Magazine article The Spectator

The Green-Eyed Monster Tamed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Green-Eyed Monster Tamed

Article excerpt

The green-eyed monster tamed THE FINISHING SCHOOL by Muriel Spark Penguin/Viking, £12.99, pp. 155, ISBN 0670911937

Muriel Spark once said somewhere that the whole of her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie emerged from its title. Something like this, one guesses, could also be true of Girls of Slender Means and of her latest novel. This concerns an expensive finishing school, for both sexes and various nationalities, on the shores of Lake Geneva, run by a youngish English married couple, Rowland and Nina. Rowland hopes to be a published novelist, so, 'to conserve his literary strength' as he puts it, he leaves almost all the office work to Nina. But she believes in his novel and has no objection. They are a very efficient pair.

As for their school, its leading characteristic is, you might say, to be frictionless: amicable and tolerant, and genuinely egalitarian in that Rowland and Nina do not 'pull' their seniority. Appropriately, it is a mobile school, 'moveable and cleanable' and in the habit of moving on: from Vienna to Switzerland to Ravenna. The students love it. When one of the students samples a summer course at Cambridge, she retreats in horror after four days, for 'they were teaching that pain in the neck (Leg called it pain in the ass) George Eliot'. 'What exactly is a finishing school?' asks a visiting neighbour. It is, says Rowland, a place where parents dump their children, to get them out of the way. It is a place to be really and truly finished, says Nina, 'like the finish on a rare piece of furniture'. 'Polished off?' another character ventures. At least two of the students have not even the faintest notion how to spell, and certainly this receives no improvement at College Sunrise. They are all, on the other hand, magnificently expert on dress.

But, all the same, friction invades the College, and this constitutes Spark's story. The 17-year-old student Chris, superlatively competent and confident, is writing a historical novel. In view of his extreme youth and good looks he is a hot publishing property, and several publishers are nibbling (there is also talk of film rights). Rowland, as his teacher in creative writing, asks to be shown some pages of his manuscript, and here terror begins. …

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