The Misalliance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The fiction of British novelist Anita Brookner is often paralleled to that of her compatriots Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. A renowned art historian and lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, Brookner writes in an ironic, understated manner, similar to that of Austen and Pym. Like them, she focuses on a small cast of characters in a restricted, often domestic, social setting where marriage is a central issue. Where Brookner differs is in her dramatization of the loneliness and moral crises facing middle-aged women. Somberness invades her portraits of contemporary British women, resulting in part from Brookner’s tendency to structure her plots around serious philosophical arguments. In Hotel du Lac (1984), for example, her fourth novel, which won Britain’s distinguished Booker Prize, the heroine, Edith Hope, has been pressured into a vacation at a Swiss resort following a major social debacle: She abandoned her own wedding at the last moment, leaving both friends and fiancé waiting at the church. While Austen or Pym might have treated this situation satirically, Brookner uses it only as background for studying a dark period of transition in the heroine’s life, one ultimately involving a conflict between personal integrity and narcissistic exploitation by others. A similar conflict faces the heroine of The Misalliance. Here, however, Brookner’s work more greatly resembles that of Henry James than either Austen or Pym.

Set in contemporary London, the novel is narrated primarily in limited third-person point of view, focusing on the thoughts of Blanche Vernon, the heroine. Brookner occasionally shifts to first person, as she did in Hotel du Lac, when the heroine is thinking aloud to herself. When Blanche is visiting with her sister-in-law, Barbara, her former husband, Bertie, or her old friend and one-time beau, Patrick, Brookner shifts to their thoughts. In this way she provides some views of Blanche other than Blanche’s own restrictive and often self-effacing one.

Deserted by her husband of twenty years for a younger, livelier, though not more interesting woman, Blanche occupies her time “keeping feelings at bay” and considering how she has failed. During the day, she dutifully does volunteer work at a local hospital or visits the National Gallery of Art, seeking a lesson in the paintings. At night she drinks a trifle too much wine while waiting for Bertie’s regular, though unannounced, visits. When she meets a hedonistic young woman, Sally Beamish, and her three-year-old stepchild, Elinor, who refuses to speak, Blanche involves herself in their lives to fill the emptiness of her own. She provides cash for the mother, despite the latter’s indifference and carefree manner. To the child she offers companionship and occasional gifts, hoping to win affection and to rescue her from a dull life led in the shadow of her mother’s flamboyance.

Through concentration on Blanche’s thoughts, Brookner successfully captures the inner turmoil, the self-doubt, courage, and despair of an intelligent woman abandoned at midlife by a husband she still loves and to whom she had devoted her life. A novel of manners and morality, The Misalliance thus studies and explodes the myth of the contemporary “free woman,” unshackled by marriage and obligations to family. Though Blanche has her own income and need not rely on her husband for alimony, though she is well and keeps herself fit and busy, her life is empty of purpose and love. Preparing a solitary supper early in the novel, Blanche contemplates this new freedom and what it means. Her conclusion is that such freedom to please herself, “go anywhere, do anything,” is, in fact, “a terrible burden. If one is not very careful, free will can come to mean there being no good reason for getting up in the morning.” Indeed, the absence of purpose and the loss of her husband have made Blanche blind to her own virtues and foolishly hopeful, despite her native good sense, of buying the love of Sally and her child. This “misalliance” of Blanche and Sally forms the nucleus of the novel’s plot. Also, although there is little external action in the novel, Brookner’s concentration on Blanche’s thoughts and her interaction with the carefree Sally...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Misalliance tells of Blanche Vernon’s life from April to autumn in the year following her divorce. The story proceeds chronologically, but Anita Brookner interrupts with flashbacks to explain the past and with many reflections by Blanche herself. The reader asks what Blanche must ask: What satisfactions are there for a middle-aged, divorced woman who has limited herself by her marriage but who cannot stop hoping that life has more to offer?

Blanche lives in an expensive flat in a good neighborhood in southwest London. She fights off feelings of bafflement and worthlessness by resorting to daily rituals: dressing well, going to museums, shopping, cooking simple meals, and drinking more wine than she should. Although she feels lonely, especially standing by her bedroom window at night, she is not alone. Her cleaning lady takes good care of her. Bertie’s sister Barbara calls her every evening. She does volunteer work at a local hospital.

The complications of her life begin one day at the hospital, when she sees a small child and her mother. The child, perhaps three years old, is self-possessed and quiet; the mother—young, slatternly, stunning, loosely and exotically dressed—is the opposite. Blanche feels impelled to talk to them; she discovers that the child, Elinor, though normal in every other way, does not speak. She finds out also that the mother, Sally Beamish, is actually the child’s stepmother; her husband Paul is in France, working in some unspecified capacity for a rich American...

(The entire section is 628 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Misalliance provides several perspectives on women’s issues. In its central character, it treats a particularly feminine kind of loneliness. Both men and women are lonely, but Brookner implies that a woman’s loneliness often combines with feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness. Moreover, Blanche seems like yesterday’s woman: She shops and cooks, she has no job, and she is painfully conscious of bathing and of wearing the right clothes, especially if a man is to visit. When Brookner contrasts her with Mousie and Sally, she makes a familiar comparison.

Blanche is paradoxical. She admires her neighbor Mrs. Duff, but she is determined not to become like her, a conventional matron. Although the central character of The Misalliance is a woman who conventionally loves a man, she judges accurately his cruelty to her and his lack of understanding. She can dissect his character with acid wit, and do so to his face. Yet she wants him back. In this way, Brookner writes in the tradition of the Brontës, in which the ways of love are controlled by passions, not ideals.

Brookner has transformed what could have been simply a moving modern study of a defeated divorcée into a postmodern critique of a kind of feminist trap. Brookner implies that Blanche’s fictions do not tell the whole story, that the system of symbols Blanche erects, while illuminating some things, obscures others. Blanche comes to realize this too, and she finally resists being trapped in her own system, a system that encourages self-pity. She breaks out of her role as dutiful, altruistic loser and begins to please herself. Then she becomes a winner. Brookner has written a novel about a woman’s predicament which is also a useful critique of some kinds of women’s stories.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Hosmer, Robert E., Jr., ed. Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Hosmer’s own essay emphasizes Brookner as an artist in exile but does not discuss The Misalliance. Good bibliography.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Novelists Today: A Survey of English Writing in the Seventies and Eighties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Among contemporary women novelists, Brookner is a special case: She understands feminism, but her heroines usually remain within the confines of the traditional woman’s novel. Does not treat The Misalliance specifically.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Writers Talk: Interviews with Ten Women Writers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1990. Includes an interview with Brookner. No mention is made of The Misalliance, but there are many revealing comments.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A very useful opening chapter surveys Brookner’s life and works. The chapter on The Misalliance presents a richly detailed argument stressing Brookner’s continuum of female and male types. Sadler illuminates the correspondences between art and life and is particularly good on Blanche as a likable heroine.

Skinner, John. The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The introduction discusses critical reactions to Brookner’s novels, her own intellectual background, and the autobiographical nature of her works. The section on The Misalliance sees Bertie’s return as a defeat for Blanche.

Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1989. Does not focus on The Misalliance, but discusses Brookner in the light of feminist psychoanalysis.