As I work my way through a chronological re-read of all 24 of Anita Brookner’s novels, it becomes harder and harder for me to write what passes for a “review” on this blog. I’ve never been very good at bringing any real light to the books I read, but when the writing in a novel is so taut and precise and perfect, it just makes anything that comes out of my mouth seem like garbage. For as much as I love Brookner’s work I’ve not really read anything about her writing process. She was a bit reclusive so perhaps she never really shared that information, but I have to wonder, was Brookner like Mozart whose work allegedly came out of his head fully formed, or are her manuscripts illegible because of all the strike-throughs as she hunted for the most elegant version of perfection?
In the US Anita Brookner’s 13th novel is called Dolly. In the UK, and perhaps everywhere else, it is called A Family Romance. For those who know Brookner’s work, you could not be faulted for thinking that there was no way that she wrote a hearts and roses kind of romance. And you’d be right. This tale sits squarely on the less used, secondary definition of ‘romance’ that is synonymous with “wild exaggeration” and “picturesque falsehood”.
I first thought that the US title Dolly was far more descriptive given that the character Dolly is like a force of nature blowing her way across every page with hurricane force. But really, this book is about Jane Manning, the niece of Dolly’s late husband Hugo. Dolly would hate that I would take the spotlight away from her, and Jane would be appalled that anyone might think she was drawing attention to herself. But for all that Dolly dominates the book and Jane’s life, the fact that we see all of this through Jane’s eyes and we understand the impact Dolly is having on Jane one begins to realize that this has much more to do with Jane than Dolly. This seems particularly true somewhere along the way when Jane’s role of narrator takes on an omniscience that seems, upon reflection, to be much more about what Jane imagines than what we know for a fact Dolly actually does. One could suppose that Brookner got sloppy and couldn’t figure out how to convey the action without making Jane omniscient. But I don’t think Brookner was capable of sloppy.
In terms of plot and setting, all of the Brookner hallmarks are there. A young woman of modestly independent needs (and that’s all relative, as Brookner even admits in the text) spends her time being lonely and wanting to be alone and at the same time. There is a francophone element, lots of walking through London, and lots of suppressed emotion. More specifically, Jane finds herself orphaned at 18 with only an aunt by marriage (Dolly) to call family. As the holder of inherited wealth she has also inherited the self-imposed responsibility to see that Dolly is financially secure.
And then there is Dolly. Raised by a single hard-working, but poor mother, Dolly never gets over being poor and she never gets over not belonging. Although Dolly finds security in Jane’s uncle Hugo (before Jane was born) his untimely death leaves her untethered and without an audience and status. Her need for financial assistance first from Hugo’s mother, then Hugo’s sister (Jane’s mother), and finally from Jane, has more to do with Dolly’s need to buy friends (and attention) then it has to do with economic security. With catch phrases like “Charm, Jane, charm!”, I had a hard time not hearing the voice of Penny from the British TV show “As Time Goes By”.
In the final chapter Jane is in America on a lecture circuit of women’s colleges where she has trouble connecting with the young female students whose every discussion focuses on gender. At first I had a hard time understanding the point of all of this other than an opportunity for Brookner to go after political correctness–which she does in a characterization of progressive male partners/husbands that could have been background for a character on Portlandia–but a closer read indicates that there is more to it than that. Just like Dolly’s abhorrence over Jane’s unmarried state, most of these young feminists have husbands, and despite their feminism, seem to have a hard time relating to her because she was unmarried. Jane has a hard time convincing them that she is “any kind of woman”.
It is not that they would necessarily want me to find love and marriage, in the sense of a happy ending. But if I were sharing household chores with some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself they could understand me better. How then to disappoint them by telling them that I prefer the fairy-tale version, and will prefer it until I die, even though I may be destined to die alone?
No doubt Jane would have an even harder time explaining that notion to Dolly whose quest for the fairy-tale version has resulted in less than fairy-tale circumstances over the years–and an old age that still has her dying alone.
Crossposted on the International Anita Brookner Day website.