My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering. I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while. I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.
According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book. Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels… Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’. The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!).
The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening. It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former. The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.
The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’. After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’
One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers. In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’. No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing. Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.
Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing. This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’ Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel. They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough. They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition. It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day. He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’
The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well. Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything. The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs. I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career. My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together. Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.