The Finishing School

It seems appropriate that Spark should return, in her final novel, to the setting of her most successful: a school. Not only are there over forty years between the writing of the two novels, but, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie set in the 1930s, and The Finishing School (we assume) in the contemporaneous 2000s, there are some noticeable differences. Jean Brodie, for all her faults, was famously dedicated to her pupils; Rowland and his wife Nina, who run the finishing school of College Sunrise, are more concerned with making sure they break even, and that Rowland is allowed the opportunity to write his novel:

“Both Nina and Rowland aimed principally at affording Rowland the time and space and other opportunities to complete his novel, while passing their lives pleasantly.”

Of course, Brodie too was a ‘novelist’ of sorts, attempting to write her pupils’ lives. The novel becomes a battleground between her and her most devoted student, Sandy, just as The Finishing School develops into a conflict between Rowland and Chris, a young man who has come to the school to finish his own novel.

From the beginning we can see that their relationship is strained; Rowland, far from mentoring Chris, is jealous of the apparent ease with which he writes, and advises him to scrap everything he has written immediately after reading it:

“A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked.”

Chris, on the other hand, is confidence personified. “He felt affectionate towards Rowland,” we are told, “almost protective.” His novel concerns Mary Queen of Scots, but he has little interest in historical accuracy:

“He was quite capable of making history work for him, his plot, his characters.”

Spark, of course, has little time for hubris. When Chris contemplates “the non-noticing faculties of people” it is an unheeded warning that his own faculties for noticing are not as acute as he thinks. To Chris, it is simply “a game he is playing with Rowland” – Rowland searches his room for the novel; Chris hides it in another pupil’s room. His arrogance extends to his writing. When Rowland asks him if his characters have a life of their own, he replies:

“Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it.”

With the focus of Chris’ novel being the murder of Rizzio – a violent act of jealousy – it seems the scene is set for a dramatic conclusion, as Rowland comments:

“I could kill him…But would that be enough.”

Meanwhile Rowland’s marriage is suffering:

“As an act of will, she gave Rowland her full sympathy but she knew it contained a built-in time limit.”

Spark is particularly funny when it comes to marital argument: Nina intends to confront Rowland about the fact that she is increasingly having to run the school herself but begins with an accusation that he is attracted to one of the pupils. She does, however, suggest that Rowland “write about Chris and get him off your chest,” a suggestion Rowland is only too happy to accede to:

“It will eventually be a life study of a real person, Chris.”

It is perhaps at this point that the power balance between Rowland and Chris begins to turn, as it becomes clear that Chris needs Rowland’s jealousy in order to write.

Amid all this there are the smaller stories of the other pupils (there are only eight in the school) and staff which decorate the novel like tiny jewels. Opal’s father is bankrupt (and under arrest) but the school decides that the right thing to do is to keep her on. Tilly is intent on a career in journalism despite her severe dyslexia. Mary’s dream is to open a shop which sells ceramics and scarves. Meanwhile Nina teaches them such useful skills as how to eat a plover’s egg, and how to confuse an elephant should it chase you. Though Chris and Rowland are at the novel’s centre, Spark does not forget her other characters, exhibiting them in style in a wonderful set piece when the school holds a fashion show (with Chris, of course, as the master of ceremonies).

Spark masterminds the increasing tension towards the novel’s conclusion with her usual aplomb. Rowland returns to the school after burying his father, relieved that at least his father’s death took his mind of Chris. “Maybe you need another death,” Chris tells him, “to get over your obsession. A more important one.” There is a sense that Chris is attempting to control Rowland as if he were one of his characters. Naturally, when any character in Spark feels they are in control, it is a sign they are about to lose it.

The Finishing School is a fitting end to Spark’s career as a novelist. It is difficult to believe anything other than that the title was predestined, and that its final line, the transfiguration of the ordinary voice of a weather presenter, carries its own playful implication:

“As we go through this evening and into the night…”

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4 Responses to “The Finishing School”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Well done on getting to the end Grant – and this does sound like a fitting end to her career!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think you’ve sold me on this! The school setting really appeals, as does the idea of various smaller stories within the narrative – that’s one of the things I find so involving about Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘ensemble’ novels with their marvellous ‘minor’ characters…

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