About The Author
Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera is a journalist and novelist based in Madrid, Spain. She is Comment Editor of the Spanish economics and business daily newspaper Cinco Dias. The Awakening of Miss Prim is her first novel.
Prudencia Prim is a young woman of intelligence and achievement, with a deep knowledge of literature and several letters after her name. But when she accepts the post of private librarian in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois, she is unprepared for what she encounters there. Her employer, a book-loving intellectual, is dashing yet contrarian, always ready with a critique of her cherished Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. The neighbours, too, are capable of charm and eccentricity in equal measure, determined as they are to preserve their singular little community from the modern world outside. Soon, Prudencia is forced to question what she thought were the certaiinties she had built her life upon.
We talked to Natalia about the role Pride and Prejudice and other literature plays in her book, why there is a grain of truth in one of her character's assertions that women writers spend too much time looking at themselves, and the parallels between eating and reading.
Questions & Answers
Did the idea for your book start with Pride and Prejudice or did the parallels only become apparent as you got into the writing?
I think the idea started with my love of good books. There are a large number of nods and literary references in the novel, because literature plays a major role in the book. The story of Miss Prim is set in San Ireneo de Arnois, a small village that has decided to declare war on the modern world. Its inhabitants have a deep love for the culture of the classical era and the old European civilizations, and are willing to maintain it and uphold it. And literature has a special role to play in their defence of their values. The characters in the book speak about Jane Austen, but also about Dostoyevsky, Dante, Virgil, Schiller, Racine and Petrarch, among others.
San Ireneo is not far off being a utopia, in which the inhabitants have all willingly cast off their once high powered selves in favour of a simpler and more meaningful life. Could you see such a community flourishing in our new age of mindfulness, especially perhaps for
Many of the readers who have read the book keep asking me: ''Where is San Ireneo de Arnois?' Obviously, no such village exists, it is an imaginary place. But when they enquire whether I know of a similar place, the answer is that San Ireneo does exist, it is real, because it is Europe, it is part of our European DNA. Europe was built upon small communities, often located in the vicinity of abbeys, with small-scale economies, tight-knit families, neighbourly relations, traditions, and a life where order reigned, where there was a time and place for everything. And this idea strikes a nostalgic chord with many readers, especially with those who live in cities full of noise and hustle. I believe that regaining a smaller-scale, more human lifestyle is not impossible. And you do not need to be a senior citizen to realize that the answers to our problems do not always lie in what is new, but also in what is old; that the key is not necessarily found in the future, but also in the past.
Miss Prim's employer is mostly nameless, being referred to as 'The Man in the Wingchair' for most of the book. Does he only become truly flesh and blood for Miss Prim with hindsight? Can you say more about this?
I made the decision not to name the main male character because the story is written from the point of view of Miss Prim. The first time she arrives in San Ireneo de Arnois, she meets the man who is going to be her boss, an intelligent, cultivated man, sitting in a comfortable wingchair. And the first thing she does is to give him a nickname, label him, which is an easy and rather simple way of classifying what we do not know or do not understand. She and he are two opposite intellects, who are apparently doomed never to understand each other and always to argue about everything (and there is a lot) that's worth arguing over.
Do you find any grain of truth in the Man in the Wingchair's assertion that women's writing 'has lost its capacity to make us change our gaze', that women writers spend too much time looking at themselves?
The Man in the Wingchair makes up his mind definitively on many subjects, including among others literature written by women. But on this issue, I would say that there may be a grain of truth in what he says. I think that, especially since the 20th century, women's writing has ceased to focus on looking at the world, looking outside, relating what is universal, and has focused instead on self-reflection, on exploring women's emotions and psyche. Of course, the Man in the Wingchair neglects to mention the existence of many very significant exceptions to his statement.
Courtesy, delicacy, etiquette, punctuality - all traits highly prized by Miss Prim. Would she have fared better in England, do you think?!
I completely agree with you... (LOL).
Do you think children today would benefit from the kind of education the children had, which is both steeped in the classics but also seems to give them the freedom - and time - to indulge their passions and learn from the 'school of life'?
In this I draw from my own experience. I grew up in a small town, which did not look like San Ireneo de Arnois, but where children could play in the streets or walk to school. I was fortunate to be brought up in a large family, in a house full of books and children, with free access to my parents' library, without anyone regulating what children should read for their education, as is the case today. We would read fairy tales, legends, adventures, but also fragments from literary works, many classics, books which most of the time we actually "discovered" long after. These circumstances of my childhood, which of course are not the same as in the book, but which were indeed very rich, full of a wise mixture of love, freedom and discipline, are idealized in The Awakening of Miss Prim.
Do you agree with the Man in the Wingchair that being brought up with good books means that children can later absorb great books? Or does it not matter what they read as long as they read something?
I think that an analogy can be drawn with food. Having good eating habits and feeding oneself on quality food is essential to growing up healthy. But if you are intolerant to certain foods, it is obviously better to eat anything, whatever it is, than nothing at all. If possible, I believe that we should instill a love of reading good books in children but above all, we should let them come to the books of their own accord, and not only give them educational books, or children's books. We should read them poetry, tales, myths, old legends, allowing them to touch the books, instilling in them the passion and fever for reading. And maybe we should also bear in mind something very important that we sometimes forget: reading should be for pleasure, and not an academic obligation or chore.
You're a journalist specialising in economics and business. What made you decide to write a novel?
I usually say that what I wanted was to write a tale for adults, although given its extent and structure, it is a novel. Not a realistic tale, but one which speaks all the same about things which are profoundly real. I wanted to write about two very different manners of seeing the world - from the viewpoints of tradition and modernity - and about the adventure entailed in asking oneself questions and looking for answers, searching for searching for truth, goodness and beauty. I know it seems strange that a journalist specialising in economics would write a novel such as this one, but journalism is an exciting profession and I think that no profession fully defines those who exercise it.
Your English is very good. How involved were you in the translation process?
I would really like to speak very good English, which is not the case. Fortunately, Sonia Soto, who has translated the book, has done a fantastic job. I have worked very closely with my editor, Rowan Cope, in reviewing the text and the whole process has been very smooth and easy.
Are you planning to write another novel? Do you think you will continue to be able to write alongside the journalism?
I definitely want to write another novel, and I will try to combine writing and journalism. But just like 'Irenites' do, I believe in the idea of letting things ripen in their own time. I am still at the stage of repose and reflection which is necessary before undertaking any project.