Hotel du Lac

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Anita Brookner belongs to that distinctively British line of women authors whose work, while maintaining a certain emotional distance, is distinguished by writing so clear, careful, and uncompromising that it is both witty and critical without ever descending to the deliberate venom of satire. Brookner has often been compared to Barbara Pym. Hotel du Lac is dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann; its protagonist resembles Virginia Woolf only physically—she is far too humble to claim any other similarity. The line begins, naturally, with Jane Austen. In Hotel du Lac, Brookner echoes Austen’s carefully limited cast, small social compass, and restricted setting. Thus she is able, for her own ironic purposes, to lull readers into sharing the characters’ Austenite presupposition that a single woman of a certain age has very few cards to play and that a presentable man with a respectable income must be in want of a wife.

Both premises may indeed be accurate, but the conclusions Brookner draws from them quite adequately demonstrate that hers is a novel of the late twentieth century rather than the late eighteenth. (Jane Austen’s considerable influence on contemporary women’s writing may well be related to the fact that Austen lived in an age when intelligence in women was at least marginally permissible, before the domestic ideology of the nineteenth century took full hold.) The situation in Brookner’s novel is that Edith Hope, thirty-nine years old, industrious, dependable, self-reliant, single, and moderately successful as a writer of romance novels, has gone for a month’s retreat to a Swiss resort hotel. The book unfolds slowly as she observes her fellow guests, writes letters to her lover, and, in carefully controlled doses, gives readers some information about her personal and emotional history.

In a novel so deliberately constructed to avoid passion and excitement, the emphasis falls on style. Leisurely sentences soothe the reader with their careful precision, while the devastating implications slowly creep up from behind. For example, Brookner describes the Hotel du Lac: It is dignified and traditional; its patrons are well-to-do, prudent, and respected. The hotel features quality furnishings, excellent service, and avoids vulgar amenities such as saunas, hairdressers, or even scenic guided tours. The austere bar discourages lingering. There is no attempt to provide entertainment. After two pages of similarly restrained detail selected to establish the hotel’s high standards, noncommercialism, and respectability, the last essential piece of information appears equally factual and nonjudgmental: The Hotel du Lac isguaranteed to provide a restorative sojourn for those whom life had mistreated or merely fatigued. Its name and situation figured in the card indexes of those whose business it is to know such things. Certain doctors knew it, many solicitors knew it, brokers and accountants knew it. Travel agents did not know it, or had forgotten it. Those families who benefit from the periodic absence of one of their more troublesome members treasured it.

Like many contemporary novels, the book has a writer as protagonist, thus letting the author create a central character who can observe, explain, and see in ways that might not otherwise be plausible. Edith Hope’s specific occupation allows for much of the book’s irony, explains her particular bias in observation, and adds delight to the final resolution. She is, as Brookner puts it, “a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name.” Her writerly inclination gives her an excuse to study her fellow guests at the hotel. It is also a device to keep her feelings disengaged, a means of living in the head that allows her to see reality in a fashion that sometimes obscures actuality.

Edith Hope begins her stay as an observer, taking interested note of her fellow guests. The most fascinating are Iris Pusey, a radiantly glamorous woman apparently of middle years, and her daughter Jennifer, a pudgy, naïve, and as yet undeveloped copy and loving companion of her mother. Edith’s attraction to this pair suggests the way she has used observation and intellect as barriers to self-examination. She believes they interest her as a writer. In observing Iris Pusey’s painless self-gratification and her...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Hotel du Lac tells the story of Edith Hope, a writer in her late thirties who must face alternatives familiar to many women—and some not-so-familiar ones. She has left a tedious suitor at the altar; she has an attractive lover who will not leave his wife. She wonders if true love—marriage to a desirable and faithful man—can be found. Anita Brookner underlines Edith’s problems by describing her occupation. Under the pseudonym of Vanessa Wilde, she is a writer of romance fiction in which happy endings are the rule.

Hotel du Lac is an elegant and expensive hotel on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The chronology of the few autumnal weeks that Edith spends there is straightforward, but Edith’s full story develops slowly. Although the novel opens as Edith arrives at the hotel, it is clear that something important has just occurred in London. Not until chapter 9, two-thirds of the way through the novel, does Brookner reveal that Edith has left her intended husband waiting at the church—literally. Brookner departs from ordinary chronology in other ways. Edith remembers scenes from her past. Hotel guests are not named immediately. Edith’s letters tell much of what happens, and she often compares herself to the heroines of the romances that she writes.

The novel begins with Edith in her “veal-colored” room at Hotel du Lac, a quiet unspectacular setting appropriate to her mood. She prepares to work on her new novel Beneath the Visiting Moon. She yearns for David Simmonds, her lover, and begins a letter to him. She then descends to the salon for tea and to see the guests. During the next few days, Edith meets the hotel guests and slowly forms opinions about them. The countess, Madame de Bonneuil, does not speak English, but Edith cannot escape Iris and...

(The entire section is 736 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In 1984, Hotel du Lac, Brookner’s fourth novel, won the Booker Prize, Great Britain’s most prestigious award for fiction. From her debut as a novelist, Brookner has had a sizable general audience—not only a feminist one. Readers specifically interested in women’s concerns will focus on Edith. Her loneliness and powerlessness seem particularly feminine, and so does her appreciation of nuances in clothes, decor, and social relations. Her goal in writing her novels is based on what women readers want; her goal in writing letters is to please her lover. Many women will see her as embodying traits that they try not to possess.

The critic John Skinner sees Hotel du Lac as a feminine novel at a deeper lever. Edith and the other women of the novel struggle against a male-centered bias in the very language that they use: The hotel has “patrons”; Neville “takes her” on a walk. Jennifer suggests the standard male separation of female intelligence from female sexuality; the status of each of the women is determined one way or the other by men.

Some say that women’s novels are often more open-ended than those written by men. Though Brookner said in an interview that she began to write Hotel du Lac with the intention of writing a conventional ending in which love triumphs, she was not able to do so. Edith has escaped a closed ending, and there is no guarantee what will happen when she gets home.

That Brookner’s works are read by many men as well as women may suggest that she is not a typical feminist novelist. In interviews, Brookner herself, though sympathetic with feminists, always distinguishes herself from them. Even though her heroines seldom find the ideal man, they usually look for a romantic ending with him. Brookner does not disapprove of those fictions and those dreams. In contrast, the heroine of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) is also a romance novelist, but Atwood is mainly interested in smashing the idols of romance. Despite her excellence as a novelist, Brookner is regarded by some feminists as a bit old-fashioned or not sufficiently radical.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Women's Movement and Feminist Literature

The modern women's movement that began in the 1960s produced an upsurge in...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)


The setting, by a large lake in Switzerland, plays an important role in the novel. The imagery associated...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1980s: Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance fiction in the world, sells romance books in a hundred international...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • How does Hotel du Lac parallel popular romance novels and how does it differ from them? Do romance novels offer merely escapist...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Brookner's novel, The Misalliance (1987), like Hotel du Lac, features a lonely middle-aged heroine and the inner conflicts...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Alexander, Flora, Contemporary Women Novelists, Edward Arnold, 1989, p. 30.

Bayles, Martha,...

(The entire section is 591 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hardy, Barbara. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. September 14, 1984.

Hosmer, Robert E., Jr., ed. Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. In Hosmer’s interesting essay, he analyzes Brookner’s heroines in relation to biblical and other exiles. In Hotel du Lac, Edith is an archetypal exile: She walks aimlessly, searches her soul continually, experiences considerable guilt, and is literally exiled from England.

Hudson Review. XXXVIII, Summer, 1985, p. 309.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Novelists Today: A...

(The entire section is 401 words.)