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Analysis of Anita Brookner’s Novels

Anita Brookner (16 July 1928 – 10 March 2016) established her reputation as a novelist with four books published in rapid succession from 1981 to 1984. Written in austerely elegant prose, each of these four novels follows essentially the same course. Each centers on a scholarly, sensitive, morally earnest young woman who leads an attenuated life. None of these heroines has intended a life so circumscribed. As their stories begin, they seek change, liberation from boredom and loneliness. They seek connection to a wider world. While these women are intelligent, endlessly introspective, and possessed of a saving ironic wit, they do not know how to get the things they most desire: the love of, and marriage to, a man of quality.

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With compassion, rue, and infinite good humor, Brookner makes it abundantly clear that these worthy women, these good daughters, good writers, and good scholars, are unknowing adherents to a romantic ideal. Like the shopgirls and “ultrafeminine” women they gaze upon with such wonder and awe, these intellectually and morally superior women accept without question the cultural assumption that marriage is a woman’s greatest good. Consistently undervaluing their own considerable talents and professional achievements, these heroines look to love and marriage as a way of joining the cosmic dance of a rational, well-ordered society. Their intense yearning for a transforming love shapes their individual plots; in each case, the conflict between what the romantic imagination wants and what it indeed gets impels these narratives forward. Brookner’s concern is to illuminate the worthiness, the loneliness, the longing of these heroines for love and a more splendid life.

Before their stories can end, these women must abandon sentiment and accept their solitary state. Their triumph lies in their ability to confront their fall from romantic innocence and recognize it for what it is. These novels build inexorably toward endings that are both startling and profoundly moving. While Brookner’s heroines must struggle with sentimentality, Brookner herself does not. Her vision is bleak, unsparing. In telling their stories, she raises several other themes: The most notable of these are filial obligation, the “romantic” versus the “realistic” apprehension of life, truth and its relationship to self-knowledge, the determination of proper behavior in society, and the small pleasures that attend the trivia of daily life. Brookner presents her major and minor themes against the background of fictive worlds so powerfully realized that her novels seem to be absorbed as much as read. These are novels of interior reality. Little that is overt happens; dramatic action rests in the consciousness of the heroine, who is always center stage. Brookner occasionally also deploys the consciousness of a male protagonist, but whether male or female, the narrative consciousness achieves a breakthrough into a larger understanding, a deeper feeling, and well-earned wisdom.

The Debut

Brookner’s first novel, The Debut, lacks the richness and gradation of tone that marks her later fiction, but it is nevertheless well crafted. Set against Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859), The Debut tells the story of Ruth Weiss, a scrupulous, thoughtful scholar who finds herself at forty with a life “ruined” by literature. A passionate reader from an early age, now a professor of literature specializing in Balzac, Ruth leads a narrow life alternating between teaching students and caring for an aging father. She blames the tradition of filial duty she found in literature for her mostly cheerless state.

Like Frances Hinton of Look at Me and Kitty Maule of Providence, Ruth began with expectations. In her youth, she once cast aside the burden of an oppressive heritage, one best symbolized by the deep silence and heavy, dark furniture in the mausoleum of a house she shared with her parents, and fled England for France. Ostensibly, her goal was to write a dissertation on vice and virtue; in actuality, it was as much to seek air and space and light. Although she at first endured a sense of displacement and exile, a condition that at one time or another afflicts many of Brookner’s heroines, over time Ruth’s transplant into foreign soil proved successful. Away from her charming, eccentric, but infinitely demanding parents, Ruth flourished. She acquired polish, sophistication, lovers. Even as she gloried in her new life, however, Ruth, like many of Brookner’s other heroines, engaged in a constant internal debate over the question of how life is best lived. Does vice or virtue bring victory? She concluded that a life of conventional virtue can spell disaster for one’s hopes; regretfully, Balzacian opportunism cannot be discounted. It is better to be a bad winner than a poor loser. Even though she observed that conventional morality tales were wrong, however, Ruth lamented the triumph of vice.

Suddenly called back to England because of what proves to be a final deterioration in her mother’s fragile health, Ruth is forced to leave the comfortable, satisfying life she has built for herself. Her spirited adventure over, Ruth is unable to extricate herself once more. At forty, the long and beautiful red hair indicative of her youthful potential for rebellion now compressed into a tight chignon, Dr. Ruth Weiss is a felon recaptured. She is tender with her father and gentle with her students, and she expects little more from life. She is the first of Brookner’s heroines who learns to renounce.

Ruth’s story is told retrospectively, in a way that recalls the French novel of meditation. The bold configurations of her story suggest the quality of a fable. The narrative also gains a necessary solidity and weight from the many allusions to Balzacian characters and texts. These allusions create a substructure of irony that continues to reverberate long after Ruth’s story is complete.

Providence

If Ruth is disheartened but finally resigned, Kitty Maule in Providence, Brookner’s second novel, moves toward outright disillusionment. Kitty is also a professor of literature. Her interests lie in the Romantic movement; this novel, then, like the rest of Brookner’s fiction, is filled with ideas, good talk, and vigorous intellectual exchanges. Here, both Kitty’s private musings and her running seminar on Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816) provide a context for the exploration of Romantic concerns. Brookner’s use of Kitty as a teacher of the Romantic tradition is ultimately highly ironic, for Kitty cannot discern her own romanticism. Curiously, she has moments when she is almost able to see her romanticism for what it is, but in the end she suppresses the would-be insights and retreats into her dreams and passionate longings. What Kitty longs for is love, marriage, and, perhaps, God. Her longing for God goes largely unrecognized; like her fellow Romantics, she requires a sign. Her longing for love, however, the love of one man in particular, is at the perceived center of her life.

The handsome, brilliant, but distant lover of the scholarly, sensitive woman in this novel is Maurice Bishop. Maurice, a professor of medieval history, is noted for his love of cathedrals and God. Wellborn, rich, and confident in the manner of those accustomed to deference, Maurice is everything that Kitty wants in life: He is the very cultural ideal of England itself. To be his wife is Kitty’s hope of heaven, and to capture him she brings to bear all of the weapons she has at hand: subtle intelligence, grace of manners, enduring patience, and abiding love. That Kitty’s love for Maurice has the fervor of a religious acolyte is suggested by his surname. Maurice may be in love with the idea of a religious absolute, but Kitty’s religion is romantic love. All of her repressed romanticism is focused on this elegant, remote man.

Kitty’s extreme dependence on Maurice as the repository of her hopes and dreams stems in large part from her sense of cultural displacement. The child of a French mother and a British father, both dead in their youth, Kitty was born in England and brought up there by her immigrant French grandparents. Despite her British birth, however, Kitty never feels at home in England. In the face of concerted and varied efforts to “belong,” she retains a sense of exile. Nor is she truly considered English by her colleagues and acquaintances. The product of her doting French grandparents, Kitty is unaware of her true cultural allegiance; ironically, it is the French heritage that dominates in her English setting. Her manners, clothes, and speech belie her English father. In Maurice, Kitty seeks an attachment that anchors, a place to be. Here and elsewhere in Brookner’s fiction, the recurrent theme of the search for a home acquires the force and weight of myth. So powerfully realized is Kitty’s intense desire for love, acceptance, and liberation from loneliness that it comes as a shock when Kitty, who is expecting Maurice’s proposal of marriage, instead learns of his sudden engagement to a woman who shares his aristocratic background. The novel concludes with Kitty’s realization that she has indeed been living in a haze of romantic expectation; the truth is, she has been first, last, and always an outsider.

In addition to the major theme of the passive, excellent, but self-deceived young woman in the service of an illusory ideal, Brookner presents in Providence themes that are relevant to all of her works. Maurice’s betrayal of Kitty, for example, establishes a motif that recurs in later novels, while Brookner’s superbly comic depiction of bored and boring academics, a staple in her fiction, reaches perhaps its finest statement here. If Balzacian allusions underlie The Debut and give it additional power, allusions to many French writers, but especially to Constant’s Adolphe, are used to provide ironic commentary on and foreshadowings of Kitty’s fate. Most important, however, Kitty Maule herself is arguably the quintessential Brooknerian heroine. Like her fictional sisters, Ruth Weiss of The Debut, Frances Hinton of Look at Me, Edith Hope of Hotel du Lac, and Mimi Dorn of Family and Friends, Kitty waits patiently for her life to begin. She is blind to her own worth and discounts her singular achievements; she longs for order, a place in a rational world; she finds joy in the chores, duties, and routines of everyday life; she is sensitive, compassionate, morally deserving. Finally, her inevitable loss of a man morally her inferior leaves her stripped of all romantic illusions, a convert to reality.

Look at Me

By her own admission a relentless observer, Frances Hinton, the heroine of Look at Me, Brookner’s third novel, tells her own compelling story. To be sure, all of Brookner’s heroines are detached observers, though probably none records and stores information so clinically as does Frances. All of Brookner’s heroines suffer, but perhaps none suffers more intensely than Frances. Like other Brooknerian heroines, Frances is virtuous, sensitive, bright, and in need of a more marvelous life. Like other Brooknerian heroines also, she does not know how to get the things she wants. She is frozen into inaction, and her intense melancholia is mirrored in the images of death and desolation that surround her. Amedical librarian who catalogs prints and engravings of disease through the ages, Frances comments ironically on the scenes of madness, nightmare affliction, and death she must sort and mount. She lives in a tomb of a house where her mother has died. Brookner’s use of Frances’s house recalls her uses of houses elsewhere: They are symbols of oppressive traditions that constrain and weigh heavily upon those who inhabit them.

For Frances, the world is somber, dark. The beautiful Nick and Alix Fraser, a glittering, stylish couple who offer Frances temporary access to a dazzling social world, prove cruelly false. In an act of betrayal so profound that Frances cannot but withdraw from the world she has long sought, Nick and Alix hold her up to public ridicule. Her brief liberation from solitariness and the eternal prison of self ends abruptly. Always self-analytic, selfdeprecatory, Frances sees her failure to find a place in the world as a failure of egotism or will. She observes that others advance through egotism, but she cannot mimic them. She decides to become a writer. Writing will allow her both to comment on life and to retreat from it.

As is usual in Brookner’s works, the dramatic action in Look atMeis largely inner. Hers are novels of the interior; the terrain surveyed is that of the soul. Frances presents a commanding narrative voice as she sorts, gathers, and finally reassembles the fragments of her experience into a unified whole. In fullest voice, she provides useful insights into the processes of the creative, transforming imagination. From the detritus of her daily life she will, as writer-at-work, abstract significant form. If Brookner here provides a mirror of herself busy fashioning art from the materials of the ordinary, the details of eating or dressing or chatting that receive so much attention in her novels, she also repeats the characteristic fusion of the comic and the sad that lends such poignancy to her works. Further, the influence of the pictorial is reflected here as well; characters are often framed in an action, presented with a consciousness of scene or setting. Finally, Frances’s long commentary on her experience that is the text of Look at Me again evokes the French novel of meditation, a literary form that subtly influences and pervades Brookner’s fiction. Notably, as Frances begins to write on the last page of the novel, she is free of self-pity. Solitude may be her lot, but art will vindicate her. Art will represent the triumph of the unvanquished self.

Hotel du Lac

Edith Hope, the heroine of Hotel du Lac, Brookner’s fourth novel, is also a writer. Edith writes pulp romances for a living, and, until she learns better, she believes that romance is only her business, not her frame of mind. Brookner’s fiction, however, reveals her tendency sometimes to use names to signal character traits or habits of thought. Such is the case here: Edith is indeed a romantic, although an unknowing one. Edith begins her stay at the Hotel du Lac in ignorance of her true nature; she leaves enlightened as to the deeper, more recessed aspects of her moral being.

It was not Edith’s choice to leave England and travel to Switzerland, the setting of Hotel du Lac. Edith was sent away because of her severe breach of social decorum: She chose not to appear at her own wedding, thus profoundly humiliating a good man and eminently suitable husband. Her action was shocking to all, including Edith herself. Modest, unassuming, and usually anxious to please, Edith is in many ways a typical Brooknerian heroine. She, too, spends too much time alone, condemned to her own introspection. Her marriage would have broken that isolation. Edith’s revolt and subsequent removal to Switzerland provide a context for the discussion of numerous moral and psychological questions. While Edith’s story is always foremost, the novel itself alternates between first- and third-person narratives, with philosophical positions being argued, accepted, or dismissed.

The central fact that emerges about Edith is her passionate love for a married man whom she only seldom sees. Like his fictional predecessors, Edith’s David is exceedingly handsome, elegant, intelligent, and remote. For love of him, Edith jilted her dull but safe fiancé. At the Hotel du Lac, Edith’s interactions with the other residents move her to a greater understanding of truth, selfknowledge, and the differences between romance and reality. Numerous other themes are present here as well, including that of “ultrafeminine” as opposed to “feminist” women. Edith understands these women as models of feminine response to feminine experience. In relative isolation at this Swiss hotel, she studies these models and rejects both. The will to power, the utility of egotism as a serviceable instrument in the world, a recurrent Brooknerian theme, also receives much discussion here.

What Edith eventually learns as she evaluates her exchanges and relationships with her fellow guests at the hotel is accorded significant status by the mythological underpinnings of this novel. Inside the hotel, characters are both particular and types, acting out self-assigned roles in a grand comedy of manners. All the inhabitants exhibit a theatrical sense of themselves; they “present” themselves to this community consciously, deliberately. Such attention to pictorial, personal presentation is a constant of Brookner’s fiction. The details of clothes, manners, and mannerisms convey aspects of self and morality in Brookner’s works as they do in the works of Henry James, to whom Brookner alludes in this novel. If inside the hotel the characters are on parade, making their statements with dress or gesture, once outside the hotel they are subsumed into the mythicized landscape. Gray mist, conveying a sense of menace and oppression, surrounds everything. Characters make journeys that are important only for their mythic impact. Much movement against this dreary landscape takes place as characters are directed toward crucial, definitive moral choices. The landscape helps Edith to perceive her dilemmas; she is finally able to reject a diabolical figure who offers marriage without love. He forces Edith to recognize her romanticism for what it is. At least in the end, however, when she returns to England and her married lover, Edith knows that she has chosen a cold and solitary path. Her self-determination represents a triumph for her and for this book. Edith is finally transformed by her successful journey to knowledge.

Having laid claim with her first four novels to a sharply defined fictional territory, Brookner has shown in subsequent books a willingness to extend her range. In Latecomers, for example, she centers her story for the first time on two male figures—close friends, both of whom were refugees brought from Germany to England as children during World War II. Lewis Percy features a single protagonist, again a man, in some ways the counterpart of Brookner’s earlier heroines.

Family and Friends

The book with which Brookner departed most radically from the pattern established in her first four novels is Family and Friends; perhaps because it violated readers’ expectations, it was sharply criticized by some reviewers when it was published. Written in the historical present with virtually no dialogue, Family and Friends is an extended meditation on the French tradition. It stems from the ruminations of a narrator who quickly disappears, makes only glancing reappearances, and is curiously never identified. Here, Brookner’s concern is not with a particular heroine but with the Dorn family, rich, most likely German immigrants who fled to England before the start of World War II. The war, when it comes, receives but scant attention; the novel focuses always on the small, interior world of the Dorn family. Little seems to exist outside the family members and their immediate interests, sparking again charges of a work too narrow in range.

The lives of the Dorn family and their associates are followed over a period of time. Sofka, the gentle but strong matriarch of the family, is the moral center of the work. Widowed early in life, she rejects the idea of remarriage, directing her loving attentions to her family instead. Mimi and Betty are her two daughters. While Betty is selfish, willful, theatrical, tricking her family into giving her an independent life quite early, she is nevertheless the child Sofka secretly loves best. Sofka, beautiful and contained, admires her younger daughter’s spirit. Mimi is virtuous, dreamy, passive, frozen into inertia in young womanhood when an early feeble attempt to reach out for love is unsuccessful. Mimi languishes for years afterward, until her mother urges her into marriage, and thereby respectability, with a gentle, good man who would normally be her social inferior. Also playing a significant part in the novel are Sofka’s two sons: the sensitive, intelligent, responsible Alfred and his handsome, charming brother Frederick. Interestingly, it is Alfred’s plight that mirrors the situation of the usual Brooknerian heroine. It is he who is trapped by filial obligation into a life he had not intended; it is he who suffers forever afterward from an unsatisfying search for love and a desire for a larger, more extended world. It is also he who ultimately becomes inured to longestablished habits of insularity.

This, then, is the saga of a family whose interior lives and moral relations are acutely realized. Important themes here include familial relations, especially filial obligation; the search for a transcendent love; and the need to venture, to dare, if one is to “win” in life. Structured around four wedding pictures, the novel impresses with its unity and intensity of tone and with its pervasive, elegant irony, its discerning moral judgments, and its engrossing character portraits. Especially effective also is the novel’s lament for the loss of youthful promise, energy, and innocence. The once-vibrant Betty, trapped in middle-aged stasis, is a case in point. Dominating this entire work is a rich narrative voice, stern, compassionate, and often sad. The Dorn family seems to exist in a twilight, dreamlike world outside time. This world, while admittedly narrow, is nevertheless mesmerizing.

Altered States

Brookner writes novels in both the first and the third person, and most of her novels center on women. Altered States represents a first for her: a novel told by a man, Alan Sherwood, in the first person. In Hotel du Lac, Brookner divides women into hares (happy winners in life’s game) and tortoises (losers, for whom romance novels are written). In Altered States, Sherwood is a male tortoise; he is obsessed with a hare, the flashy and sexy Sarah Miller. As usual in Brookner, Alan the tortoise figure is a dull person, dutiful and bound to a parent. He is wheedled into marriage by another tortoise, Angela, and he is tortured by guilt after he betrays her and seemingly causes her death.

Altered States is different from other Brookner novels in other ways. Sarah is cruder, sexier, more selfish, and more anarchistic than any of Brookner’s other hares; she embodies most of the seven deadly sins. Her lovemaking with Alan is more purely sexual than similar encounters elsewhere in Brookner’s fiction. Alan, on the other hand, is not simply a tortoise; he knows he is a tortoise. He knows that he is dull and that he represents not just dullness but also civilized order. By the end of the novel, Alan not only learns about himself and the other people in his life, but he also has a small triumph over Sarah. He convinces her to step outside her character and perform a generous act.

Visitors

In Visitors, the central character is once more a woman: Thea May, age seventy. She is perhaps Brookner’s most inert and solitary tortoise—until a crisis makes her take a hare into her home. The hare is named Steve Best, a young friend of someone about to marry into Thea’s late husband’s family. The contrast could not be greater. Thea is a lonely, apprehensive, static old woman; Steve is a gregarious, wandering, confident young man. Her reaction to him is complicated. She responds to his presence and even coddles him, but at the same time she feels that her home has been violated, and she wishes he would leave.

Visitors is about understanding. Many characters, such as Thea’s husband’s self-centered family and the rude and charmless young people, understand each other hardly at all. They certainly do not understand Thea. However, as the novel proceeds, Thea displays a talent for understanding all of them and is even able to act on that understanding on a climactic occasion. As she is drawn out of her usual routine, Thea thinks more and more about her past. Since childhood she has harbored a secret fear of intruders—hares such as Steve and even her husband. By the end of the novel, Thea seems to come to terms with her anxieties. She acknowledges her affection for her husband’s family and feels more receptive to daily joys.

The Rules of Engagement

As in other Brookner novels, the author’s great subject in The Rules of Engagement is the process of consciousness. In this case it is Elizabeth Wetherall who explores the meaning of a complicated love triangle that secretly develops among herself, her friend Betsy, and a sophisticated womanizer. Elizabeth’s affair with the married but highly seductive Edmund Fairlie has left her unfulfilled and with a legacy of regret, guilt, and fear, but when Elizabeth’s friend, the more romantic Betsy Newton, is later seduced by Edmund as well, Elizabeth does not inform Betsy of her own affair with the unscrupulous philanderer. Betsy’s credulous simplicity leads her to serve the shameless Fairlie and his entire family as an unappreciated factotum. Because of Betsy’s devotion to Fairlie, she has not looked after her own health, and she is dying of a cancer she failed to treat in time. Betsy’s tragic outcome leads Elizabeth to worry that she was wrong in standing by silently while Betsy threw herself away on Fairlie, but Elizabeth can rest easy in the knowledge that she took good care of her friend and perhaps rightly kept her from a dark knowledge of things she would have found wholly destructive. Elizabeth’s goodness to Betsy has been a transformative, liberating experience for her; she has relinquished much of the falseness in her life, and she finds she can return at least in dreams to her childhood, when she knew what it was to love and be loved. She understand that she also is at heart a romantic, and that her essential innocence and idealism have weathered even her affair with Fairlie.

The Rules of Engagement has deep affinities with Brookner’s earlier novel Falling Slowly, which also examines the lives of two women searching for love. As is true of Elizabeth and Betsy, the sisters Miriam and Beatrice Sharpe in Falling Slowly double as alter egos for each other. Like Elizabeth, Miriam is knowing and bitter, and like Betsy, Beatrice is disastrously innocent, and in the end, as is true of the two friends in The Rules of Engagement, there is no happy romantic outcome; it is the relationship the two women have with each other that is truest and deepest.

The Brookner novel that followed The Rules of Engagement, Leaving Home, also features two women whose bond with each other sustains them as they face terrible disappointments in love. As in The Rules of Engagement, Leaving Home features a more reserved woman and a more romantic one, and, as in the two earlier novels, it is the wise realist, Emma, who is the center of interest. Like Elizabeth in The Rules of Engagement, Emma feels what it is to be loved only in her dreams. Ironically, however, it is the unhappy isolation of all of Brookner’s protagonists that allows them to develop such admirable inner lives and to know the gratifications of genuine insight and profound self-knowledge.

Other major works
Nonfiction: Watteau, 1968; The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism—Diderot, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, Huysmans, 1971; Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth- Century Phenomenon, 1972; Jacques-Louis David, 1980; Soundings, 1997; Romanticism and Its Discontents, 2000.
Translations: Utrillo, 1960 (of Waldemar George’s biography); Gaugin, 1962 (of Maximilien Gauthier’s book); The Fauves, 1962 (of Jean Paul Crespelle’s book).

Bibliography
Bjorkblom, Inger. The Plane of Uncreatedness: A Phenomenological Study of Anita Brookner’s Late Fiction. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001.
Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.
Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander.Understanding Anita Brookner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Skinner, John. The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Soule, George. Four British Women Novelists: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998.
Usandizaga, Aránzazu. “Motifs of Exile, Hopelessness, and Loss: Disentangling the Matrix of Anita Brookner’s Novels.” In “In the Open”: Jewish Women Writers and British Culture, edited by Claire M. Tylee. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006.
Williams-Wanquet, Eileen. Art and Life in the Novels of Anita Brookner: Reading for Life, Subversive Rewriting to Live. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis

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