Spark claims to write her novels in longhand in one draft only. The claim argues a remarkable mind, an extraordinarily coherent imagination, an immaculate fluency and great certainty of effect. Her novels—and The Finishing School is her twenty-second—support that argument.
Set in a private school of eight students run by a would-be novelist, Rowland, and his supportive girlfriend, Nina, the novel plays out her customary themes—the will, fate, the writing life—and proceeds at that stiletto-sharp pace that characterizes her entire work, a mercilessly neat tread that pulls the reader along in its wake.
Its school setting recalls The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and its cast of youthful characters The Girls of Slender Means. Rowland’s obsessive envy of one of his students, Chris—who is effortlessly writing a novel Rowland fears will be better, more successful and more likely to be finished than his own—continues a series of literary power struggles that energizes previous works. The preoccupation with writing—the business, indeed the madness of art (in this she is distinctly Jamesian)—has been there from the start of her career, the peerlessly accomplished debut that was The Comforters.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, and The Ballad of Peckham Rye (don’t these titles sing with a witty grandeur that is an index of their content?), along with The Comforters and Memento Mori are the work of her (what else can one call it?) prime. There is also the middle period of slim, acerbic, expertly tailored novels such as The Driver’s Seat and The Abbess of Crewe. There is no writer like her. For me, she far outpaces Waugh (but not, perhaps, Graham Greene) as a maker of parables for the Catholic faith in the twentieth century, outpaces him without doing anything as unseemly as losing breath, breaking into a sweat or even appearing to try.
The Finishing School is a late work by an artist who knows enough to do the minimum and, quite possibly, one who sees no point in doing anymore. It is remarkable. It is assured. It is one more novel by a great novelist, but it is not great itself. It is good; Muriel Spark is always good; it is fun; she is always fun, wickedly so; it is also not quite good enough, and when a novel is only fun it is, in the end, just silly.
In another novel, Loitering with Intent, written in 1981, and in many ways a return and re-blossoming of the early Spark, her heroine, Flora, types up her entire novel in one day, and never looks at it again:
The Finishing School reads as if Flora may well have written it, and that Muriel Spark should have redrafted it. The subplots are no more than sporadic references to other events—a drug deal, an art theft, bankruptcy, espionage—and they go undeveloped and unresolved or are summarily dispatched. There is one chapter in which the students put on a fashion show and its relevance to the novel’s action is minimal, its comedy minor and uncertain. The majority of the characters—and there are many of them—waft in and out, are hazily described and indifferently elaborated. Even the main relationships—those between Rowland and his student, and Rowland and his partner, Nina—are repeatedly asserted rather than dramatized and complicated. When Rowland and Chris’s relationship rises to declarations of both murder and love the temperature of the novel stays at its lukewarm level. Spark is as detached as ever she was from the fate of her characters, but, this time, so are we.
There has always been something airily dismissive about Spark’s narrative voice, a God-like disposition, one that thoroughly comprehends the world yet is so high above it that it is also breezily unconcerned about it. Her best novels seem the work of a master chess-player, confident of—and so indifferent to—winning, working in a series of knight’s moves as if the plot were a defenceless king kept in constant and confident check.
Her deployment of the omniscient point of view is her most characteristic feature as a novelist, a technique that animates material lesser writers would not touch or would drown in a sticky and self-justifying syrup: compare the ice-cold sharpness and lack of sentiment of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to, say, the scummy sugariness of works with the same plot such as Dead Poets’ Society or Mona Lisa Smile.
From her high vantage point Spark arranged her best novels with an elegant cruelty, moving and manipulating place and time, foreshadowing and even declaring the characters’ futures—giving the plot away, the very thing other novelists hug to the bitter end—so that we are given, in The Prime of Miss Brodie, not only a Sandy Stranger who is a pig-eyed schoolgirl enthralled by her teacher but also, simultaneously, the nun she will become, a woman made by the one she betrayed.
This omniscience is at work in The Finishing School, too. We are told quite early on that Nina will leave Rowland, marry a secondary character and become an art historian, and that both Rowland and Chris will succeed as writers, but these foretellings feel matter of fact and, as fates, matter less than they should—far less. As knowledge none of this compares to the terrible destinies handed out to some of the characters in The Girls of Slender Means, or the wistful rememberings of the middle-aged women who were once under the spell of Miss Jean Brodie who we know, even as we see her in her prime, will be betrayed by one of them (and rightly), and who will die of cancer, bitter and beaten, to lie in a neglected grave.
In her earlier novels Spark was no more kind or warm but she allowed her characters a degree of validity, even dignity, that she does not summon up in this present novel. By her cold yet witty detachment she would create a gap the readers filled, warming the novel in their heads as they read it. We know, morally, that Jean Brodie is a terrible creature, ignorant, manipulative, and unhealthy, and yet each of us would have clamoured to be in her class. We both agree and are at odds with her—or appear to be, Spark is always in charge—and this complex and complicated relationship is what the greatest novels provide, and it is only one of the reasons why The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a great novel.
In The Finishing School, however, we share the same attitude as the narrator: these are somewhat silly people; they are interested in interesting things, but are not interesting in themselves. The sad thing about Spark’s later work is that, while it remains readable, distinctive, admirable in its concision and poise, as a writer she has not moved on. She has narrowed her range, and narrowed it without deepening it.
This could be—as some have claimed—because of her move to Europe and America; she has lived for sometime now in Italy. Britain does not like its artists to live abroad but to be at home where it can ignore them there, too. It does feel true, however, that since the late 1960s and 1970s, the novels have thinned in substance, effect and ambition, and their settings have been, in part, accountable, lacking the miraculous density of 1930s Edinburgh or the war-damaged London in her best novels. Beside them, the Israel of The Mandelbaum Gate or the Venice of Territorial Rights do not compare. When we realize at the end of The Hothouse by the East River that the characters have been dead from the start there is no surprise; the New York setting has hardly stirred been to life either. Only when she returned to post-war London in Loitering with Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington did the old Spark flicker into active life again. These two novels, while less wrought and finely achieved, seemed, genuinely, like homecomings, and her female heroines would not have been out of place at the May of Teck Club, in Peckham Rye or the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
The female characters of Spark’s greatest works are incomparable achievements; sexual, powerful, intelligent, free, and if some are finally punished and constrained it isn’t out of puritan or even patriarchal spite but as part of the merciless working out of its author’s Calvinist—even Jansenist—view of the world.
Female characters in The Finishing School end up as wives or shopkeepers or weathergirls; no feminist point is being made; it is a symptom—an index—of how inconsequential Spark’s vision has become. There is no real reaching out to the world beyond the novel, and there is no real, purposeful sense of a world in the novel—or not one that is more than half-realized or more than lazily suggested.
Chris, the precocious student, is writing a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, and there are passing discussions of the responsibilities of a historical novelist—in summary, not particularly onerous—and The Finishing School has some sense of itself as being an historical novel, written from some point in the near future, but no real argument is made of this either. Compare the world of The Finishing School to the post war England of The Girls of Slender Means and the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Outside of Miss Brodie’s classroom stands Scotland in the Depression, a nation of women widowed or made forever single by the First World War. There is the Civil War in Spain, and another World War waiting for its characters. In The Finishing School there is only Tony Blair and Phil Collins and Michael Jackson. Has the world grown less pressing on Muriel Spark? It would seem so—and that is our loss, too.
In the end this is one more novel written by a great novelist who is not giving of her best. One is grateful to have it because it is by her. I would happily have ten more—even twenty—but there is no reason to rejoice at it other than it is proof she is alive, still prolific, and that readers are ever hopeful. Her second novel, Memento Mori, was a matchless comedy of mortality and geriatric fears, written, at a comparatively young age, with a fearless confidence and a sublimely heartless wit. How wonderful it would be if she could bookend her magnificent career with a novel on the same theme. In a writer’s life there can be more than one prime.