Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Booker and it is superb. Its central question is: what kind of woman should one be? In 1984 we were exploring feminism, but this is not quite what Brookner is on about; her female characters are always circumscribed by their lives and are never able to exercise much in the way of choices...
Edith Hope, in her late thirties, is a very respectable writer of romantic fiction, but she has scandalised her friends. Having drifted into accepting a widower's proposal, she has jilted him at the altar. Geoffrey was a nice man, a good catch and her 'last chance'. She meekly agrees to a 'holiday' at a small hotel in Switzerland while the scandal dies down...
What seems not to be acknowledged by her friend Penelope, is that Edith has a career and an independent income. She doesn't need a 'good catch'. She has a pleasant home and a settled life which brings quiet satisfactions: sunshine, gardens, lunch with her publisher and her agent. She also has, unknown to anyone, a lover, David, who is the light of her life although she sees him only once or twice a month. He is married and has a family that he does not intend to leave.
What she does not have, not in 1984, is social position. She is invisible, adapting herself to others, and pitied by them for apparently being 'unwanted by a man'. Marriage to Geoffrey would have ameliorated that, but there was too much to lose. She realises, as she rides around the block in a taxi to the Registry Office, that she would not be able to write, and she would lose her treasured routines. Her small pleasures and the identity she has suddenly seem more valuable. Were she to become a wife, she would have a different role to play, a house to keep and a social position to manage. At this crucial point, she decides to remain herself, as she is, with her life unchanged.
But the proposal and abortive marriage means that her life cannot remain unchanged. At the Hotel du Lac, she meets Mr Neville. He points out these things to her, that she is too self-effacing and that she should try behaving badly. More selfishly, less romantically. Unexpectedly, he proposes. He wants companionship, without demands. He expects, since they are not in love, to have affairs, and so should she.
She almost accepts him. She writes a farewell letter to her beloved David, from which we learn from mild traces of bitterness, that she knows that she really means very little to him. On her way to post it, she sees Mr Neville exit from Jennifer Pusey's room - poor, pathetic and very rich Jennifer, indulged by her suffocating mother, and for whom life is passing by. In this she is like Edith, except that Jennifer doesn't have the dignity of a profession or worthwhile pursuits. Edith is quietly outraged that Mr Neville uses women like Jennifer; she does not want to marry a man like that.
What kind of woman should she be? She will go back to England, but her life will not be quite the same. People are very cross with her, and although she tore up her letter to David, she may continue with him - if he offers. He may not, since he has not bothered to write to her. Does she want him? Like Mr Neville she wants companionship, but on her terms. She likes her house, her way of doing things. It would seem that she cannot have what she would really like, not in her social situation, because marriage brings social obligations that would interfere with the parts of her life that she likes.
Perhaps today she would be able to resolve the dilemma. She would be seen as a successful single woman, with no need of a man to place her. But her self-effacing personality, her shapeless cardiagsn and her inconspicuous dresses? Do they represent the real Edith, or do they symbolise the times when marriage was a woman's only destiny?
I finished reading this book and journalled it on 21.1.2004.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers