to her office, Brodie reads the letter aloud to the class. “‘I hope it will be convenient for you to see me in my office this afternoon at 4:15.’ 4:15. Not 4:00, not 4:30, but 4:15. She thinks to intimidate me by the use of quarter-hours.” She crumples the note and lets it slip from her hands into the wastebasket. Everything about Brodie that is meant to look casual is impeccably calibrated. Smith is performing as a performer: Jean Brodie is a character in her own life. She is the protagonist of her world. A meeting at 4:15 is an insult, purposeful and demeaning, rather than what it is.

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Okay, lesson four: the teacher as an idol. The joy of Brodie, or should I say, in watching Brodie (or reading Brodie), is that we all know one. I am hard-pressed to believe that one could go through life without an extremely suspicious yet charismatic teacher at some point in their life. Who are the teachers you remember? Are they the “good” teachers? The bad ones? The young ones? The hot ones? The loathsome ones from who you apparently learned nothing? It’s probably a cocktail, but I have been fascinated to peruse the depths of my often-cursed memory for the teachers that made the greatest impact. There were several: a long-haired socialist, a Shakespeare-reciting nymph, a basketball-obsessed father. These figures, in vague terms, don’t sound like they would inspire a cult of personality, but the “cool” teachers are not necessarily the beloved ones. The teachers I remember are the ones whose offices I sat outside of, waiting for permission to enter. I knew their spouse’s first names. I knew what they got up to over the weekend. The line between who they were as a teacher and who they were as a person was blurred.

Were these teachers teaching their favorites or were they teaching what they believed was best? As a teacher now, it’s hard to know. My syllabus is full of the greatest hits, what I’d most like to have a conversation about regardless of the audience. But there: I wrote “audience,” and not “students.” In moments of weakness, I, like Jean Brodie, search for the beauty filter. It does not matter the content of the class, only what the class looks like. The blur stretches on, a long cloud drawn across the sky.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie | 20th Century Fox

Okay, lesson five: the downfall. Like any hyper-charismatic figure of authority, Brodie is doomed to fail. She does not fail because she has two affairs with other teachers in the school, though those certainly don’t help. Mr. Lloyd, played by Smith’s husband at the time, Robert Stephens, is the lustful art teacher. Mr. Lowther, played by Gordon Jackson, is the cherubic choir teacher. You already know why Brodie would harbor crushes on the art and choir teachers; it’s obvious she would never have any affection for someone who teaches, say, math. Brodie spurns Lloyd, and rightly so: he’s married with an ever-growing family. Lowther, on the other hand, is her real shot at a stable married life. Unmarried, country home. What more could a woman want? 

Her students are fascinated by her hinted-upon (and sometimes walked in-upon) romances with the fellow teachers at school. Because what student doesn’t speculate about the relationships of faculty members at their school? Even at the graduate level, I’m always fascinated to hear a teacher say something about another teacher. It dispels the myth that teachers live in their classroom. It gives them outer life, which is to say, it gives them drama. Not only does Brodie view herself in her students, her students view themselves back in her. They live vicariously through her interpersonal relationships until they start to live them. Sandy, played with searing earnestness by Pamela Franklin in the film’s second best performance, takes up with Mr. Lloyd in an attempt at—what, revenge? Jealousy? Need to please? Brodie once said Sandy would not grow up to be beautiful, and now Sandy is in Mr. Lloyd’s bed just as Brodie was. When Sandy looks at the easel in his studio, however, it isn’t her own face that stares back at her, but Miss Brodie’s. 

Sandy hates what she sees. Hates that Brodie is the object of affection. Hates that Brodie is a person: flaws and all. She wants to see her with the edges blurred, with soft cheeks as Mr. Lloyd paints her. And so she does what any student would do. Sandy tattles.

But, like I said, it’s not the affairs. It’s the, uh, casual fascism. “Benito Mussolini is a great man,” Brodie once lectures, pointer in hand. 

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Okay, lesson six: Time. Where the novel and the film diverge is mostly in the matter of time, or more specifically in how we are meant to perceive time. The novel is not told chronologically. It has the hazy structure of memory, flitting in and out of the past and future. We learn early into the novel that it is Sandy who has betrayed Miss Brodie, reporting her fascism to the school’s administration. In turn, there’s little suspense to the novel. We know the worst thing that will happen in a literal sense (though the psychological effects of Brodie upon her set will go on for years after). This allows the story to play out with much more irony. With the blur of memory, Brodie’s misgivings read funnier than they might in the moment. We are allowed to laugh because we have distance. In the novel, time, and Sandy, forgive Miss Jean Brodie.

The film, on the other hand, takes place in an exceedingly painful present tense. When Brodie and Sandy meet for the final time, it is not a beautiful farewell for either of them. Brodie is weeping, teetering on the edge of hysteria. Smith is brittle, red-faced. When she yells, it hurts. As she runs down the list of people she believes could have betrayed her, Brodie slights Sandy yet again. Ever underestimated Sandy is, especially when it comes to tattling. 

Pamela Franklin and Maggie Smith | 20th Century Fox

“Do you think that you are providence? That you can ordain love?” Sandy asks her, voice trembling. She confesses to being Mr. Lloyd’s lover, but is also telling Brodie that she cannot command her own love. Brodie is not worthy of the admiration of her students simply because she believes herself so. She cannot will herself into being the protagonist of their lives. 

“You really are a shallow girl, Sandy,” Brodie scolds. “It was you who betrayed me.”

“I didn’t betray you,” Sandy tells her, jaw clenched. “I simply put a stop to you.” Narrative is shut down. Betrayal is literary—dramatic and sweeping; endings are natural—painful and sharp. “You don’t see. You don’t see that you’re not good for people.” But for all of Sandy’s anger, as she goes to leave the classroom, she asks in the most quiet voice, “What will you do now?” She can’t help but want to know what a teacher is outside of the classroom.

The film is smart, in that we know by the end that while it may have been Brodie’s prime, it’s really Sandy’s story. And so it ends, rightly, with Sandy on the day of her graduation, walking alongside her peers down the streets of Edinburgh. She’s as young and as old as she’s ever going to be. Tears pool in her eyes, blurring whatever vision of the future remains.

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Okay, to close: “What will you do now?” It’s Sandy’s question, and it’s mine as well. What am I to my students now that I’m not in front of them? I’m a face on the screen, positioned against my least embarrassing bedroom wall. I keep my unfolded clothes out of sight. There’s no good way for them to see that I own a lot of books, but you’ll just have to trust that I own a lot of books. I have no idea how to be perceived when their cameras are off, when I can’t see their eyelids droop, their heads nodding off. I would take a sleepy student over an invisible student any day of the year. 

In online school, the student I look at is myself, fixed in the bottom corner of the video conferencing software. I gesticulate 10 times more than necessary which is to say twice as much as usual, as if somehow my hands could reach through the screen and make my students tangible again. In the classroom, I, like Brodie, used to know the pleasure of a nervous student drifting up to the podium with a lingering question. When my class used to end, I’d stay a few extra minutes in the room and clean up the chalkboard as students for the next class would pile in. I’d leave the building in the waning moments of the passing period, the hallways emptying of chattering kids. The decrescendo was needed in this switching out of teacher mode and into person mode. Now, the room depopulates. The squares that have come to represent my students’ attendance vanish. On a good day, a “take care” pops up in the chatroom. I take off my headphones, shut my laptop. No one else in the room but me. That’s that. I have no idea where they go.