Brief Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Brief Lives is the story of two women, Fay Langdon and Julia Morton, as related by Fay herself. The novel begins as Fay reads of Julia’s death in a newspaper. After the first chapter, Fay tells of her own life with fairly strict chronology, interrupted only by passages of remembrance and reflection.

Fay was the only child of happy parents who gave her a happy life. She especially loved her father, an amiable and easygoing man who ran a motion-picture theater. Films, especially Hollywood musicals of the 1930’s, shaped her parents’ lives. Both Fay and her mother believed that a plucky lower-class girl could, by singing and dancing, win the wellborn hero’s heart. Therefore, Fay trained as a singer. She was happy even after she moved away from home and entered show business. She shared a flat with a sweet and sensible girl named Millie Savage and sang on a radio program for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Yet happiness cannot last in realistic novels. First her father died, and then she married Owen Langdon, a handsome, dashing war hero. Fay sensed trouble when she met his mother, a grotesque widow who lived only for Owen, gin, and playing bridge. Fay worried when she moved into Owen’s London house, hideously decorated by his former wife. Although Fay gave up singing and became a dutiful wife, she was not happy. Owen, a lawyer, often left her alone while he worked in the south of France. He was obsessed with the lives of the tycoons with whom he associated; when Fay cooked fine dinners for them, they snubbed her. Owen’s dealings were shady: Fay found rolls of cash hidden in his sock...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Though its themes transcend distinctions of gender and time, Brookner’s Brief Lives is very much concerned with women’s issues. As in other novels, she evokes what critics have called a particularly feminine sense of powerlessness at a particular point in history. Fay, for example, often contrasts herself to younger, assertive, and accomplished women. Fay has been a woman of her age, in that she quit work when she married and spent most of her life cooking for men and waiting for them to come home to her.

Fay seems somewhat happier than many Brookner heroines. She sought happiness through men: Fay married a man who satisfied her intermittently, and she took a married lover who was quite a bit nicer than most. They die, but she knows that she has been lucky. “What most women want,” she writes, “I once had.” Nevertheless, like most other Brookner heroines, she ends up alone. She must face the bleakness of a loveless world with intelligence and a modest strength.

The novel’s emphasis on women is seen when women gather in small groups in almost every chapter. Both Fay’s mother and her mother-in-law (and Millie’s and Julia’s mothers) must be visited. Fay herself exchanges visits with Millie or has lunch or tea with another woman. Julia’s flat is always a gathering place for women who provide a spectrum of unhappiness: Maureen, the woebegone, churchgoing slave to Julia; Pearl Chesney, Julia’s sweet dresser from the old days; and Fay herself. When Julia is about to leave for Spain, three old ladies have a drunken farewell dinner.

Brookner has become increasingly aware of her odd position in women’s literature. Although Brief Lives is concerned with women, it is not a doctrinaire feminist novel. In fact, it can be seen as an answer to critics. Its male characters are not totally admirable, but neither are most of the women. Fay herself realizes that in her submissiveness and dependence, she will irritate many women and most feminists. Yet Fay may be less objectionable than some earlier Brookner heroines, in that her yearnings for romance are fully articulated only in the films and popular songs of her youth. Her later yearnings are muted, and as she approaches the end of her life, she seems beyond such desires.


(Great Characters in Literature)

The Atlantic. CCLXVIII, September, 1991, p. 124. A review of Brief Lives.

Chicago Tribune. July 14, 1991, XIV, p. 6. A review of Brief Lives.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 5, 1991, p. 13. A review of Brief Lives.

Hosmer, Robert E., Jr., ed. Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Hosmer’s essay discusses Brookner and her heroines as exiles. Provides background for reading Brief Lives. A good bibliography is included.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Novelists Today: A Survey of English Writing in the Seventies and Eighties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. According to Kenyon, among contemporary women novelists Brookner is a special case: She understands feminism, but her heroines usually remain within the confines of the traditional women’s novel.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Writers Talk: Interviews with Ten Women Writers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1990. Includes an interesting interview with Brookner on how she writes and how she began to write.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 7, 1991, p. 3. A review of Brief Lives.

The Nation. CCLIII, September 9, 1991, p. 274. A review of Brief Lives.

New Statesman and Society. III, August 31, 1990, p. 35. A review of Brief Lives.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, July 21, 1991, p. 14. A review of Brief Lives.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 44. A review of Brief Lives.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A very useful opening chapter surveys Brookner’s life and works in detail. Written before Brief Lives.

Skinner, John. The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The introduction treats critical opinions, Brookner’s intellectual background, and the autobiographical nature of her works. A demanding and a stimulating book, although it does not treat Brief Lives specifically.

Time. CXXXVII, June 24, 1991, p. 65. A review of Brief Lives.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 24, 1990, p. 889. A review of Brief Lives.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, July 28, 1991, p. 12. A review of Brief Lives.