The Rules of Engagement is narrated by Elizabeth Wetherall, a lonely woman whose life has mysteriously taken a wrong turn. This circumstance she shares with a lifelong friend, Betsy Newton. They also share the same first name and the same birthday, and Elizabeth comes to realize that Betsy was the one constant in her life, acting as a mirror, an alter ego, or a variation on her own baffling situation.
Elizabeth's empathic but ruthlessly honest consciousness envelops this story from the beginning to the end, providing illumination and insights which are the consequence of living a closely examined life. As she tells the reader a surprisingly suspenseful story of the complicated love triangle that secretly developed among herself, Betsy, and a charming philanderer, Elizabeth is capable of devastating insights, not only into her oldest friend but also into her own nature. Having been encouraged to develop a smiling, uncomplaining persona even in the face of her parents’ unhappy marriage and her own disappointing love life, Elizabeth has, as a result, become so self-contained and so used to concealment that she lives a life of almost total emotional isolation. Raised in a prosperous environment, Elizabeth satisfies her parents’ expectations by marrying a dull but successful older man, Digby Wetherall. Almost immediately afterward, she finds herself bored and lonely and establishes a pattern of long, aimless walks around London which she will follow for the rest of her life.
In desperation, Elizabeth takes as a lover her husband's stockbroker, the worldly Edmund Fairlie, who seems to feel no guilt at keeping a flat expressly for the purpose of sexual liaisons. The fairly long relationship he and Elizabeth sustain is not only without empathy or curiosity on his part but seems also to demonstrate a moral disengagement that Elizabeth finds increasingly disturbing. Realizing there has actually been no love in her life, despite having had a husband and a lover, Elizabeth ends her relationship with Edmund when her husband dies suddenly, as if each man were somehow a function of the other. She attempts to put her life back together by taking another lover, the recessive, lonely Nigel Ward.
With indications that Nigel may prove to be a second Digby, Elizabeth's waning interest in him is compounded by her realization that she has not recovered from her affair with Edmund, which left her with a legacy of regret and guilt and with a conviction that she is destined to wait for a true love that will never materialize. In addition to this disillusionment, she is haunted by the fear that her affair did real spiritual harm to herself and genuine damage to her marriage. These regrets and scruples, Elizabeth believes, make her a marginal figure in a society she sees as devoted to self-interest and self-satisfaction, to the exclusion of a morality now dismissed as having belonged to a previous generation. She begins to feel that her pangs of conscience are dismissed by the larger world as tiresome, unattractive, and irrelevant—and she begins to wonder if the world is not right and she is missing her chances at life.
This theme has preoccupied author Anita Brookner quite often in her work—on one hand, she suggests, modern society is constituted of beautiful and selfish neo-pagans who pursue pleasure without regard to scruples or conscience. On the other hand are the saints and martyrs who perform good works for others or practice virtues increasingly deemed old-fashioned and ripe for exploitation.
The period in which Brookner claims this type of modernity came to fruition is exactly the time in which the major action of this novel is set: the 1980's. This decade exerts a subtle presence in the novel, so although The Rules of Engagement is essentially a psychological study, Brookner opens it up to a social context in which the prevailing view is that one should be free of all constraints and prohibitions. This libertarian spirit—associated in England with the rise of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—is that one Brookner suggests took over the whole of human behavior at this time. It is within this societal ambience that Edmund and his sophisticated wife, Constance, began to conduct themselves as if they were the favorites of the gods, immune from traditional moral precepts or obligations.
This sense of an entire society fragmenting into small units of personal self-interest meant, Elizabeth suggests, that women with more traditional values and expectations were increasingly demoralized. For instance, Edmund fails to see how his expectation that Elizabeth see herself as a free agent, without romantic yearnings,...
(The entire section is 1900 words.)