In Natalie Sanmartin Fenollera’s international bestseller, The Awakening of Miss Prim, Miss Prudencia Prim accepts a position as a personal librarian to a countercultural man of letters homeschooling his four orphaned nephews and nieces—a passionate convert to the Catholic faith. An educated woman with a Ph.D. in sociology and a woman with refined aesthetic sensibilities and an appreciation for art, elegance, good taste, and propriety, Prudencia laments the boorishness of the culture that surrounds her: “And fewer still realized, as she did, that all that was worth admiring, all that was beautiful and sublime, seemed to be vanishing with hardly a trace.” Applying for the position that strangely states in the advertisement “Graduates and postgraduates need not apply,” Miss Prim explains her motive: “I was seeking a refuge.” Disenchanted by the crassness of modern society, Miss Prim welcomes the opportunity to work for a gentleman. She soon learns why her employer (known only as “the Man in the Wing Chair”) excluded graduates and why he home schools the children: he is determined to provide his nieces and nephews “the best education possible” for them to become “all that modern schooling is incapable of producing”—a view of education she finds “extreme.”
Although nostalgic for the cultural standards of the past, Miss Prim identifies as a modern liberated woman who regards herself as a feminist independent of men for her fulfillment and happiness. She soon discloses her view of marriage to the other women of the village who embrace their roles as happily married wives and dedicated mothers who put family above career: “I’m totally opposed to marriage…. I consider it a useless institution and one in decline.” This fashionable opinion, however, does not discourage the women of San Ireneo from placing an important item on the agenda of their Feminist League (“feminist” only in the sense of feminine, womanly, and maternal)—the business of finding Miss Prim a suitable husband. Without informing Miss Prim they have already decided that she is an attractive, marriageable woman for whom matrimony is “the end for which Miss Prim had been created.” The members of the Feminist League, to Miss Prim’s great delight, are cultured, gracious women with exquisite manners and warm hearts who make her feel right at home with old-fashioned hospitality. They enjoy careers or operate small businesses but only on a part-time basis to afford time for study, leisure, and the domestic arts they relish and never at the expense of their marriages or families. Everyone’s work day is only six hours to allow for a harmonious, balanced life of work and leisure with time for conversation, friendship, and hospitality.
These women gradually explain to Miss Prim the traditional truths about married life that her modern education has denied her. When Prudencia asserts that modern women no longer depend on men for fulfillment and happiness, Herminia Treaumont’s straightforward reply rings with extraordinary common sense: “You live in a man’s house, you work all day obeying a man’s orders, and you receive a salary from the same man, who pays all his bills punctually on the first of every month.” Miss Prim learns that married women are already most liberated. They organize their own time freely, and Herminia assures Miss Prim that “None of us has to keep our opinions to ourselves, as I’m sure you frequently have to in conversations with your employer.” Miss Prim slowly finds herself attracted to these women who, like her, also have rejected “the din and aggression of the overgrown cities” and the frantic excesses of contemporary life “to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, recover the splendor of an ancient culture.” All these women who cherish traditional marriage are attractive, amiable, delightful women who radiate joy and warmth. Miss Prim begins to understand even more the Man in the Wing Chair’s rejection of modern education: students have been denied the treasures of the perennial wisdom of the past and indoctrinated with ideology.
In the course of the few months she lives at San Ireneo, Miss Prim’s modern stance of feminism weakens: “If someone as beautiful and intelligent as Herminia considered marriage essential to a woman’s well-being, who was she to cast doubt on it so emphatically?” The idea of marriage begins to grow in appeal. She comes to admire her employer’s robust sense of humor, his “hypnotic masculine courtesy,” his lively intelligence, and spirited conversation. She finds herself most uncomfortable and unappreciated when he praises and compliments other women for their admirable qualities. All these educational influences eventually convince Miss Prim that “Maybe she did need a husband” and the time had come to ask the women to find her one. They explain that it is a matter of common sense and like a detective novel. Referring to Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” in which an important lost letter is actually in plain sight, they assure her that love and marriage await her if she would simply follow the natural clues: “You just have to find out where, follow the trail, investigate. Exactly like a detective.” Hortensia identifies the one major clue as “harmony,” which they define with the classical meanings of the word harmonia (“to balance in the proportions of parts of a whole” and “to fit together, to connect”)—an abstract idea they clarify with the analogy of a flower arrangement in a vase: “No, it’s in the marriage, in the combination of the two of you, that you’ve got to look for it.”
The ladies then cite eligible candidates for Miss Prim to evaluate and mention criteria for a sensible woman’s consideration: Attractive? Intelligent? Honest? Amusing? Money? They name some of eligible men and place a question mark beside another man to tease Miss Prim into revealing “a man you haven’t yet considered a candidate, or maybe you are refusing to consider.” They have in mind, of course, The Man in the Wing Chair whose courtesy, conversation, love of tradition, sense of humor, and integrity have already impressed her, although she has disapproved of his strong convictions, eccentric views of education, and plainspoken bluntness when he criticizes her illogical statements. However, Miss Prim cannot deny the self-evident truth she has been suppressing: “Endeavoring to be calm, she confessed reluctantly that she was attracted to him. She couldn’t understand why, as he was an odd man with extreme religious beliefs, utterly insensitive, and intolerably domineering.”
Enamored of the modern liberal idea of equality, Miss Prim finds it hard to distinguish between the ideal of harmony and the notion of equality in the political sense. Opposed to authority or hierarchy in marriage, she explains her reservations about the likelihood of marriage to her employer because she “was opposed to domination of any kind.” As the ladies of San Ireneo schedule a meeting on the topic of Miss Prim’s prospects for marriage, they invite Lulu Thiberville, “the queen bee” who has experienced a lifetime of marriage with three husbands she has outlived. With old world wisdom and practical common sense, Lulu goes to the heart of the matter: “All this talk of equality is complete nonsense.” She even disapproves of Herminia’s treatise on harmony as too philosophical and elusive.
First, she advises Miss Prim that no such thing as an entirely happy marriage exists, only “a reasonably happy marriage.” Second, the foundation of this reasonably happy marriage is “inequality.” Both men and men must aspire to find a spouse they admire who embodies an ideal that attracts them which the man or woman lacks. When Miss Prim protests, “If I admire my husband and he admires me, then we’re equal,” Lulu refutes her foolish reasoning:
“If two people admire each other, they’re not equals. If they were, they wouldn’t admire each other. They’re different, as each admires in the other what they don’t find in themselves. It’s difference, not similarity, that fosters admiration between two people.”
When Lulu asks Miss Prim if she admires the Man in the Wing Chair, she admits her attraction but also adds that she dislikes many of his qualities—an objection that Lulu quickly dismisses: “Ah, that’s no impediment, not in the least. I detested all my husbands intensely, and it didn’t stop me loving all three very much.” These insights are transmitted from one generation to another, not in the schools of political correctness.
This is the awakening of Miss Prim, the gaining of a traditional wisdom from the accumulated experience of the whole world which modern education deprives its students by its various forms of indoctrination and fashionable ideologies that deny the self-evident truths about human nature, love, marriage, and human happiness. As Miss Prim sheds many of her modern prejudices and opens her mind, she must also understand some religious truths that have profound consequences. When Prudencia learns that the Man and Herminia were once a couple in love but never married, she ponders an inscrutable truth she finds as incomprehensible as the idea of “inequality” in love. Herminia speaks plainly: “What I am telling you is the fact that you don’t believe what he believes means he will never, ever consent to fall in love with you.” Now Miss Prim must honestly confront a subject she has carefully ignored through her modern education, the authenticity of the Catholic faith and the meaning of being “radically married” till death do us part.
She must ponder the Man’s explanation for his love of the Catholic faith: “You would not seek me if you had not found me.” She must learn from the wisdom of an old monk the lesson of how to close and open doors taught to novices—to close them without pushing them or letting them slam in order to learn “not to rush” but “to do one thing after another.” As she regretfully leaves San Ireneo, travels to Italy and visits Nursia, she knows that she will be missed, that the children wish her to return, and that neither she nor the Man in the Wing Chair has closed the door to their marriage. She ponders the last truth provided her by the monk before she leaves: a marriage can never be more than a house of cards unless the “marriage involves not two, but three.” This great awakening did not occur in a modern university but in a simple village where families live normal lives and preserve ancient ways.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.