- Max Whitaker
Novelist and art historian, Dr Anita Brookner, was born in London on 16 July 1928. She studied at King's College, London and at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She spent three years studying in Paris as a postgraduate, and went on to lecture in art at Reading University and the Courtauld Institute, where she specialized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art. She became the first woman to be named as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University in 1967. Her first novel, A Start in Life, was published in 1981. Hotel du Lac (1984), won the Booker Prize for Fiction and was adapted for television in 1986. The Bay of Angels (2001), concerns a single woman coming to terms with a new sense of freedom when her widowed mother re-marries and moves abroad. The Rules of Engagement (2003), her twenty-second novel, is a story about friendship and choices. She was made a CBE in 1990. Her most recent non-fiction book was Romanticism and Its Discontents (2000), and her most recent novel wasStrangers (2009). In 2011 the novella At the Hairdressers was published as an e-book. She passed away in 2016.
Leaving Home (2005) is Anita Brookner’s twenty-third novel.
In its action being divided between London and Paris, ethical dilemmas, and above all in the decisions facing the characters, it is vintage Brookner. The reticent heroine is Emma Roberts, a garden historian who becomes drawn into the life of her French friend Francoise - especially the love life - ‘fascinated by her provocative behaviour’. Seemingly very different, both women are emotionally dependent on their mothers. Emma observes that her mother’s love was so exclusive ‘that it was experienced more like anguish’. Events unravel both their own love-hate relationship and the limitations they impose on each other. Researching her book, visiting Francoise and her mother, while conducting an on-off love affair with a London surgeon, Emma reflects ruefully on her own Francophilia: ‘it’s an eternal apprenticeship, trying to be like the French’. By the close, Emma is convinced that ‘I even understood the suburban depths of my own soul’ and entertains ‘that evanescent hope of a good outcome’.
Schematic as such a summary is, and recognizing the elegant quality of her writing, nevertheless there are certain familiar features in Brookner’s fiction. It is at once highly literary and very popular. Her many devotees include fellow novelists such as Michèle Roberts (who has compared her to Colette) and Helen Dunmore, who has likened her to Chekhov. These comparisons are not extravagant, not least because of Brookner’s European locations and perspectives. It may be assumed that disappointments in romantic love are her perennial subject, and certainly she works wonderfully subtle ‘variations on a theme’, exploring affairs of the heart from mainly (though not exclusively) female situations and points of view. But her work has many depths. For instance, it fully registers the changing social roles of women, from financial dependence on marriage to greater independence – and potentially greater loneliness – in a time when ‘women are so free now’. While she often portrays ageing women’s fears of isolation and coming down in the world, equally as often she provides sparkling tragic-comedies of manners.
The latter is certainly the case in her best-known book, the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac (1984). Romantic novelist Edith Hope has been banished by friends to a Swiss hotel and, while fretting over her unfinished novel, reports in letters home on the foibles of her fellow out-of-season guests. They discuss ‘the question of what behaviour most becomes a woman’, the quest for romantic happiness, and Edith’s own marriage fiasco is revealed. There is, as ever, a cast of wonderfully drawn characters including rapacious shopper Mrs Pusey, fortune hunter Monica, and the mysterious Mr Neville whose eloquent pursuit of Edith herself is almost realized. Another comically awful sacred monster is Julia in Brief Lives (1990), who avoids the humiliation that she richly deserves, escaping to Spain to end her days in the company of her true love, her brother.
More typically, her leading female characters experience lost romantic opportunities, and go forward only into ‘that long resignation which marks the true onset of old age’. These veterans of unrequited love are therefore vulnerable to becoming the dupes of more vital characters; this is true of Emma Roberts in Leaving Home, just as it is of librarian Frances Hinton in Look at Me (1983) when she meets glamorous couple Nick and Alix. She gets caught up in the hedonism of their lives for a while, wanting to experience ‘how the others, the free ones, conducted their lives’, only to be deluded in her own pursuit of romance. A similar setback awaits Kitty Maule and her ‘secret hopes’ at the climax of Providence (1982). This is indeed a typical pattern: a woman’s placid existence is interrupted by people or events outside her control, pushed to a certain pitch of crisis, before her life resumes its progress – towards loneliness, or perhaps greater realism of expectations.
The mother-daughter relationship - warmly intimate, competitive, at times fraught - is common to many of her books. One of the best and most poignant examples is in Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995), in which the narrator imagines her mother’s first love affair and subsequently unsatisfactory marriage, reconstructing the events of 50 years ago in Paris and Meux. And in The Bay of Angels (2001), a mother and daughter move from London to Nice in the south of France where, quoting the painter Turner, ‘the sun is God’. Young Zoe, about to embark on her own life and romances, feels supplanted in her mother’s affections when the latter suddenly marries an urbane elderly Frenchman. She finds herself prematurely thrust into the role of carer when her mother is first widowed and then becomes seriously ill in hospital. Zoe is yet another Brookner heroine who is acted upon by unexpected circumstances, and has to find a new way of living. And yet, she admits, after all ‘my business was, and always had been, my mother’. Sadder and wiser by the end, she is nevertheless able to feel ‘a restoration of goodwill, of joy’.
Julie Myerson, writing in The Mail on Sunday, commented on Brookner’s ability to immerse readers in ‘the pinched, emotional life of her characters’. This is true of The Next Big Thing (2002), although, unusually, its main character is male. This is the 73-year-old Herz, who ‘must do something with the time left – but what?’ He feels afflicted with ‘a sadness which had nothing to do with hardships and disappointments but was rather an inheritance he did not fully understand’. Women, variously re-emerging from his past and disturbing his present life, provide the mainspring of the action. Chief among them is his lover Josie who has recently left him to care for her own mother; and his now-elderly former love Fanny – who had turned down his marriage proposal but now gets back in touch with him, for her own financial interests. Quite different are the feelings Herz develops for Sophie, the young woman who moves into an adjacent flat, and whom he hears making love. It becomes ‘his most precious secret’, that ‘he was able once again to feel desire’. His strongly erotic feelings lead, however, only to humiliation when he reveals them: ‘one’s fantasies were out of character, he reflected: that was the reason for their being fantasies’.Herz is a typical Brookner character; re-awakened to life, only to become, by his ‘sequence of muddled intentions’, ultimately better reconciled to death. Brookner continues to delight her many admirers, and to chart the tragi-comic consequences of romance with almost unmatched subtlety.
Dr Jules Smith, 2008