The publication of each new novel by Anita Brookner is greeted by critics who call it an unrewarding reworking of familiar situations and themes. Brookner always seems to present a youngish single woman (or, as the author herself ages, an older single woman) who consents to a life of such lonely and passive frustration as to be pathological. Some hopes are raised when persons more energetic than she enter her life, but these promises come to little or nothing. As one of her heroines (Edith in 1984’s Hotel du Lac) explains, such women are tortoises. Although romance novels sell copies because they show tortoises winning, in real life the tortoises always lose, and the energetic and uninhibited hares always win. In her novels, Brookner may tell it like it is, but critics complain that the story is told over and over again.
In Visitors, Brookner does not disappoint. Her central character (it is hard to call her a heroine) is Dorothea May, known to the reader as “Mrs. May.” She is a dignified, well turned-out elderly widow (the dust-jacket of the American edition makes her much too old-fashioned.) She is the novel’s tortoise, the personification of Sloth. She begins the novel in a situation that combines inertia and solitude to a degree that stretches the boundaries of realistic fiction. She is somewhat feeble; when she feels breathless, she takes pills. She lives on an almost deserted street in a moribund middle-class neighborhood in southwest London. Her flat is decorated in muted blues and grays; two of its rooms are permanently closed because they are associated in her mind with her husband, who died fifteen years ago. She has not had a guest since then. She goes out once a day to eat a solitary lunch in a nearby restaurant. Her only human contacts come from a daily word from the lonely old man who once managed the restaurant and from a weekly Sunday night phone call from one or the other of her late husband’s cousins.
Her story, the reader senses from the beginning, may be a variation on that of Sleeping Beauty or of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot—an awakening, perhaps happy, perhaps not. The story begins when her cousin Kitty, a rich and forceful woman addicted to discussing her health and her husband’s, phones Mrs. May at an unusual hour to ask an unusual favor. Visitors are coming (hence the novel’s title). Kitty’s granddaughter Ann, the offspring of her estranged son Gerald, will be arriving from the United States in several days, and Ann expects Kitty to put on a wedding for her right away. Kitty is short on space, and she asks Mrs. May to take into her flat—for only a few days—one of the wedding party, a man named Steve Best.
Before she became Mrs. May, Dorothea Jackson had been a lonely girl and woman, given to reading and long walks. She met her husband after she fell down on the street and Henry had literally picked her up. He picked her up figuratively as well, raising her out of a lonely life into one of calm domestic comfort. Years after his death, the archetypal pattern recurs. Dorothea, now Mrs. May, almost falls again, getting dizzily out of a cab before her block of flats, and she is again rescued, this time by Steve Best. Steve helps her inside, she calms down, and they talk. It would be hard to imagine two creatures from such different worlds: she a lonely, insulated, apprehensive, static old woman, he a gregarious, itinerant, confident, wandering young man. Mrs. May enjoys his presence in her home. She coddles him and looks forward with girlish palpitations to going with him on a Sunday drive. At the same time, she judges him accurately as a cipher and yearns for him to go.
Understanding other people is one of Brookner’s concerns in this novel. The story is told from a third-person limited- omniscient viewpoint, so that the reader lives through almost everything from inside Mrs. May’s attentive sensibility and begins to understand her intimately. The reader thus becomes aware that Mrs. May too has an aptitude for sympathetic understanding. Others around her—Henry’s cousins in particular—may fail to understand her, but she understands them very well. At one point, Brookner attributes this talent to Mrs. May’s reading of novels: They have taught her to understand what other lives are like. (Readers of Brookner will note a development here. In Brookner’s early writings, reading novels gave her...
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