“And jealousy is an affliction which, unlike some sins of the flesh, gives no one any pleasure.”
The title of Muriel Spark’s short novel, The Finishing School, conjures up images of proper young ladies attending an elite institution in Switzerland. Scratch that: Spark’s finishing school, College Sunrise, is a second rate shady venture run by a young married couple, Nina and Rowland. The school, with its 9 students, is mobile and “would move somewhere new every year.” This impresses parents with the boho-ness of their children’s education, but it’s also a way for Nina and Rowland to escape debts and outrun the need for a permanent license. Rowland, a would-be novelist, teaches the school’s creative writing course. As his novel continues to remain patchy and unfinished, Nina has taken over more and more of the business side of the school in order to allow Rowland to “conserve his literary strength.” Nina and Rowland’s relationship strains to breaking point when one of the students, the very confident 17-year-old Chris, begins to write a novel.
Of the 9 students, some with questionable family members, Chris causes Rowland the most “disquiet,” and when Rowland realizes that the first chapter of Chris’s historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots, is good, he initially peevishly tries to discourage Chris. But Chris won’t be discouraged. Rowland becomes depressed, “off his food,” and so begins an intricate game of jealousy and obsession. Nina, buried with work, begins to wonder if she made a mistake marrying Rowland:
She looked at Rowland’s unfinished supper and felt a wave of panic. She was afraid that something was happening to Rowland beyond explanation with which she would be unable to cope.
Nina becomes aware that what is going on is Rowland’s head isn’t normal. She suggests that Rowland write about Chris “to get him off your chest.” Rowland’s random observations are supposed to be the beginnings of a springboard for Rowland’s novel:
Was Chris inside the gates lurking? Could he be a peeping tom under the guise of a researcher for his own novel? What was he really up to sitting around the bar of the hotel next door? He says he’s 17 but to me he seems older. Is he 17? Perhaps 19. Pallas Kapelas is not yet 17. Chris is very friendly with her. Does he sleep with Pallas? If so he’s a pedophile.
Initially, being able to jot down weird accusations against Chris helps, but the more Rowland writes, the more hate filled vitriol he spews. There’s a lot of humour here as Rowland sinks into his obsession with Chris, and Nina, realizing she must move on, begins an affair. Rowland is, of course, oblivious that his wife has a lover.
Chris has never experienced jealousy before but he finally recognizes this emotion in Rowland. And of course, Chris’s novel, about the murder of Rizzio, follows the inevitable path of this powerful, toxic emotion. A visiting scholar (the school’s only requirement is that they should be cheap) points out that Elizabeth I was deeply jealous of Mary, Queen of Scots. What a chain of jealousy we have here: Lord Darnley is jealous of Rizzio, Elizabeth I is jealous of Mary and Rowland is jealous of Chris. Rowland soon comes to believe that Chris, who is actively talking to publishers and bragging about a film version of his still un-published book, is actually hindering the writing of his novel.
Certainly Rowland gains no pleasure from his thoughts about Chris, and since he can’t sway Chris’s confidence, he contemplates murder. Will the finishing school become a finishing-off school????
An awfully nice boy Rowland said. In his tone was a touch of regret as if Chris had been an awfully nice dog that however, for some overwhelming reason, had to be taken to the vet to be put down.
I could kill him thought Rowland, but would that be enough?
The Finishing School is a wonderful example of Muriel Spark’s biting, sometimes cruel, wit. No one comes off well here: the parents who are so happy to get rid of their children (at a cut rate price) that they don’t ask too many questions, Nina whose “Comme il Faut” class teaches the students useless trivia such as what they should do if they see a python, or Rowland who can’t accept his own failures.