Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
In her final novel, The Finishing School, Spark again demonstrated her gift for satirical comedy. The targets of her satire are the proprietors of College Sunrise, a school temporarily based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the teenage students whose well-to-do parents deposit them there, mistakenly assuming that their offspring will emerge with a store of useful knowledge. What the parents do not know is that Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, have set up the school purely as a moneymaking project. Though he teaches creative writing with authority, at twenty-nine Rowland has not yet published anything of note. However, with their income from the school, which is actually run by his long-suffering wife, he has no need to work. At last he has time to finish the great novel he is sure he has within him. Unfortunately, Rowland finds that he cannot write it: He has developed a severe case of writer’s block.
Eighteen-year-old Chris Wiley, who is one of Rowland’s creative writing students, has no such problem. He is moving right along with a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, and despite the author’s inexperience and his cavalier attitude toward historical fact, he is already being contacted by potential publishers. Rowland’s jealousy of the younger writer, intensified by his unacknowledged sexual feelings for him, rapidly develops into an obsession so overwhelming that Rowland can think of nothing but killing his rival.
Such a plotline could well fit a tragedy or one of the darker mysteries. However, like traditional satirists, Spark is at least as interested in exposing folly and pretense as she is in pointing out instances of vice. Adopting the posture of limited omniscience, she moves from mind to mind, recording the random thoughts of her characters and thus revealing their secret selves. For example, while Nina appears to be totally devoted to her husband and his goal, she envisions a future without him. It is hardly surprising that she ends up in London with an art gallery owner, Israel Brown, whom she met in Lausanne. Chris, too, has thoughts he does not share. Not only does he sense Rowland’s sexual interest in him but he even discovers that the tension between them is essential to his own creativity. Even minor characters in The Finishing School have secret impulses. Dr. Alice Barclay-Good, a sixty-year-old guest lecturer, responds with professorial dignity to Chris’s questions about Mary, Queen of Scots, her special interest. Later Chris comes to her room to compliment her and to continue the discussion. By the time he slips into bed with her, her mind is on his red hair and his youth, and nothing else matters.
Though in keeping with Spark’s Catholic perspective, The Finishing School presents examples of all the seven deadly sins, the author approaches her subject by pointing out that human beings fall into sin by deceiving others and deceiving themselves. Like the great satirists who preceded her, she knows that the surest way to reform others is to show them their own errors in the follies of others.
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