Many of Spark's novels insist on telling us, either at the start of the book or in the course of it, what will become of the characters many years hence. We learn at the beginning of The Girls of Slender Means that one of the protagonists, Nicholas Farringdon, will become a missionary and be brutally killed in Haiti, and this foreknowledge shadows our reading of the whole book. Spark has been intensely interested in how our lives are written and how one writes a life. Our lives are "written" because they are foreordained, and free will, once we can see the whole of a life, from start to finish, is an obvious illusion. Mary Macgregor was always going to die at twenty-three in a fire, and Chris was always going to have exactly the kind of literary career he eventually had. But only God and novelists see the whole of a life in this unnatural way. Should novelists do what only God can rightfully do? (Spark, it will be remembered, is a devout Catholic convert.) For what Spark does is also what Miss Brodie does: she bullyingly controls her characters, breaking in to tell us what will become of them. Sandy dislikes just this aspect of Miss Brodie, fearing that she wants to act like the predestinating God of Calvinism and decide in advance who will be saved and who will be damned.
One might say that for Spark to control her characters so blatantly while uneasily apologizing for it is contradictory rather than paradoxical, and smacks of having one's cake and eating it. Spark, I think, would reply that the novelist can do nothing else, because she simply has this power over her characters; not to admit it, to hide that control in fathoms of agreeable artifice, is to act in bad faith. (Similar scruples occupy the Ian McEwan of Atonement: the heroine of that novel atones for the sin of inventing a lie about people she knew by writing ideal endings for their lives.)
Nearing the conclusion of her career, Spark has returned to these themes in The Finishing School—with less success than in the great early novels, but nonetheless interestingly. Chris, the tyro, and Rowland, the failure, argue about these matters. The latter says that his characters always feel free to him (though this, the reader reflects with a smirk, may be because he has not actually ever created any): "The characters take over." Chris, sounding like Spark or Nabokov, disagrees: "They live the lives I give them … I'm in full control … Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it." Spark herself employs a Chris-like control, informing us throughout the book of what will become of her brood. Rowland, we learn, "was in a muddle, which was not to say he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he was to do by writing a different sort of book." Rowland's wife will leave him and "was to become an art historian, but that was after great effort, and after time ahead." And the students, it seems, will all turn out pretty much as one might expect. Just as, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a girl "famous" at thirteen for something will then seem to be fixed for life by that tag, so at the finishing school personalities are already mummified. Spark is amusing on this score, combining a mordancy about contemporary journalism with a sarcasm about the intellectual level of the school's privileged students.
Princess Tilly was writing a thesis on the massacre of the Nepalese royal family in recent years. She had met one of their remote cousins at the Plaza Hotel in New York … Tilly was already launching herself excellently on her future journalistic career. Rowland marveled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were … How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.'s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly "dansed" with her friend from "Nipall." Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.
So the book's title may encode several puns. Chris is puzzling over how to finish his historical novel (like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman, he has two different endings), while Rowland is unable to finish anything. A finishing school "finishes" one for adult life, polishes the rough stones into gems; yet how awful to be "finished" in one's late teens—as Princess Tilly is—when one should only be started! And the finishing school is where Rowland's marriage to Nina will finish. Horribly, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls is also, in this grim sense, a "finishing" school, wherein an entire life's course is preordained. Spark, it seems, not only exercises, however anxiously and self-consciously, an omniscient authorial control, but also has a somewhat austere and limited sense of individual freedom. The Catholic convert from Edinburgh, who has lived many years in relaxed Italy, turns out to wear a Scottish Calvinist corset after all.