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The Price of Virtue

Frances Donnelly

Hotel du Lac was Anita Brookner’s fourth novel, published in 1984. To the consternation of many and the incredulity of the author, it won the Booker Prize that year. The photograph taken after the announcement shows an author wide-eyed with disbelief. And not just Ms Brookner. One of the judges, the late great Sir Malcolm Bradbury, consoled Julian Barnes, also shortlisted, with the words: ‘Bad luck, Julian – the wrong book won.’ With the greatest respect, Sir Malcolm, there are those of us who disagree. Hotel du Lac is the work of a supremely gifted novelist at the top of her game. Not just elegant, insightful and thought-provoking, but still, after many readings, laugh-out-loud funny. So it is pleasing to know from a work colleague that, for the whole of the next day, Anita was completely elated.

Bear in mind that writing novels was her second brilliant career. She was born in Herne Hill in 1928 to Polish Jewish parents whose original name was Bruckner. Her upbringing, though comfortable, was not happy. A First in Art History led to a doctorate at the Courtauld, then ten years in Paris – ‘the happiest time of my life’. Later, in 1987, she became the first female Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge. She loved teaching and was a revered and respected tutor.

But by the time she was 50, some reassessment was being made. She was on her own. There had been proposals but none had seemed right. In her most laconic style she commented: ‘Men have their own agenda. They think you can be made to fit in with their lives if they lop off certain parts of yours. You can see them coming a mile off.’ Immensely private, she had a wonderful way of deflecting enquiries about her personal life by uttering oracular statements so bald as to silence the enquirer – ‘I could probably go into the Guinness Book of Records as the loneliest woman in London’ being one. But one hot London summer she began to write fiction, beginning aptly enough with A Start in Life (1981). She wanted to analyse the paths that had led to her present isolation. With a typical flourish of bravado she remarked, ‘I thought of my lost hopes and how lucky I was to be able to convert them so easily into satire.’ But that is a characteristic piece of self-deprecation. Her novels are sympathetic, witty and scrupulously truthful. Lucidity was both her goal and her great gift to her readers. Her books appear understated yet are capable of delivering their own deep emotional shocks.

Hotel du Lac remains Anita Brookner’s most popular novel and the one in which she most clearly sets out the ideas underlying her work. Its first-person narrator is a woman called Edith Hope who makes her living by writing romantic fiction ‘under a more thrusting name’. She lives off the Fulham Road and describes herself as a discreet and responsible person: she pays her taxes on time and never rings her publisher. But she has done something neither discreet nor responsible – which has necessitated an enforced holiday at the Hotel du Lac near Geneva. This is a luxury hotel with excellent food and wonderful service, yet it is low-key to the point of inaudibility. There are no organized activities, no disco, no tempting glass cases full of luxury goods. There is an uninviting bar which everyone voluntarily leaves after one drink. Yet you need a recommendation to book a room here. It is revealed not as a house of correction, more a remittance house to which people are sent after emotional or chemical incontinence. Edith has committed a social gaffe and has come here to expatiate her sins.

The ‘crime’ is revealed halfway through the book. A week before her summary departure to Switzerland she had been about to marry. But on her wedding day, approaching the Registry Office and viewing her future husband, she had had a change of heart and had quietly told her driver to drive on. It is a superlative scene of high comedy: the guests in large hats surge expectantly towards Edith’s car, then all heads slowly swivel in disbelief as it disappears off up the King’s Road.

Not much fun for the would-be bridegroom, though. ‘Edith, you have made a fool of me,’ he later says with some dignity. ‘Geoffrey,’ she replies, ‘I think you will find I have made a fool only of myself.’ The problem is that though Geoffrey has an excellent flat in Montagu Square – he’d lived there with his mother – he does not have Edith’s heart. That is bestowed on a foxy married man called David who comes round once a month for extramarital sex followed by egg and chips. (‘I am a good plain cook.’) She is used to listening to the sound of his departing car, then returning, with an aching heart, to her writing.

Edith’s romantic novels, though clearly lucrative, are hard to place – probably not Mills & Boon (she writes with a fountain pen), yet certainly not Having-It-All tales of the 1980s. At the beginning of the book her agent even hints that she may have to up her game – ‘the romantic market is beginning to change. It’s sex for the young woman executive, the Cosmopolitan reader.’

But Edith is completely unmoved. ‘Most women’, she tells him, ‘prefer the old myths. Particularly Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Because the tortoise wins every time, just as in my books. The mouse-like unassuming girl gets the hero. It is a lie,’ she adds pleasantly. ‘In reality the hare always wins. But not in fiction. At least, not in mine. My readers are essentially virtuous.’

During her time at the Hotel du Lac she ponders deeply as to what behaviour most becomes a woman, and there seems to be no satisfactory conclusion. Virtue does seem, in real life, to be entirely its own reward mainly because no one else – especially men – appears to have a blind bit of interest in it. On the contrary, it’s the louder voices of the shallow, the greedy and the self-regarding that seem to ensure the most interest and attention. Reality is ordinary women struggling to make lives for themselves or trying to make peace with the life they have.

And yet. There are proposals. Towards the end of the book Edith remarks, with consternation: ‘I have received two proposals of marriage this year and I seem to have accepted both of them.’ But she declines both: she cannot commit where her heart is not engaged. Quite wrong, Anita Brookner later robustly remarks. ‘She should have accepted one of them.’ As a married woman Edith would have had status and a place in society. In the absence of Prince Charming, an older Brookner felt this was an equitable bargain.

The search for love and usually the failure to find it (the sole exception is The Bay of Angels (2001) and even then the heroine sees he beloved for only six months of the year) is a dominant Brookner theme. Some critics have suggested that she wrote the same book again and again. ‘Of course,’ she replied crushingly. ‘All writers do.’ But few with as much truthfulness, humour and sympathy.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Frances Donnelly 2021

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The Price of Virtue

About the contributor

Frances Donnelly still lives happily in Suffolk. One of her goals during lockdown was to rehome a dog from a rescue centre, but she discovered that too many other people had had the same idea. She is currently thinking of rehoming a cat.

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