Themes and Meanings
The novel explores several interrelated themes in a teasing and tentative manner, with many flashes of witty insight but with no attempt at final resolution. Brookner’s novel is mainly about loneliness, and in particular about the loneliness of women, symbolized to an extreme by the rejected and unloved Madame de Bonneuil.
“My idea of absolute happiness,” Edith tells Mr. Neville “is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening,” she adds, thinking ruefully of David’s infrequent visits. Her loneliness springs from her knowledge that for her this will always be an unfulfilled dream. “In my books,” she says, in a recollected conversation with her agent, Harold Webb, “it is the mouse-like girl who gets the hero. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. In real life, it is the hare who wins.”
Allied to the loneliness theme is a disconsolate inquiry into how women should behave. In a one-sided conversation with Monica, Edith expresses disgust with women who are “complacent consumers of men,” constantly expecting privileges and rewards. She suggests that feminists should direct their attacks at this kind of woman, rather than at men. Brookner is, in fact, very explicitly distancing herself from feminism.
Edith’s wistful rejection of modern values and her nostalgia for the past are symbolized by the faded elegance of the hotel, which was built in a more confident and serene era, and which, in the period of Edith’s stay, is at the end of its season.
The nostalgia theme is reflected in the meticulous style of the writing and in several literary allusions. Henry James is singled out as an author “precious” to Edith, and Mr. Neville, on the surface, is very much a Jamesian character. A Chekhovian flavor tinges many of the descriptions and is personalized, again on the surface, through Monica, the lady with the little dog. A mention of Colette in the text finds an echo in the verbal twist of the final sentence—a true sting-in-the-tale Collette-ism. Edith’s pride in being frequently told that she resembles Virginia Woolf—another literary allusion, and a kind of running joke throughout the book— is twice punctured, comically by Mrs. Pusey and cruelly by Mr. Neville.