This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer Muriel Spark. You may have noticed – you MUST have noticed – but if you haven’t you soon will as all sorts of events and celebrations are either underway or planned. If ever a writer and their work deserved celebration it is estimable Muriel Spark.
We will be recording a Muriel Spark podcast in the coming weeks to pay our own tribute to arguably the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century, but in the meantime you can find out all you need to know at MurielSpark100.com to plan your year appropriately. So as not to miss out you can follow what’s going on by Twitter and Facebook, or by using the search #murielspark100.
As this is the case, you may think it incredibly canny that Olga Wojtas’ novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, published on Contraband, (the crime imprint of Saraband) arrives in such a timely fashion, but the Spark connections are more subtle than the timing may suggest. The story concentrates on the adventures of Shona Aurora McMonagle, a former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School For Girls, the fictional setting for Spark’s most famous novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.
Despite its fame, Shona is decidedly no fan of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, or “That Book” as she refers to it. She believes it has given her alma mater a reputation for producing easily led young women rather than for the academic and sporting excellence which Shona considers its foremost attributes. She thinks Spark’s novel “a distortion, a travesty, a betrayal” and goes to great lengths to keep it out of the hands of the patrons at the Morningside Library where she works. This stance causes comes to haunt her when an oddly familiar face attempts to check That Book out.
What follows is a thrilling and fast-paced tale of time-travel, murder, mayhem, matchmaking and manners. Shona is given a mission, (with little choice other than to choose to accept it), which involves her travelling to 19th century Russia where she takes the name Shona Fergusovna. Using all the skills and education taught her at Marcia Blaine she is soon a hit at court, and her company and advice is sought by the great, the good, and the not so good as they are enchanted by dancing ‘Strip The Willow’, the tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the dubious pleasures of the mythological square sausage.
If you think all of this sounds confusing, you’d be wrong. Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is written with such verve, lightness of touch and joie de vivre that you don’t concentrate or question the whys and hows of time travel or other fantastical aspects of Shona’s mission. This isn’t Isaac Asimov, it’s more A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Midnight In Paris, or even early ’90s TV show Quantum Leap, with readers being asked to accept the situation rather than challenge it. You go with the flow, and you do so as the book is unadulterated fun.
To those novels mentioned above you can also detect the influence of classic Russian/European literature, perhaps most pointedly the romantic travails of Pushkin’s novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, where deceit and misunderstanding, as well as questions of class and status, mean that true love looks doomed to fail. It’s against this background, and her own increasingly complicated love-life, that Shona has to complete her mission, as well as an ever-increasing body count.
Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar is a crime novel for those people who think they don’t like crime novels. It is also a novel of manners, a comedy, a romance, (although not necessarily a romantic-comedy), and a work of science fiction. With so many influences at work, and genres juggled, it really shouldn’t work but it never falls down and Olga Wojtas should be praised for pulling such a feat off. I’m pretty sure I won’t read anything like it this year, unless it is ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect’s’ next mission impossible, and I’m hoping that we won’t have to wait too long for that.