Over the past few days I’ve been reading through Alfred A. Knopf 1915-2015: A Century of Publishing, a volume celebrating the legacy of one of the world’s most influential publishers. Knopf, now a division of Random House, has published twenty-five Nobel Prize winners and numerous Pullitzer Prize and National Book Award winners. What struck me, however, as I browsed through this volume, was the decline in literary quality in recent decades, a reflection, no doubt, of a general decline in literacy and a consequent decline in literary sensibility.
Authors published by Knopf in its first fifty years included Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Willa Cather, Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring, Thomas Mann, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Walker Percy, to name but an illustrious few. Where, one wonders, are authors of this caliber to be found today? To be sure, they are few and far between, a dying breed, an endangered species. It is, therefore, always a delightful surprise to find something contemporary that is worth reading in the midst of the literary wasteland in which the discerning reader finds himself. One such contemporary author who is definitely worth reading is Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, a young Madrid-based author whose debut novel, The Awakening of Miss Prim, has become a most surprising international bestseller.
I was alerted to the existence of Fenollera’s novel when we published an interview with Miss Fenollera in the St. Austin Review, the cultural journal of which I am the editor. Intrigued and greatly impressed by Miss Fenollera’s eloquence and her evident love for all that is good, true, and beautiful in western civilization, I simply had to get my hands on the novel.
Set in the small fictional town of San Ireneo de Arnois, in which most people run small businesses and in which there is a notable absence of globalist encroachment, The Awakening of Miss Prim, takes the reader out of the messy world in which he finds himself and places him in a charmed world of elevated culture and simple pleasures. San Ireneo, we are told from the outset, is “a flourishing colony of exiles from the modern world seeking a simple, rural life.” It is idyllic, almost utopian, and exercises the same sort of power over the reader as does the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. It is a place that feels like home, even though we have never been there, a place which expresses the longing of the heart for the hearth and home that are missing in our cold, heartless, and hearthless world. In entering San Ireneo, we step across the threshold into a world of wonder in which life is seen as it really is, as something charged with the grandeur of God. One is reminded, perhaps, of stepping into C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe but a better analogy would be the words of Evelyn Waugh. “Conversion,” Waugh wrote, “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.”
Waugh’s words are a perfect encapsulation of what happens to Prudentia Prim, the novel’s protagonist, as soon as she arrives in San Ireneo. She brings with her all the pride and prejudice that is part of the psychological baggage of the all-too-modern woman that she is. She is confronted by the wisdom and the innocence of the people of San Ireneo and, especially, by the mysterious, unnamed Man in the Wing Chair, who not only confronts Miss Prim’s pride and prejudice but offers an affront to her sense and sensibility. The suggestive and almost insistent parallel with the characters of Jane Austen in the relationship between Miss Prim and the Man in the Wing Chair, whom she finds both infuriating and yet strangely attractive, are palpable. Miss Fenollera confesses that many readers see the Man in the Wing chair as Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, thereby casting Miss Prim, by extension or implication, as Elizabeth Bennet. Yet Miss Fenollera begs to differ. “I’d say he has much more in common with another character that comes from Jane Austen’s pen: Mr. Knightley from Emma.” And yet she also adds that there is something of C.S. Lewis in the character of the Man in the Wing Chair, as well as a smattering of John Senior, the great professor of humanities, whose influence appears to be a major influence on the whole of Fenollera’s novel. How could one not want to read a novel in which the male protagonist is a composite of C.S. Lewis, John Senior and Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma!
It need hardly be said that The Awakening of Miss Prim, for all its richness and charm, does not even come close to matching in brilliance the incomparable Miss Austen. Such a comment is, however, the opposite of a backhanded compliment; it’s a sort of backhanded criticism. After all, nobody can hold a candle to the incomparable Miss Austen, who is arguably the finest novelist who ever lived. In truth, however, the publisher’s editor could and should have cleaned-up certain aspects of Miss Fenollera’s style, not least of which is a naïveté which occasionally stretches the reader’s credulity, such as the time that Miss Prim tells the man she visited that she would like to stay all night. Miss Prim clearly did not mean this in the shocking manner that many of her readers might be tempted to take it. As prim and proper as ever, she clearly meant to say merely that she would like to stay longer, not that she would like to commit an act of fornication with her friend. It’s possible, of course, that this unfortunate and awkward phraseology is the fault of the translator and that it is not present in Miss Fenollera’s original Spanish. Nonetheless, it could and should have been corrected before publication. Although this is the most egregious example of editorial neglect, it is not the only occurrence of awkward phraseology. Such occurrences do not ruin the reader’s ability to suspend his disbelief, a necessary prerequisite for full engagement with the story, but they do weaken the imaginative experience.
Nonetheless, and in spite of these reservations, I am very pleased to have read this delightful book and am very keen to encourage others to do so. My reason for doing so is the deep affinity I feel for the spirit in which it is written, a spirit which is encapsulated in the epigraph by John Henry Newman which Miss Fenollera selected to raise the curtain on the novel’s theme: “They think that they regret the past, when they are but longing for the future.” In the final analysis, The Awakening of Miss Prim shows us that all of our nostalgia for an imagined golden age in the past is merely the deep longing of the human heart for the future golden age that awaits those who attain unity with Christ in heaven. This is the “happy ending” to which Miss Prim’s awakening points.