Comparison of the Significance of Single Working Women in Two Novels

The Millstone and The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.

Although these two novels were published within four years of each other, they provide a fascinating contrast. This is due, I believe, to the different historical period, and the social/geographic situation each novel deals with. Some of the differences of major significance are those to do with motherhood, sexual relationships and work. It is these three areas I aim to deal with in considering the two novels.

The area of work is represented as a problem for Jean Brodie from very early in the text. Talking to the clique of girls who are named the ‘Brodie set’ she says,(3) “We shall discuss tomorrow night the persons who oppose me. … But rest assured they shall not succeed.” This moment of sharing a confidence with girls who had been her pupils is an important and frequently mentioned part of themes the novel unfolds. Although the words ‘We shall discuss’ suggest there will be mutual sharing of ideas, in fact Jean Brodie is usually the information or advice giver, much as parents might be with their children. Like some parents, she also has a direction mapped out for the girls who are her favoured pupils. Her reprimand to an offending girl is therefore a suggestion, frequently repeated, that the girl who has not lived up to her expectation “… will never belong to life’s élite or, as one might say, the crème de la crème.”(4) The idea of this parental relationship is strengthened by such text as, “Miss Brodie’s brood…”(5) where her relationship with her pupils may be seen as one in which she uses them as subjects for her desire to have a special relationship with children. Jean Brodie’s struggle with spinsterhood is not directly mentioned, but there is a hint in the sentences,(6) “I tell you Mr. Geddes, birth control is the only answer to the problem of the working class. A free issue to every household….”

Despite being described as having love affairs, Jean Brodie is nevertheless a childless woman. Apart from the aside about birth control, there is never mention of the difficulty a single but sexually active woman might have in the 1930’s in connection with avoiding pregnancy and the stigma of having an illegitimate child. But Brodie is shown as a woman who navigates such treacherous seas with resolve, vigour and a powerful direction arising from her feelings that a sexual relationship is a thing of romantic passion and art. For instance her first lover’s death is described as falling “like an autumn leaf” and he being one of the “Flowers of the Forest…”(7) Talking about the man she loves but never has sex with – Teddy Lloyd – she says, “I am his muse, but I have renounced his love to dedicate my prime to the young girls in my care.”(8)

The statement that she was giving her ‘prime’ to her girls is a much-repeated phrase. It is nowhere stated that any of the girls asked her to do this. The phrase also suggests that she could have given it elsewhere and that it was something very valuable. The ‘elsewhere’ could have been a male lover who fitted her sense of romantic passion for instance. The constant repetition might also be seen as a sign of uncertainty regarding the very value she claims to be giving. If the references to love, sexuality, work and creativity are a clue, then the uncertainty is in regard to herself as a woman, herself as a spinster, and her relationships with men. The text points to this where it says, “… for in many ways Miss Brodie was an Edinburgh spinster of the deepest dye.”(9)

This idea of an Edinburgh spinster – of the deepest dye – needs defining. Firstly it does not say Jean Brodie is wholly such, but ‘in many ways’. This means we must allow her variations in her character. Considering that toward the end of the novel one of the Brodie set, Sandy, gives thought to the underlying Calvinism, there is an implied connection between Jean Brodie being of Edinburgh stock, and her sometimes Calvinistic response to being a spinster having love affairs. One obvious result is that she would not become the mistress or wife of Teddy Lloyd, because he was married. This is put into words when she says, “But I renounced him. … He was a married man. I renounced the great love of my prime.”(10) She also describes how she ‘managed’ her sexual needs and emotions in renouncing Teddy Lloyd – “I renounced Teddy Lloyd. But I decided to enter into a love affair, it was the only cure.”(11) Although it is not stated directly, the situation seems to be one of great stress. I think this becomes obvious when we read such passages as this expression of Sandy’s thoughts:-

“In this oblique way, she began to sense what went to the makings of Miss Brodie who had elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more.”(12)

Miss Brodie’s affair with Gordon Lowther was the attempted means of ‘curing’ or coping with her sexual drive, her need for a man she could admire in face of her innate Calvinism, or the Calvinism(13) surrounding her. Not only the affair, but her search for political meaning in Fascism and Nazism, also suggest the stress and hidden pain she was experiencing.

To be even more explicit, Jean Brodie did not fully allow her need for Teddy Lloyd because of the social climate she lived in, and because of her own moral code. To compensate for this and her own spinster’s life, she developed an unusual and in many ways problematical relationship with some of her pupils, as well as an affair with Gordon Lowther. The failure to satisfy her own needs and ideals led also to the side effect of her conflict with authority in her work scene.(14) This unresolved conflict eventually enabled a successful plot to discredit her and thus remove her from her position as teacher.

In comparing the situation of Jean Brodie with that of Rosamund Stacey, Rosamund does not live in a climate where it is so necessary either to avoid a sexual relationship with a married man, or being the parent of an illegitimate child. Jean Brodie is not portrayed as fearing sex, but as living within social and personal attitudes that were critical of what, in the thirties in Edinburgh, were considered ‘looseness’ of character or morals, and of course threatened ones likelihood of employment. An indication that this was an important issue is revealed when the headmistress, Miss Mackay, is questioning Sandy. Mackay is trying to find a way to oust Jean Brodie, and Sandy says, “Yes. But you won’t be able to pin her down on sex. Have you thought of politics?”(15) So Jean Brodie is shown as walking a tightrope, attempting to keep her balance between her personal needs and social/work demands.

Rosamund clearly states her difference. “My crime,” she says, “was my suspicion, my fear, my apprehensive terror of the very idea of sex. I liked men, and was forever in and out of love for years, but the thought of sex frightened the life out of me….”(16) Such statements make the plot believable, enabling Rosamund to have sex, become pregnant, and yet not stay with the father of the child. In lying with her lover, despite great joy, she realises, as she puts it, “I was incapable, even when happy, of exposing myself thus far.”(17) By this she means not exposing her pleasure and desire for him – George – to stay. Unlike Jean Brodie, Rosamund has a place to live despite having almost no income, so events do not push her to grasp at her needs in quite the same way, until she has a baby.

This is quite a different situation. Rosamund nowhere feels her devious forms of love affairs will endanger her work. In her case it is the possibility of having a baby that makes her wonder if motherhood will interfere with her ambitions and work. These are only passing fears however, not, as with Jean Brodie, constants with which she must confront and wrestle again and again.

Both books could be thought of as survival guides for women living alone within particular environments. Rosamund survives her sexual/emotional needs by having two men friends from whom she gets enough cuddles and “enjoyed being in love and being kissed on the doorstep,”(18) even if in general she avoided sex with her men friends. So here is instruction for women who want company but not sexual involvement with its complications and dangers. Jean Brodie manages her environment by bonding with a number of girls and having secret and carefully concealed sex with a male she doesn’t really love.

With The Millstone, the main feature however, is its instruction for the intelligent, capable, female single parent who has supportive parents. Particularly I see the descriptive passages about hospitalisation and dealing with hospital authority as instruction. The “nice woman” who is allowed in to see her sick child, tells Rosamund, “Oh, I got in all right. I made them give it to me in writing before I let him (her baby) in, that I could come. Then all one has to do is show the letter.”(19) Rosamund goes on to say, “That shows foresight. I had to have hysterics.”(20)

Therefore, both books are explicitly about how a single woman can cope with her needs as a human being, needs such as love, company and means of livelihood. The means of coping, of dealing with what arises, is shown through comparing the novels, as being necessarily very different. The dissimilarities arise out of being in social, moral and class settings that require and allow specially adapted behaviour and responses. For instance it would have been unthinkable for Jean Brodie to straightforwardly have an illegitimate child, or openly consort with a married man. She could not extend her period of studying for higher qualification because of her need to earn her livelihood. These issues were not productive of the same sort of stress for Rosamund. Of course, Rosamund’s responses are also well adapted to her social, historical and class possibilities. So the novels, in relationship to each other, also point out the need to be, as it were, street wise, in regard to ones times and possibilities. The books are also handbooks in certain respects, indicating to women who may not have arrived at such pointed awareness, some of the ways of dealing with special needs.

Lastly, both novels show that an attempt to live normally within the social and historical periods dealt with, produced some level of neurosis in the two main characters. I use the word neurosis here to mean inability to be at ease with ones social, work and environmental surroundings. Being at ease means very basic things such as being able to breathe. If breathing is curtailed for more than a minute or so we become deeply stressed. If longer, dead! In lesser degrees the other fundamental needs are to eat, to reproduce, and to have some level of social recognition and company. Many people struggle enormously with their need or desire to eat – either because they cannot economically get enough food, or because they have fears surrounding eating. In The Millstone, Rosamund admits, in the quote already given, that she is terrified of sex. Out of this she avoids close contact in case it will be demanded of her. With Jean Brodie the opposite is true. She wants a sexual relationship, but with a man she respects. As the novel points out early, the man she loved was killed in the Great War. Even her second choice, Teddy Lloyd, had lost one arm in the war. So the environment she must deal with is that of diminished choice because there are few men. This stress compounds into problems related to work and thus her economic welfare. Rosamund’s inability to ask for her needs, her fear of sex, are not, as with Jean Brodie, shown as exterior factors, except inasmuch as they arose from her social/family training and early habits of relationship.

Therefore, not only are the novels about how a single woman can survive in the environments described, but also how she can meet the neurosis/stress such an internal or external environment may give rise to.


Drabble, Margaret. The Millstone. Published by Penguin Books. ISBN: 0-14-002842-0.

Funk and Wagnells New (28 volume) Encyclopaedia on CD ROM as Infopedia. 1994. REF: 0061-0055-07 V1.7.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Published by Penguin Books. ISBN: 0-14-002235-X.



Drabble, Margaret. The Millstone. Published by Penguin Books, 1968 – first published 1965.


Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Published by Penguin Books, 1965 – first published 1961.


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Calvin taught that those people who learn the truth about human depravity, that even the best deeds are tainted and none is pure, can repent and depend on God the Father for salvation. Human sin, inherited from Adam and Eve, produces in each person an “idol factory” Calvin taught also people are predestined either to be saved or dwell in Hell. This pessimistic view is not one to encourage hope.

But another aspects of Calvinism is as follows – Many of the tenets of Calvinism have had profound social implications, in particular, that thrift, industry, and hard work are forms of moral virtue and that business success is an evidence of God’s grace. Because these views helped to create a climate favourable to commerce, Calvinism played a role in the establishment of capitalism.

Paraphrased from Funk & Wagnall’s 28-volume Encyclopaedia – Infopedia, 1994.


Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, believed that modern civilisation inevitably produces neurosis, because it forces people to repress natural desires and consequently frustrates an inherent human tendency to adjust biologically and psychologically to the environment. Neurotic anxiety results. From Infopedia – CD ROM – 1994.


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