Anita Brookner 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.
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.
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.
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...
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