"The Awakening of Miss Prim" Book Discussion and Lemon Pie Bites Recipe
Prudencia Prim is confident that she knows herself and the world very well. She loves books and takes a librarian position at an odd request: that the applicant has no prior education or experience. Though this makes her overqualified, she is intrigued, and even more so when she finds herself employed at an old family estate, where the owner is teaching small, elementary-aged children ancient Greek and Latin classic literature, in their original languages. The children are brilliant, but more than that, the town is different. Almost Utopian in the way everyone works, not at what they went to school for or even necessarily have the most experience in, but at what they’ve always longed to make a living at, and what the community needs.
Deeply intellectual, full of intriguing debate and perceptive observations, and interspersed with many delightful elements of the classic play Pygmalion, is for anyone who has ever reflected on the world, our own motivations, or the point we are all working towards. The Awakening of Miss Prim
Perfect for fans of
- The importance of classic literature
- Utopian community stories
- Intellectual or literary discussion and debate among characters
- My Fair Lady/ Pygmalion
- Little Women
Why did the Man in the Wing Chair not want any graduates or postgraduates to apply for the librarian position? How is this unusual in the modern world?
The Man…'s aim was "that the children should one day become all that modern schooling is incapable of producing." What did he mean and how was their schooling different?
How did Carrie Nation, with the use of a hatchet, founder of the Temperance Movement, influence and promote feminism?
Does Mr. Darcy represent the perfect man, as Miss Prim thought? Does he really “always say the right thing,” as she stated? What makes him so appealing a character to women?
At Miss Prim’s first meeting of the Feminist League, “every time Miss Prim asked one of the other guests what she did, the reply was not what she was expecting.” What are some examples that you remember? Why did these shock her? If you lived in San Ireneo, what job do you think you’d like to do?
Why, in San Ireneo, was a girl working over eight hours a day “anachronistic and intolerable”? What were their work days and weeks like compared to ours? Which do you think is healthier or better, and why do Americans work as much as we do?
Also, the young woman being discussed was “unable to devote any time to reading and study, which...is one of the main principles upon which our small community is based.” Why are those two things so important, even after one has graduated from schooling and college? In what ways might society improve if everyone spent time on these things weekly, at the least?
Miss Prim thought the village a utopia. They considered themselves highly privileged. What do you think, and what are the differences?
The children’s uncle believes you should enjoy books, not study them. What’s the difference? How can too much study destroy the enjoyment of a book? How can it enhance it?
What great idea did the teacher employ to manage beautiful rose bushes in front of the school, and teaching the children responsibility, as well as “made them feel proud and important” at the same time?
“When it came to trying to please in matters that weren’t crucial” to Miss Prim, how had she been dishonest? Do you ever catch yourself doing the same, creating a “little white lie” perhaps in small talk or for the sake of “going with the flow” or the general conversation? How was this counter to the honesty Miss Prim had thought she kept so impeccably?
“Can you imagine what you would be like if you didn’t have anyone close who was capable of influencing you? Anyone to point out your flaws, to confront you when you went too far, to correct you when you did something wrong?”How can these be positive or negative things? Have you ever thought about the extent to which the people around you influence you, or where boundaries might need to be adjusted?
Miss Prim believed in the value of little things—her first cup of coffee in the morning from her favorite cup, “sunlight filtering through the shutters in her room casting shadows on the floor, dozing off over a book on a summer’s afternoon, the look in children’s eyes when they told you about some fact they’d learned.” What are some of your favorite “little things” (make a list of as many as you want). What would be the value in scheduling time to create or appreciate some of these weekly?
Why did the author Balzac and many others believe that marriage has to battle against routine? What are the benefits of routine, especially with small children? Why do people who’ve been married a short time or not at all seem to have so many opinions on what they have little to no experience with?
Have you ever know anyone like Augusto Oliver, “who enjoyed making promises he had no intention of keeping...with a hunting instinct, the kind that makes a cat toy with a mouse, even if it isn’t hungry”? What are some good boundaries to set with people like that?
Why did Prudencia believe “that a well-used copy of Little Women was essential to an education...and hugely important”? What did the Man in the Wing Chair believe about its “literary merit”, and why? What elements and themes of that book did he miss, perhaps because he was a man? What do you think? (Bonus exercise: If you’ve read or know Little Women well, compare the Man in the Wing Chair’s mother to Marmee, and how each would influence him or Miss Prim).
Which books have you read that, like with the Man ITWC said, that “Nowadays, women’s writing has lost its capacity to make us change our gaze, look at things in a different way...I get the impression that the author is looking at herself”? Which have you read that prove him wrong? Would you classify this book as one? Is it good to read a balance of both types of books?
Explain what Lulu meant that “you must not aspire to finding a husband who’s your equal, but one who’s absolutely and completely better than you.” (Hint: think of “better” as complementary to you.) Also consider her next statements: “they must seek women who, from one or several points of view, are better than them. If you look back over history you’ll see that most great men, the truly great ones, have always chosen admirable women.” “Admiration does not exclude equality. If I admire my husband and my husband admires me, then we’re equal...You can only admire that which you do not possess.”
“It’s difference, not similarity, that fosters admiration between two people.” How is difference not only beneficial in a marriage, but arguably essential as well? How do people make that work cohesively?
For the Man… what had “been my touchstone, the line that’s split my life in two and given it absolute meaning”? How was it not easy, and yet why would he not turn back? Have you ever had such an experience?
What do you think the Man...meant that children in schools are getting sophism, because “sophists have taken over schools”? Is it happening at the college level as well?
Why are Carthusians “taught to turn around and close doors without pushing them or letting them swing shut”? What did this have to do with Miss Prim and running away or seeking something? Which was she doing? Did she find it, or him, in the end?
“On her birthday, Miss Prim would rise at exactly seven in the morning and begin making her special birthday tart. The Man in the Wing Chair correctly guessed that the secret ingredient in it was poppy seeds.
After an important, elucidating Christmas dinner with Grandmama, the Man in the Wing Chair’s mother, both women enjoyed lemon cake with their tea.
Hortensia’s meeting with Miss Prim at her house about the husband conundrum also included lemon biscuits.
Lemon and poppy seed are a perfect combination together, and while you can certainly leave out the poppy seeds if you wish, this recipe for lemon tarts is refreshing and stimulating, much like this novel.
Lemon Poppy Seed Pie Bites
For the crust:
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 6 tbsp salted butter, cold
- 1/3 cup ice water
- 1/3 cup or about 12 teaspoons lemon curd
- 1 tbsp poppyseeds, (optional)
To make homemade lemon curd filling:
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- In a medium bowl, combine the flour with one tablespoon of sugar and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Place the cold butter on top and use a pastry cutter to mix the butter in until it resembles small crumbs. Then add the ice water, drizzling in a couple tablespoons at a time, and fold the water into the flour mix by hand. You may need a bit more or less water depending on humidity (you want just enough water for all the flour in the dough to come together, but not to be soggy). Make sure the water you add is icy cold. When the flour is fully combined into a dough, roll into a ball and cover with plastic wrap or in an airtight bowl with lid. **Refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes (overnight is also fine, but set it out 30 minutes before you work with it).**
- To make lemon curd: Combine eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest in a double boiler over medium-medium high heat (make sure the water in the second, lower pot is bubbling up. Stir every minute or two as it thickens. This should take 8-10 minutes. Add the butter and mix to combine. Let it cool completely, then add the poppy seeds, if desired.
- Preheat the oven to 400° F. Spray a mini cupcake tin liberally with nonstick cooking spray. Roll out the dough onto a heavily floured flat surface (I used 3/4 cup) to about 1/16 inch thick or the height of a thin cookie (see picture below). Cut the dough into small circles just slightly larger than the holes of the tin, using a small cup or the lid of a cup-sized (8 oz) mason jar. Then place each round in each hole of the tin and press down gently, floured side down.
- Repeat the rolling and cutting out process until the dough is all used up. Fill each pressed dough round with about a heaping teaspoon of lemon curd. Don’t fill them above the line of the tin or they will boil over. Bake for 15-17 minutes, then allow to cool 10 minutes before devouring. Top with a little whipped cream if you’d like. Makes 24 pie bites.
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Lemon Poppy Seed Pie Bites
Other books and characters mentioned within this book include Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe, Oliver Twist, Snow White, Peter Rabbit, Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Faust, King Lear. Also the authors Jules Verne, Balzac, Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Homer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennyson, Virgil, Tolkien, Mrs. Gaskell, Cardinal Newman, Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton.
Little Women is a much-debated book within this one, and a classic novel that all women should read, and all men who are or wish to be fathers of little girls.
Pygmalion is a wonderful classic play (also a film called starring Audrey Hepburn) with a character much like the Man...named Professor Higgins. It also contains a young girl who is learning a new perspective on the world, named Eliza Doolittle, an overbearing yet sympathetic to the young woman mother of the antagonist—Higgins—and lots of intelligent discourse, humor, and wit. The semi-open yet implied ending element also exists in the play, and it was most likely the inspiration for much of this novel. My Fair Lady
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is also about an isolated, unique community, though this as a result of WWII. It follows a woman’s love of literature who learns about a simpler life from a man who also loves books.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield has a similar setting and a wise older woman explaining unusual family dynamics that made her into a world-famous author to a young reporter, but it is more darkly Gothic in tone and conclusion.
If you’re interested “in exploring the reading life as a gift and an adventure, one meant to enrich, broaden, and delight you in each season of your life as a woman,” read Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life by Sarah Clarkson.
The Picture of Dorian Gray also has an opinionated character like the Man in the Wing Chair, though he is an agnostic, not a man of faith.
“Darcy is the perfect man. And what’s more, I doubt his creator ever thought her character even remotely perfect...Darcy is a man who always says exactly the right thing.”
“It must take great courage to make such and extreme change to your life.”
“Miss Prim agreed that the capacity for multitasking of some members of their sex was a mystery, which, in her opinion, had yet to be fully studied by scientists.”
“We know lots of parts of poems and stories by heart—it’s the first thing we do with all books. He says it’s how you learn to love books; it’s got a lot to do with memory...when men fall in love with women they learn their faces by heart so they can remember them later. They notice the color of their eyes...their hair, whether they like music...”
“...Your uncle believes you should enjoy books, not study them?”
“The Redemption is nothing like a fairy tale. Fairy tales and ancient legends are like the Redemption...It’s the drawing that’s a bit, just a little bit, like the real tree.”
“Miss Prim tended to scoff at what she secretly feared she would never have.”
“Happiness is not the natural state of human beings.”
“Emotional excess, she reasoned, was characteristic of primitive societies and equally primitive individuals.”
“The absence of the object of one’s love purifies that love.”
“There’s no such thing as definitive victory over one’s faults. It’s not an area in which mere willpower works. Our nature is defective...so no matter how hard we try, we’re bound to fail. Getting upset about it is absurd...and arrogant too…When we fail, what we have to do is ask for help from the machine’s maker.”
“In the older woman’s character the librarian had found ...the amazing toughness she’d always admired in venerable dynastic families: the cast-iron capacity to preserve one’s own opinions and habits through wars, reversals of fortune, and revolutions. The skill of remembering at all times who one was and where one came from rather than bothering, as modern people did, with trying to guess where one was headed.”
“There are times in life when we’re all faced with a dilemma we’d rather not have to deal with...in essence it’s always the same. There’s a sacrifice to be made, and you have to choose the victim: yourself or those around you... You make a choice and there is always a price to pay.”
“It’s easier to project blame into the eyes of others and defend yourself against it than to find it within yourself, where there’s no possible defense.”
“It’s strange that people who spit the most caustic words over marriage are precisely the ones who know least about it. Not only is it not true [that marriage has to battle against a dark monster—routine], but it’s the biggest lie in the world. The cause of much suffering.”
“August Oliver was the kind of man who enjoyed making promises he had no intention of keeping...it was his hunting instinct, the kind that makes a cat toy with a mouse, even if it isn’t hungry. No, I don’t think he wanted to marry me. He just wanted to win the chase, that’s all.”
“A man who’s not completely honest can keep within the bounds of decency if he’s lucky enough to be unattractive and of slender means. But add money and good looks, and the road to ruin is clearly signposted.”
“For a moment she’d feared that Herminia was one of those uncouth souls who didn’t appreciate that a well-used copy of Little Women was essential to an education...Little Women is hugely important...I’ve always believed that a girl’s childhood is like a wasteland without that book.”
“My mother’s always been a highly dramatic person. She’s the kind of woman who demands emotional support even when misfortune befalls others, not her.”
“In a way, we are what we read.”
“They’re being brought up with good books so that later they can absorb great books.”
“Every child is different. That’s why they set the pace, not me. But the rungs on the ladder they’re climbing have been put there by me...”
“Sentimentality is a pathology of the mind, or of the emotions, which swell up, outgrow their proper place, go crazy, obscure judgment. Not being sentimental doesn’t mean that one lacks feelings, but simply that one knows how to channel them. The ideal is to possess a cool head and a tender heart.”
“You can only admire that which you do not possess...which you see shining in another in all its splendor.”
“It’s been my touchstone, the line that’s split my life in two and given it absolute meaning. But I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. It’s not easy, and anyone who says it is is fooling themselves. It was catharsis, a shocking trauma, open-heart surgery, like a tree torn from the ground and replanted elsewhere...Would I turn back if I could? No, of course not. Would a newly awoken man willingly go back to the sleepwalking life?”
“Young people today extend childhood well beyond the chronologically allotted time.”
“You say you’re looking for beauty, but...you won’t find it while you look to yourself, as if everything revolved around you… It’s exactly the other way around. You mustn't be careful, you must get hurt… Unless you allow the beauty you seek to hurt you, to break you and knock you down, you’ll never find it.”
“Carthusians are taught to turn around and close doors without pushing them or letting them swing shut.”
“Everything was a gift that she was learning to accept.”