The Awakening of Miss Prim
© 2014 Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
The Awakening of Miss Prim is a funny little novel, and not the sort of thing that would ordinarily be on my radar: a cozy romance, set in a ridiculously comfortable little village where people cycle around and drink tea and eat pastries all day? …okay, that sounds rather nice ,actually. But it was a quote, not a pastry, that got my attention:
“If you were convinced that the world had forgotten how to think and teach, if you believed it had discarded the beauty of art and literature, if you thought it had crushed the power of the truth, would you let that world educate your children?”
With the exception of science, I find little attractive in modern education; History is reduced to grudge-settling, philosophy to postmodern vapor, economics to supporting the will of politicians. It’s all rubbish, and I turn my back on it and look instead to sense and beauty where I can find it, usually in old books. I take as my motto Henry David Thoreau’s maxim: read not The Times, read the Eternities. That spirit pervades The Awakening of Miss Prim, for Prudencia Prim is something of a seeker. In the world she’s a lost soul, who feels herself out of time — but the chance glimpsing of a job as librarian in a small village puts her on the road to answers. She finds them in a funny little village, where no one seems to work more than five hours a day and people make casual references to Latin poetry. But as a modern, progressive woman, she also finds herself a little bothered by the Feminist Society wanting to marry her off, and by the fact that the village’s children don’t go to school. What sort of place is this?
The Awakening of Miss Prim strikes me as unique in that it’s a philosophical romance of sorts, where there’s more thinking and less bodice-ripping. (Actually, there’s no bodices being ripped: it’s more tea-sipping and longing.) The philosophy itself is borrowed heavily from G.K. Chesteron, which was absolutely unexpected and absolutely a ball. The author throws it at the reader far too heavily, though, and I say this as someone who likes GKC and what he stood for. As fiction, though, I can’t buy someone just saying, apropos of nothing, “Are you all Distributists or something?” Miss Prim, not even distributists would ask that. (It’s a bit like suddenly talking about life insurance or operating systems the way adverts seem to think ordinary people do.)
Distributism, or Localism as the Society of GKC is now trying term it, is a philosophy which “envisions a society in which both political power and the ownership of production (on which political power depends) are as widely distributed as possible. In this society, no one is an employee; almost everyone has an owner’s stake in society, whether in the form of a family farm, a small business, or membership in a cooperative. ” That’s how I defined it when reviewing Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective. I added: “Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton argued for it as a moral alternative. as a system that would protect the integrity and autonomy of the family against both the ravages of factory dependence and state socialism”.
Although no one in the village ever tells Miss Prim “We’re distributists here, we believe this and we do that”, the village itself is an embodiment of its principles. The family is the center of society; there are no factories, only handicrafts, and people work both for the joy of participation in creation and to provide for their families, not to make money to move on to bigger and better things: there are no Jones in the village to keep up with. More to the point, the people of the village are less concerned with work and more concerned with the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful; people are forever reading and engaging in Socratic debate — or, enjoying the inherent goodness of creation by sipping tea, nibbling on pastries, and talking about literature or art or somesuch.
The book itself is part lecture and part debate; as an outsider, Miss Prim doesn’t understand why the village is the way it is, and is forever asking questions and being given answers which she rarely accepts. She pushes back, and the resulting spirited debate makes for engaging reading, especially if one is sympathetic to the ideas embodied in the village. It’s all a bit romantic, in the more expansive sense of the world — perhaps even fanciful, and I think it succeeds more as a conversation about what’s meaningful than as a story in itself. Regardless, despite coming in at the last of 2020, it will be remembered as one of the year’s more interesting books for me, and I’m glad I was reeled in through other people sharing excerpts. Speaking of, here’s my part:
“You can only admire that which you do not possess. You do not admire in another a quality you have yourself, you admire what you don’t have and which you see shining in another in all its splendor. “
“Because, fundamentally, nothing changes, you know. The huge old mistakes emerge time and again from the depths, like cunning monsters stalking prey. If you could sit at the window and watch human history unfold, do you know what you’d see? I’ll tell you. You’d see an immense chain of mistakes repeated over the centuries, that’s what. You’d watch them, arrayed in different garb, hidden behind various masks, concealed beneath a multitude of disguises, but they’d remain the same.”
“The concept of memory is inherent to civilization. Primitive peoples perpetuate barely a handful of traditions. They can’t capture their history in writing. They have no sense of permanence. […] We modern primitives also have our limitations. We no longer find the time to sit around a table and chat about the human and the divine. And not only do we not find the time, we don’t even know to anymore.”
“You say you’re looking for beauty, but this isn’t the way to achieve it, my dear friend. You won’t find it while you look to yourself, as if everything revolved around you. Don’t you see? It’s exactly the other way around, precisely the other way around. You mustn’t be careful, you must get hurt. What I am trying to explain, child, is that unless you allow the beauty you seek to hurt you, to break you and knock you down, you’ll never find it.”
“So seek beauty, Miss Prim. Seek it in silence, in tranquillity; seek it in the middle of the night and at dawn. Pause to close doors while you seek it, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t reside in museums or in palaces. Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not in Something but Someone.”