The fiction of British novelist Anita Brookner is often paralleled to that of her compatriots Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. A renowned art historian and lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, Brookner writes in an ironic, understated manner, similar to that of Austen and Pym. Like them, she focuses on a small cast of characters in a restricted, often domestic, social setting where marriage is a central issue. Where Brookner differs is in her dramatization of the loneliness and moral crises facing middle-aged women. Somberness invades her portraits of contemporary British women, resulting in part from Brookner’s tendency to structure her plots around serious philosophical arguments. In Hotel du Lac (1984), for example, her fourth novel, which won Britain’s distinguished Booker Prize, the heroine, Edith Hope, has been pressured into a vacation at a Swiss resort following a major social debacle: She abandoned her own wedding at the last moment, leaving both friends and fiancé waiting at the church. While Austen or Pym might have treated this situation satirically, Brookner uses it only as background for studying a dark period of transition in the heroine’s life, one ultimately involving a conflict between personal integrity and narcissistic exploitation by others. A similar conflict faces the heroine of The Misalliance. Here, however, Brookner’s work more greatly resembles that of Henry James than either Austen or Pym.
Set in contemporary London, the novel is narrated primarily in limited third-person point of view, focusing on the thoughts of Blanche Vernon, the heroine. Brookner occasionally shifts to first person, as she did in Hotel du Lac, when the heroine is thinking aloud to herself. When Blanche is visiting with her sister-in-law, Barbara, her former husband, Bertie, or her old friend and one-time beau, Patrick, Brookner shifts to their thoughts. In this way she provides some views of Blanche other than Blanche’s own restrictive and often self-effacing one.
Deserted by her husband of twenty years for a younger, livelier, though not more interesting woman, Blanche occupies her time “keeping feelings at bay” and considering how she has failed. During the day, she dutifully does volunteer work at a local hospital or visits the National Gallery of Art, seeking a lesson in the paintings. At night she drinks a trifle too much wine while waiting for Bertie’s regular, though unannounced, visits. When she meets a hedonistic young woman, Sally Beamish, and her three-year-old stepchild, Elinor, who refuses to speak, Blanche involves herself in their lives to fill the emptiness of her own. She provides cash for the mother, despite the latter’s indifference and carefree manner. To the child she offers companionship and occasional gifts, hoping to win affection and to rescue her from a dull life led in the shadow of her mother’s flamboyance.
Through concentration on Blanche’s thoughts, Brookner successfully captures the inner turmoil, the self-doubt, courage, and despair of an intelligent woman abandoned at midlife by a husband she still loves and to whom she had devoted her life. A novel of manners and morality, The Misalliance thus studies and explodes the myth of the contemporary “free woman,” unshackled by marriage and obligations to family. Though Blanche has her own income and need not rely on her husband for alimony, though she is well and keeps herself fit and busy, her life is empty of purpose and love. Preparing a solitary supper early in the novel, Blanche contemplates this new freedom and what it means. Her conclusion is that such freedom to please herself, “go anywhere, do anything,” is, in fact, “a terrible burden. If one is not very careful, free will can come to mean there being no good reason for getting up in the morning.” Indeed, the absence of purpose and the loss of her husband have made Blanche blind to her own virtues and foolishly hopeful, despite her native good sense, of buying the love of Sally and her child. This “misalliance” of Blanche and Sally forms the nucleus of the novel’s plot. Also, although there is little external action in the novel, Brookner’s concentration on Blanche’s thoughts and her interaction with the carefree Sally...
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