Brief Lives

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

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.

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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 awakens fully to how her marriage, with all its unfulfilled longing, is a misalliance. Even then, there is no anger, simply gradual recognition and pity. “I faced the fact,” she comments,

that he would rarely if ever make love to me in the years ahead, and that all I could hope for was his hand, in an unguarded moment, catching hold of mine, or his arm laid about my shoulders. The strange thing was that this realization did not frighten me or even make me indignant, for what was coming into being was a sort of pity.

Yet a page later, Fay describes “a coldness” that descends on her spirit, “the coldness which marks the recognition that equality in love will never be attained,” and “for a moment or two,” she recounts, “I sat in horror, knowing that love had gone and would never return.” It is this type of refinement of feeling and Jamesian recognition scene that marks Brookner’s novels and gives them appeal for discerning, mature readers.

Brookner is also, as the above sentences illustrate, an accomplished stylist. Fay’s voice, her sentences, are at once halting yet poised—a parallel to her character. She speaks with balance and painfully acquired wisdom. “Now I realize that it is marriage which is the great temptation for a woman, and that one can, and perhaps should, resist it,” she comments. Elsewhere, she says, “respectability is as much as can be hoped for; there is no woman so respectable as the one who has rediscovered virtue.” There are wisdom and rue as well as stylistic refinement in such sentences, and many similar ones fill the pages of Brief Lives.

With their sophisticated style and sentiment, Anita Brookner’s novels are not for the fainthearted, nor are they for the worldly adventurous. Brief Lives is no exception. Set in such prosaically named places as Onslow Square and Gertrude Street—one suspects a hidden allusion to Hamlet’s mother—her characters inhabit a closed domestic world. Attention to food and living arrangements is paramount. Settling matters of leases and house sales, planning a cold chicken curry and rice salad to serve Dr. Carter for dinner—such constitute Fay Langdon’s world. More than delineating the limitations of her characters, however, Brookner’s attention to such concerns also defines the sphere of their freedom. In these domestic matters, at least, women of Fay’s generation—those born before World War II—have choices.

Conscious images of light and dark play consistently throughout Brief Lives, reinforcing Fay’s emotional states. She recalls nostalgically her girlhood as a time of happiness and light, a magical interval before dark. Her home in Gertrude Street with Owen, significantly, is darkly decorated. With Owen frequently away on business trips, the sun becomes for Fay a “symbol of all that has been lost.…” The years after Owen’s death, which coincide with Fay’s affair with Charlie, she remembers as “mainly dark,” autumnal. Death as well as darkness emerges near the end of the novel. Fay acknowledges “the symbolism of the end of the day” as a parallel to “a sort of anguish, an anguish which is not entirely temporal.” The solitude that encases her is both frightening and inevitable, and Fay’s awareness of it is mirrored in the growing images of darkness that pervade the novel.

Brief Lives is ultimately a novel about loss, but the acquisition of freedom and the struggle for dignity in the face of this diminution of life are perhaps its strongest themes. Fay’s longing for happiness and true love fit the novel to the romance genre, but in many ways it is a moral tale focused on the consequences that dovetail with the themes of loss, freedom, and dignity. Fay’s pilgrimage to freedom leads to loneliness, just as her search for love has led to disappointment. Her taking Charlie as a lover begins “a long training in duplicity, in calculation, in almost continuous discomfort.…” She pays, ultimately, “too dearly for love.” As a mistress to Charlie, she finds “there is no appropriate attitude” for her when he dies. She is at once “spared Job’s comforters who attend the wife,” but she is also alone and must comfort herself. In the course of the novel, moreover, Fay not only loses Owen and Charlie; she also loses her mother, her youth, her beauty, her singing voice, and even Julia, who moves to Spain to live with her brother. These departures all have the effect of freeing Fay of encumbrances and the desire to please others. Yet there is pain and struggle in these losses, a struggle particularly to overcome melancholy and self-pity. “I was a pretty girl,” she tells the reader at the outset. “I married well…It all seems a long time ago. But what most women want I once had. I try to remember that.” A more significant loss, however, may be the potential for love itself. In the last recognition scene, Fay sees that with Pearl and Julia gone, she is “free now, free of encumbrances, free of hope, that greatest of all encumbrances.”

Brief Lives is another brilliant tile in the mosaic of human relationships that Anita Brookner has made with her fiction. Its stylistic refinement, its moving portrait of aging women, its insights into female friendships and the disappointments of love speak to the mature reader, the discerner of life’s meaning.

Bibliography

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.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

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 drawer. On the personal level, the marriage was also bad; Owen shrank from intimacy.

Then Julia entered Fay’s life. Julia’s husband, Charlie Morton, was a senior partner in Owen’s law firm. Julia had been a fashionable and elegant comedienne—beautiful, legendary, a taker of many lovers. At her home, which she rarely left, Julia possessed a court of employees/friends/sycophants. Fay’s friendship with Julia was also based on service. Encouraged by Owen for reasons of office politics, Fay visited Julia often and did errands for her. Then two events changed Fay’s life. First, Owen died in an automobile accident. Second, when Fay moved into a flat of her own, Charlie Morton helped her, they kissed, and six years of adultery began.

The affair gave new life to Fay. Charlie was affectionate and warm, and she devoted her life to him. He was nothing if not discreet, and Julia did not appear to know what was happening. Sadly, Fay suspected that to Charlie the affair was more a recreation than anything else, and her moderate happiness was cut short by Charlie’s death.

Fay still felt a strange bond with Julia and often visited her. Julia was almost immobilized now in her flat, depending on flunkies such as the sycophantic Maureen Luckham and her one-time dresser Pearl to attend to her needs, not all of them pretty. Fay also began to make a new life by doing volunteer work, and she met Dr. Alan Carter, a witty, cynical, and oddly attractive man. Once again, even though she knew that Carter had no tinge of romance, she began to hope for limited happiness. All these relationships came to a head when Julia disrupted Fay’s preparations for a dinner with Carter; the disaster in Fay’s kitchen precipitated his abrupt departure.

Fay arranged for Julia to live with her brother, Gerald, in Spain. She, Pearl, and Julia had a riotous dinner before Julia was packed off. Returning to the present, Fay reveals that Julia has died and that she is alone. She knows that she is an old woman. She will not let the songs of her youth move her any more. She is glad she has no children, because she has no occasion to weep. Fay faces death with fortitude.

Context

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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.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

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.

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