After two novels with male protagonists, Latecomers (1988) and Lewis Percy (1989), Anita Brookner has in Brief Lives returned to familiar ground: the lives of women. Indeed, the title refers not only to life’s disappointments and brevity, but also, ironically, to the short periods a woman has with a man, whether husband or lover, despite her lifelong quest for true love. The lasting relationships in a woman’s life, the ones she returns to, the narrator Fay Langdon makes clear, are those with other women. Spurred by an obituary of an old acquaintance, Julia Wilberforce, Fay recollects her friendship with Julia as well as her own romantic history. Not only does the news of Julia’s death launch the narrative, but Brief Lives also closes with Julia’s voice as Fay imagines it from beyond the grave.
The women of Anita Brookner’s novels are almost always disappointed in love and marriage, for what they seek, as Fay recalls from her own girlhood, is a cinematic version of love, a Hollywood ideal of balanced female need and loving male attentiveness. The cost of this girlish dream is clear from Fay’s life story, particularly her lingering emptiness and despair as she approaches old age alone. Writing in the tradition of several centuries of women novelists adept at combining realism with the romance, Brookner presents Fay’s story retrospectively, carefully structuring the narrative to reveal the causes for the central conflict between romantic aspiration and the reality of male-female relationships. Yet Fay is not the only female character in Brief Lives who suffers loneliness and disappointment. Julia’s marriage to Charlie was also a compromise, his devotion unable to meet the expectations her love for her brother fostered. So compromised was her marriage, despite Charlie’s apparent devotion, that she never openly knew of an adulterous affair between her husband and Fay, her friend and the wife of Charlie’s legal partner. Pearl Chesney, aging and alone, also illustrates the emptiness of women’s lives without love and companionship, as do the lives of Lavinia Langdon, Fay’s mother-in-law, and Maureen, a factotum for Julia. Recognizing the common fate of women, Fay expresses a generalized grief and “an unwilling solidarity with all female destinies,” their common need to “rely on alliances forged long ago.”
Typical of Brookner heroines, Fay is passive and scrupulous. Julia, by contrast, is narcissistic, demanding, and tormenting—a parallel to many such self-centered female characters in Brookner’s earlier novels. Despite their opposing attributes, however, Fay and Julia remain important presences for each other. Julia needs someone to care for her, and, after her husband’s death, though she has Pearl and Maureen, she demands Fay’s attention, enlisting her help in returning and garnering library books and, unconsciously, exploiting Fay’s unexpiated guilt over her affair with Charlie. Even long after Charlie’s death, which ends her affair, as death also ends her marriage, Fay obligingly abandons her preparations for dinner with a male friend in order to aid Julia. So poignant is Brookner’s wisdom and irony in capturing the begrudging ties of these women that she has Fay’s and Julia’s friendship outlast their husbands, the sources of their original acquaintance, and Fay persists in attending to Julia even after acknowledging that the latter has been her downfall. Because of Julia, Fay has shown Dr. Alan Carter, her hope for a future companion, “an unpleasant side,” “a hapless deranged side” of herself, causing the flight of “that fastidious and so-successful unmarried man.” Yet she reconciles with Julia, and with Pearl in tow, they spend an agreeable evening together over food and drink. They form a moving tableau, these three aging women without men. “One returns to the company of women when any blow falls,” Fay comments near the end of the novel, for in many situations “only one’s own kind will do.” Having faced what life has in store for them as elderly widows, the three give in. Fay observes: “We drank wine like old lags and ate ice cream like girls. Assuaged, eyes bright, lipstick smudged, we sat back and nodded at each other in recognition.” It is the young around them who are “self- conscious,” the objects of sympathy yet satire to their aging observers.
Besides her poignant rendering of the lives of lonely women, Anita Brookner demonstrates in Brief Lives striking stylistic similarities to Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose works she admires. Like them, she explores the daily social intercourse and thoughts of her characters in order to focus on their increasing awareness and the refinement of feeling. The reader observes Fay’s daily efforts to please her husband, the subtle adjustments and compromises she makes, her willing passivity until, after several years, she...
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