Were one not cognizant of the fact already, one could divine from clues on the first page that Anita Brookner is a historian of art. She talks of “appropriation” and presence versus absence, two of the pet concepts of academic theorists in that discipline. She even has her narrator wander through the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection to find solace from the restlessness and insecurity that plague her as her world begins to fall apart. In the lovely but stagnant world of pictures she finds a sharp contrast to the inescapable realities of change and ugliness outside the galleries’ walls.
Jane Manning narrates this quietly elegant reminiscence of her family. Aside from the fact that her mother, Henrietta, has inherited money, her parents are not extraordinary people. Paul, her father, works hard and devotes himself to his wife and daughter. In fact, what is perhaps most unusual about the Mannings is the absolute devotion of husband to wife and vice versa. Theirs is a staid existence: mother, father, daughter, housekeeper in a large but relatively modest apartment in one of London’s unchic neighborhoods, “the middle of nowhere,” as the title character uncharitably remarks on one of her rare visits. Jane’s mother is content with her social isolation, happy to have found the love that she missed in her childhood. Paul enjoys his life of quiet, homey pleasures: reading with his wife, long walks, and slow meals.
Jane, who gains wisdom—probably from her reading—out of all proportion to her age, recognizes even as a child that her mild-mannered, thoroughly conventional parents are true innocents, unprepared for realities that are certain to intrude on their blissful communion. Jane knows that they will be hurt, and she wants more than anything else to protect them in their perfect union, one from which she knows that even she is excluded. “They were a placid reticent couple, and as time went by they spoke less and less, conferring with each other almost by osmosis, a process which was successful, since they rarely disagreed,” Jane explains in order to illustrate the completeness of her parents’ lives. Paul and Henrietta are
like pale creatures newly liberated from engulfing darkness, slender pillars of English virtue advancing, hand in hand, towards the light of common day. Having effectively divorced themselves from home and family, they felt free to invent their lives, as if they were characters in Dickens. This meant doing the opposite of what they had been brought up to do, living lives of the utmost orderliness and decorum.
Jane calls her love for her parents “painful,” precisely because she is a little impatient with their self-imposed otherworldliness, and she knows that their conscientious adherence to a regulated ordinariness ill-equips their daughter for the obtrusive realities of a society that is arbitrary, chaotic, and harsh in its demands.
She deduces, however, that in their oblivious avoidance of anything disruptive to their measured lives they, at least, are perfectly happy. They never seem to desire anything that they do not already have. In such mutual, exclusive dependence, the adolescent Jane foresees disaster. When Paul’s mother dies, he is subdued until Henrietta points out, “Death is arbitrary, after all. No one is safe.” Indeed, Jane’s parents do resemble “Adam and Eve before the Fall.” Consequently, Henrietta cannot adjust to a life without Paul after he succumbs to cancer. Not too long after her husband’s death, Henrietta wastes away and dies, leaving her daughter with a substantial estate and one unexpectedly heavy obligation, her aunt Dolly, who makes it abundantly clear that she expects little from her niece in the way of family devotion but a considerable amount from her in the way of financial support.
Brookner devotes large sections of the novel to characterizations, and her portrait of her title character is masterful. Dolly is at once charming and irritating, self-absorbed and bullying. In sharp contrast to Jane’s mother, she is a vibrant, forceful personality, one who expects and demands much from life, and she is relentless and single-minded in her ambition to get all she can from the situations into which circumstance throws her. As a child, Jane found her repugnant, objectifying her as “the” aunt, “for anything more intimate would have implied appropriation, or attachment.” Jane remarks often on Dolly’s ardor, finding evidence of her passionate nature in the details of her physical person. Dolly’s hands are beautiful and predatory, and at one point, Jane imagines on her face “a plea for every kind of fulfillment.” Yet on one of Dolly’s visits to Jane’s home, Jane notices Dolly’s “carnivorous” teeth, anxious to bite into a more exciting life than the Mannings’ staid tea party offers.
Although she is repulsed by Dolly’s avaricious demands and ungenerous nature, Jane is also fascinated by this alarming and alluring creature who drifts in and out of her life. She “knows” Dolly before she really learns her history, and Brookner’s frequent rehashings of Dolly’s character are validations of impressions that the child Jane had already made. As Jane matures, she begins to understand—through further association with Dolly and greater knowledge of the personal history that has made her a somewhat desperate, lonely old woman—how experiences that her insulated existence did not allow could shape...
(The entire section is 2241 words.)