Muriel Spark's latest novel, The Finishing School, is very short and concise, like most of her other novels. Also like them, it focuses on some of the meanest traits of human nature, here a particular kind of envy and jealousy that one aspiring writer has for another. The irony—and Spark is a masterful ironist—is that the jealousy is that of a headmaster for one of his students. Rowland Mahler is trying to write a novel and becomes obsessively envious of Chris Wiley, who is also writing a novel—about the way Henry, Lord Darnley, husband to Mary Queen of Scots, was murdered. Chris has developed a theory that it was a murder of revenge by Jacopo Rizzio, brother of David Rizzio, whom Darnley had killed because he believed David was his wife's lover and not merely her musician and servant.
After a visit to the Castle of Chillon with his schoolmates, Chris conceives the idea that Jacopo had met and conspired with Francois Bonivard to kill Darnley. Bonivard, long held in the dungeon of the castle, became famous as the prisoner of Chillon, the subject of George Gordon, Lord Byron's poem, and was later set free. Chris believes Bonivard could have met David, as David had been attached to the court of Savoy through the Italian ambassador. Further, Chris believes, after David's murder Jacopo sought out Bonivard to support him in his plot against Darnley.
This theory raises Rowland's interest—and more. He is struck that so young and inexperienced a writer could have come upon so interesting an idea. He is keen to see Chris's novel in progress, and one day to find the manuscript he even ransacks Chris's room. Chris, however, has cleverly secreted his manuscript with Pallas Kapelas in her room; Rowland is foiled. The more he and Chris talk about the novel Chris is writing, the more jealous and envious Rowland becomes, and the more he is himself unable to work on his own novel. He therefore suffers something far worse that ordinary writer's block. As a further irony, one of the classes that Rowland teaches at his school is creative writing, in which he gives advice to his students on how to write a novel.
Rowland becomes not only unable to write, he also obsesses over finding out what Chris has written. This obsession takes over his life almost completely—to the extent that his wife, Nina, has to assume more and more responsibility for running the school. Both Rowland and Nina, still in their twenties, started their boarding school a few years earlier, in Brussels, but kept moving it about, leaving behind a few unpaid debts but making a new beginning for the school elsewhere. To the students’ parents they rationalize that their school, College Sunrise, is experimental, moving to a new location each year. At the present time, the school is located in Switzerland, at Ouchy, near Lausanne. They have only a handful of students—eight altogether—but they have raised the school fees high enough to afford a decent cuisine as well as comfortable quarters. From time to time they invite distinguished visiting lecturers and arrange excursions to places of interest, such as the Castle of Chillon.
Early in the novel, as Chris passes a row of private villas, he hears someone playing a violin, but he cannot tell who he or she is. As this happens several times, Chris's curiosity is aroused and he tells Rowland about it. The two of them then walk together to the house to try to discover who is playing and why. It is the villa of Dr. Israel Brown, a British art dealer and owner of a gallery, but the person playing the violin, apparently trying to attract Chris's attention, is Israel's young aunt, Giovanna. Having broken her shin, she has come to her nephew's villa to recuperate. She has noticed red-haired Chris and decided to tease him. As it happens, when Rowland and Chris call, the Browns are not home, but later aunt and nephew visit College Sunrise and become acquainted with the Mahlers.
Nina seems glad for the visit, for she and her husband see very few of the people who actually live in the area. Israel inquires about the nature of the school and asks what a finishing school is. Rowland explains that it is “a place where parents dump their teenage children after their...