With the publication of Hotel du Lac (1984) and its subsequent reception of the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction, one of England’s most prestigious literary awards, Anita Brookner has come into her own, it would seem. She has garnered considerable notice since that point, including an interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” All of this attention means that she will be known to a much wider Stateside readership than she has enjoyed in the past. This prospect is a fortunate one for both author and readers—indeed, providential.
Prior to this most recent coup, Brookner had published several novels, including Look at Me (1983) and the novel under review, Providence (published in Great Britain in 1982). It is useful to consider Providence in the light of Look at Me, for one thereby sees in sharper relief many of the elements which are combined with greater complexity in the later work. One is even tempted to dub Providence a sort of “dry run” for the subsequent novel, but there are too many special properties attaching to this work for that assertion to be true.
The most striking similarity between Providence and the later work is the “spurned woman” plot mechanics that drive this narrative. Kitty Maule, the heroine, is the victim of her own deluded love for a man who, it is quickly evident to the reader, cares little if at all for her. Kitty, like the protagonist of Brookner’s earlier novel The Debut (1981), is simply not beautiful enough to seize the amorous prize that she desires. To make matters worse for Kitty, she is part French and must make her way through the intricacies of insular British manners, being always too cautious and correct, a shade too impeccable for her own good. Even her stylish dresses, a legacy of her grandmother’s skill as a fashion designer, are always just a bit too stylish; they are tasteful (or, to use a recurrent word in the novel, “suitable”), but finally they make it harder for her to fit in, harder for her to place.
Kitty’s object of desire is Maurice Bishop, a cool but dashing figure whose pullover sweaters impress the fashion-conscious Kitty, especially when set against the backdrop of shabby-genteel dowdiness which marks the rest of her colleagues at the unnamed university where she hopes to make her temporary appointment into something more permanent. The sartorial emphasis given seemingly every description of Maurice Bishop led one critic to lament that, rather than a genuine character, what Brookner was giving the reader was “part-icon and part-knitting pattern.”
Bishop, however, is more than a knitting pattern by far. He is also a title, inherited wealth and breeding, social assurance, academic prominence, and even—however unlikely in modern-day secular England—religious faith. These are all attributes which, it is implied at one or another stage, Kitty wishes to possess and does not. The religious motif is especially insistent with respect to Maurice: His last name implies a transmitter of supernatural truth, his specialty—Gothic cathedrals—confirms it, and he even wears a signet ring. Kitty, whose specialty is Romanticism, exists firmly in the here and now of everyday reality but longs, like so many of the men she studies, for the splendors and the spiritual certitudes of the Middle Ages. Perhaps the key word here is “certitude,” however, since that is what a belief in providence entails. Bishop represents less religious faith or certitude in the narrow sense than the quality of certitude as such: a faith that the social world which has been so kind and generous in the past will inevitably be so in the future, a faith that is hard to distinguish from faith in oneself.
Indeed, Bishop’s belief in his own charm verges on narcissistic hubris. His public lectures on cathedrals have poetic leaps of inspiration and assumption that leave people such as his perennial antagonist, called only “the Roger Fry professor,” incredulous with contempt. The ladies (the wife of the Roger Fry professor included), however, and most of the gentlemen admire the lectures anyway. He seems to feel capable, despite a paucity of evidence on a given medieval topic, of virtually communicating with the dead themselves. The ability to do this would be especially desired by Kitty, whose life has been very early overshadowed by death. Her father—a British captain and an idealized figure—died before she was born, and her weak mother, Marie-Thérèse, expired suddenly one night at her grandparents’ dinner table. In another striking parallel to Frances Hinton, the heroine of Look at Me, Kitty Maule is thus orphaned, her life bordered by the somber hues of death; and her orphanhood makes her even more aware of her marginal, misfit status.
One doubts it will be betraying anything to say that Kitty’s designs on Maurice Bishop are not fully realized—although the precise way in which they are compromised, as revealed in a stroke of theater on the final two pages of the novel, is astounding in its farcical...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)