Hotel du Lac
Hotel du LacIntroduction
Hotel du Lac, by British novelist Anita Brookner, was published in 1984. Brookner's fourth novel, it won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. As a result of her first three novels, Brookner had won a reputation for writing about the difficulties faced by middle-aged, single, lonely women, and Hotel du Lac follows this pattern. It also owes something to the genre of popular romance novels; its heroine, Edith Hope, is a successful writer of such novels. She has been dispatched by her friends in London to a hotel in Switzerland because of an unfortunate lapse on her part, although the reader is not initially informed about what the lapse was. Edith intends to use her temporary stay to finish her latest romance novel, but instead she spends much of her time observing and interacting with the other hotel guests, who include a rich and glamorous but self-centered elderly widow and her daughter; an upper-class young woman who suffers from an eating disorder; a lonely, old and deaf countess; and an enigmatic man named Mr. Neville. The self-effacing, quiet Edith, a romantic soul whose relationships with men are less than satisfactory, spends much time thinking about how a woman ought to behave in order to satisfy her longings for love, as well as recalling in painful detail the reasons for her banishment. In the end, Edith receives a proposition from Mr. Neville that forces her to think deeply about what she really wants in life and whether she is prepared to compromise her ideals.
Novelist and art historian Anita Brookner was born on July 16, 1928, in London, the only child of Newson and Maude Brookner. Her father, who was born in Poland and was Jewish, was a company director, and her mother, also Jewish, was a former professional singer. Her father encouraged her to read, and she was reading the novels of Charles Dickens from the age of seven.
Brookner was raised in the London suburb of Herne Hill and attended James Allen's School for Girls in Dulwich. Her adolescence was not a happy one, however. Not only was her parents' marriage a stormy one, but she grew up in the shadow of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, since the family home was often filled with Jewish refugees from Europe.
Brookner attended King's College, London, from which she graduated with a bachelor of arts in history in 1949. She received a Ph.D. from Courtauld Institute of Art, London, in 1953. After this she spent three years studying in Paris on a French government scholarship before teaching art history at Reading University from 1959 to 1964 and at the Courtauld Institute from 1964 to 1988, where she specialized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art. In 1967, Brookner became the first female Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University. She has written a number of books about art history, including Watteau (1968), The Genius of the Future (1971), Greuze (1972), Jacques-Louis David (1980), and the essays contained in Soundings (1997) and Romanticism and Its Discontents (2000).
Brookner did not turn to novel writing until she was in her fifties. She once told an interviewer, Olga Kenyon, that she began to write fiction out of boredom and the wish to review her life. Her first novel, A Start in Life, was published in 1981. (In the United States it was published as The Debut.) Since then, Brookner has published novels at the rate of one novel a year. Her fourth novel, Hotel du Lac (1984) won the Booker Prize, Britain's most coveted literary award, and established her reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Brookner's novels include Family and Friends (1985); A Misalliance (1986), published in the United States as The Misalliance (1987); A Friend from England (1987); Latecomers (1988); Lewis Percy (1989); Brief Lives (1990); A Closed Eye (1991); Fraud (1992); A Family Romance (1993), published in the United States as Dolly (1994); A Private View (1994); Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995); Altered States (1996); Visitors (1997); Falling Slowly (1998); Undue Influence: A Novel (1999); The Bay of Angels (2001); The Next Big Thing (2002), which won the Booker Prize and was published in the United States as Making Things Better (2003); and The Rules of Engagement (2003).
Brookner was made a Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1990. She is a Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge, and has received an honorary doctorate from Smith College in the United States. As of 2005 she lives in Chelsea, in West London.
Hotel du Lac begins in late September at a quiet, respectable hotel in Switzerland, where Edith Hope, a thirty-nine-year-old English writer of romantic novels, has just arrived. Edith's friends have persuaded her to take a month's break away from her home in London, since they consider her, for some reason as yet undisclosed to the reader, to be in disgrace.
Edith hopes to be able to finish her latest novel while staying at the hotel, although her first act upon arrival is to write to David, the married man with whom she is having an affair. At dinner that night she observes the hotel guests. She notices a slender Englishwoman and her small dog, Kiki; a silent countess, Mme de Bonneuil; and a glamorous, energetic English lady who appears to be in her sixties (it later transpires that she is seventy-nine) and her daughter. Edith's observations of and interactions with these and other guests, and her consequent reflections on her own life, form the substance of the novel.
After dinner, the glamorous lady invites Edith to join them. Mrs. Iris Pusey is a wealthy widow from London who regularly comes to the Hotel du Lac with her daughter Jennifer for the sole purpose of going on shopping expeditions for luxury items, such as fine clothes and jewelry. The conversation between Mrs. Pusey and Edith is entirely one-sided, since the older lady talks only about herself. Edith does not mind this, however, since she has no desire to share information about herself. Edith's observation of Mrs. Pusey sparks her reflections about what kind of behavior is most becoming to a woman, since the outgoing, confident Mrs. Pusey is the complete opposite of the quiet, self-effacing Edith.
Edith also notices the closeness and affection between Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer, and this observation leads her to recall her own very different relationship with her mother, Rosa. In her youth in Vienna, Rosa had been beautiful and flirtatious. But soon after her marriage to a university professor she became bored and frustrated. However, when her husband died in his early fifties, Rosa went to pieces, becoming even more unhappy and unreconciled to her fate.
Edith also recalls David, and how they met at a party given by her friend, Penelope. Edith and David exchanged very few words at the party, but David then came to her house several hours later, as she guessed he would, and they almost immediately went to bed together.
That night, Edith does not sleep well. In the morning, she talks to Monica, the slender Englishwoman, for the first time. She wonders why Monica is staying at the hotel and thinks she may be recently bereaved or convalescing from an illness. Later she meets another guest, Mr. Neville, a tall man in a gray suit and panama hat. He invites her for a walk, during which he reveals that he knows she is a writer whose pen name is Vanessa Wilde.
In the evening, Edith hears a scream coming from the corridor. She rushes to the Puseys' suite, fearing Mrs. Pusey has had a heart attack, only to find that the scream was uttered by Jennifer at the sight of a spider. Mr. Neville is in the process of scooping the spider up and throwing it out of the window.
Edith writes to David, telling him she has discovered that Monica, her new friend, suffers from an eating disorder and appears to subsist entirely on cake. Monica is also infertile, and her wealthy, titled husband, whom she hates and fears, has sent her to the hotel to get well so she can produce a child for him.
Mr. Neville takes Edith to lunch in a small restaurant high above the lake. He tells her that he owns an electronics firm and that his wife left him several years ago. But he is content being single, since this leaves him free to please himself rather than be concerned about the happiness of another. He believes that selfishness leads to a simple and enjoyable life, and he urges Edith to be more self-centered. Edith knows there is something wrong with this argument, but she does not dispute it with him. She finds him intelligent and even good-looking. They talk about love, and Edith says that she cannot live fully without it. Mr. Neville disputes this position, saying that what she needs is not love but social position and marriage, which he apparently believes is possible without love.
Later at night, Edith writes to David, giving him an account of Mrs. Pusey's boisterous seventy-ninth birthday party earlier that evening, which had continued until midnight. Edith left the party feeling out of sorts. She now remembers her own birthday parties when she was a girl. She made her own cake, and for once enjoyed a semblance of family life as she thinks it ought to be lived. Still feeling uneasy, she recalls the events that brought her to the hotel.
Edith had agreed to marry Geoffrey Long, a worthy but dull man whom she had met at one of Penelope's parties. She agreed to marry him because she thought that at the age of thirty-nine, it would be her last chance. She had given up hope of ever getting what she really wanted. But on the day of the wedding, as her chauffeur-driven car approaches the Registry Office where groom and guests are assembled, she changes her mind and asks the chauffeur to drive on to the nearby park. When she later returns to her house, everyone is indignant, and Geoffrey accuses her of making him a laughing stock. She hands him back his ring and says good-bye. Later that day, David comes to visit her, and she tries to make a joke of the entire incident. Meanwhile her friends, especially Penelope, are making arrangement to send her away to the Hotel du Lac in disgrace.
Back in the present, there is a commotion in the hotel before breakfast the next day. Mrs. Pusey is upset when she finds Alain, a young member of the hotel staff, in Jennifer's room, even though all he has done is deliver breakfast.
Later, Edith meets Monica in a café. Monica tells her that Mr. Neville has taken a fancy to her and that he is very wealthy, although neither fact holds any interest for Edith.
On a chilly day in October, Mr. Neville takes Edith on a day trip on the lake. Over lunch, he unexpectedly asks her to marry him. He says he can offer her social position and security, companionship and shared interests, and that he needs a wife he can trust. He argues that such a marriage is in her own interests, even though he admits that he does not love her and knows that she does not love him.
Later that day, Edith decides to accept his proposal. She writes to David, saying it will be her last letter to him. She explains that she is to marry Mr. Neville, and there is no reason why she and David should meet again. She also reveals that she has not mailed any of her previous letters to him. At six the next morning, she is going to the front desk to buy a stamp when she sees Mr. Neville discreetly leaving Jennifer's room. This solves the mystery of the closing door she had vaguely heard several times in the early morning; she now knows that Mr. Neville has made a habit of staying the night with Jennifer. She tears up her letter to David and makes a reservation for the next flight to London.
Alain is an eighteen-year-old boy who works at the Hotel du Lac. He takes his responsibilities very seriously and is upset when Mrs. Pusey implies that it is somehow improper for him to bring Jennifer her breakfast in her room each morning.
Comtesse de Bonneuil
Comtesse de Bonneuil is an elderly woman who is staying as a guest at the hotel. Edith thinks she has a face like a bulldog. Mme de Bonneuil is completely deaf and says almost nothing, spending her time sitting around on her own and reading the newspaper. She lives at the hotel even though she has a beautiful house near the French border. The problem is that she does not get along with her daughter-in-law, whom she despises, and her son suggested that she move out of the house and into the hotel. She did as he asked because she is devoted to him and does not want him to be happy, but in doing so she has condemned herself to a life of loneliness.
Mrs. Dempster is Edith's cleaning lady at her home in London. Edith considers her dramatic and unreliable.
Edith Hope is a thirty-nine-year-old writer of romance novels. Writing under the name of Vanessa Wilde, she has been modestly successful, with substantial sales of her five lengthy novels. Edith is the daughter of a professor and is a quiet, unassuming, diffident kind of woman. She does not dress in very fashionable clothes, and people sometimes tell her she looks like Virginia Woolf. Edith describes herself in typically modest terms: "I am a householder, a ratepayer, a good plain cook, and a deliverer of typescripts well before the deadline; I sign anything that is put in front of me." However, in spite of her apparently passive exterior, Edith is a highly intelligent woman with a sharp wit and a keenly observant eye. It is just that she does not choose, for the most part, to reveal herself to other people, preferring to talk to them about themselves rather than say much about her own life and thoughts.
Edith is single, but she is having an affair with a married man named David. She is in love with him but only sees him twice a month on average, and sometimes less. What she really wants is to be happily married, but she knows that David will never leave his wife. There is no one else available who fulfils her longing for romantic love. Her more extrovert friend Penelope often tries to fix her up with one of her own men friends. It was one such friend, Geoffrey Long, who courted Edith and persuaded her to marry him, but she could not go through with it and jilted him on the wedding day. Edith cannot settle for friendship and companionship with a worthy man; she must also have in the relationship the spark of love and deep tenderness. It is only love, or the hope of it, that keeps her feeling fully alive.
Banished to the Hotel du Lac following the debacle with Geoffrey, Edith is both fascinated and repelled by Mrs. Pusey, who seems to have achieved everything that Edith has failed to achieve and who in terms of her personality is Edith's exact opposite.
M. Huber is one of the owners of the Hotel du Lac, which is a family-run hotel. Officially, he has retired, but he still plays an active role in the business.
Geoffrey Long, a kind, affable but rather dull man, assiduously courts Edith after the death of his mother. She agrees to marry him because he offers her a home and security, and all her friends tell her that he will make an excellent husband. But Edith jilts him on the wedding day.
Penelope Milne is Edith's friend, although Edith does not hold her in great affection. More outgoing than Edith, Penelope often tries to set Edith up with men of her acquaintance. Penelope is not married but feels no need to be. She flirts with men and has relationships with them but also regards them as enemies, creatures she can conquer whenever and if she chooses to do so. Penelope is loud in her disapproval of Edith's jilting of Geoffrey Long and instrumental in packing her off to the hotel in Switzerland.
Monica, a tall, very slender upper-class Englishwoman, is a guest at the hotel. She suffers from an eating disorder and appears to live mostly on cake, feeding much of her hotel food to her small dog, Kiki. Edith decides that Monica is what Mrs. Pusey would call a fortune-hunter: she married for money. But her marriage is a desperately unhappy one. She appears to be infertile, and her husband, Sir John, whom she loathes, has sent her to the hotel in order to get well so that she can produce an heir for him. If she should fail, he will divorce her. But Monica is not the kind of woman to go quietly. Her manner is defiant and belligerent. She plans to humble Sir John into keeping her, or, if she is unsuccessful, to ruin his reputation. Monica is also a snob; she despises men such as Mr. Neville and Mrs. Pusey's late husband, as well as Sir John, because they all made their money through trade, which she considers vulgar.
Philip Neville is a guest at the hotel. In his fifties, he is an intelligent man of few words, although he chooses those words carefully. He is fastidious and well-dressed, and he pays courteous attention to the ladies at the hotel. He is also wealthy, the owner of an electronics factory, but he says he prefers to spend time on his farm. He tells Edith that his wife left him some years ago for another man, and he claims that now he enjoys his life because being single allows him to behave selfishly. The only person he has to please is himself. He takes an interest in Edith and surprises her by asking her to marry him. He proposes what he thinks of as an enlightened kind of arrangement, based on shared interests and companionship: she gains social position and security in exchange for allowing him the freedom to pursue affairs with other women, should the opportunity and desire arise. Edith fears that he is heartless and in some ways dislikes him, but she agrees to his proposal, until she discovers that he has been carrying on a discreet affair with Jennifer at the hotel.
Iris Pusey is a seventy-nine-year-old blond English widow who is staying at the hotel with her daughter Jennifer. She is wealthy and glamorous and likes to spend her time shopping for luxury goods. She is well-dressed, extroverted, and extremely self-centered. She adopts Edith as a confidante but is so narcissistic that she talks only about herself and shows no interest in Edith's life. Mrs. Pusey loves to be the center of attention, makes grand entrances into the dining room, and makes sure she gets maximum attention from the waiters. Edith finds her interesting and is drawn to her confident, self-assured, charming manner. Mrs. Pusey appears to be everything Edith is not, having made a successful marriage with a husband who, so she says, adored her and bought her whatever she desired. She glories in being ultra-feminine and getting what she wants out of men with ease.
Jennifer Pusey, Iris Pusey's unmarried daughter, is about the same age as Edith, but she looks younger. Jennifer is devoted to her mother, with whom she goes on shopping expeditions, but she does not have much to say for herself. When she is around her mother, she behaves, at least in Edith's view, like a small girl. Jennifer is attractive and rather plump and dresses expensively in a way that emphasizes her sexuality. At various moments Edith notices that Jennifer's pants are maybe a little too tight, as is her jersey, and she also wears skimpy nightgowns. It later transpires that Jennifer is carrying on a discreet affair with Mr. Neville.
David Simmonds is an auctioneer, the head of the family business. He is married and has children, and he is also Edith's lover. They met at a party given by Penelope. David is a self-indulgent man who does not deny himself anything. Edith remarks on his constant appetite, and she keeps her house full of food in order to satisfy it. David appears to be fond of Edith but not as fond of her as she is of him, and he has no intention of leaving his wife. She fears that he is not as interested in her as he once was.
Priscilla Simmonds, David Simmonds's wife, is tall, blond, and good-looking. Edith sees her at a party once and observes her as sexy and confident but also argumentative and discontent.
Harold Webb, Edith's literary agent, is a mild and scholarly man who looks like a country doctor. He is kind and seems genuinely concerned about Edith's welfare. He advises her to spice up her books by making them more modern and sexy, but she does not listen to him.
Loneliness and Isolation
The novel explores the different kinds of loneliness in several of the female characters who are guests at this quiet hotel in the off-season. The fact that they are staying at such a place at such an unpopular time suggests that they are in some way out of the mainstream of society.
First and foremost is Edith Hope. Unmarried but still searching for love, Edith has to make do with a relationship with a married man that produces more loneliness than intimacy. Even though David is at the center of her emotional life, she manages to see him only occasionally, and she feels that she hardly knows him. Each time he leaves, she feels that he has gone forever, and she endures many "empty Sundays" and "long eventless evenings" without him.
At the hotel, Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer recognize Edith's loneliness immediately when they see her, and they pity her because of it. In part, her loneliness arises because of her reserved temperament. Since her work as a writer is solitary, and she is by nature quiet rather than gregarious, she does not form close friendships easily. She goes to dinner parties not because she enjoys them but out of a sense of social duty. She is also under no illusions about her friendships, knowing that while she is away at the hotel, none of them can be trusted to get in touch with her.
In a sense, Edith is a person who waits for life to come to her, rather than going out and seizing it. She is more of an observer than a doer, and this pattern tends to create distance between her and others. Her solitariness is sharply contrasted with the gregarious, outgoing nature of several other characters, such as Penelope, David, David's wife (the briefly glimpsed Priscilla), and Mrs. Pusey, all of whom appear to have found their place in life and society and are quite content with it.
A second lonely character is Monica, who mixes little with the other guests. She reveals her state of mind early in her first conversation with Edith. "It's so nice to have someone to talk to," she says. Like Edith, whose loneliness in part stems from her frustrating relationship with her lover David, whom she sees only seldom, Monica's loneliness is due to her unsatisfactory relationship with her husband, who will divorce her if she is unable to produce a child. She also longs for the child she seems unable to conceive and feels condemned to loneliness and exile.
A third lonely character, and perhaps the loneliest of them all, is the Comtesse de Bonneuil. Once again, the problem stems from her relationship with a man, in this case, her son. Mme de Bonneuil lives at the hotel because she failed to get along with her daughter-in-law, so her son suggested that she move out of their house. Her son visits her once a month, but other than that takes no interest in her. Since Mme de Bonneuil agreed to his wishes because she did not want to make him unhappy, her loneliness results from her act of self-sacrifice. Her situation is that of an old person who appears to have outlived her usefulness, and her isolation is compounded by her total deafness, which makes communication very difficult for her.
The Search for Love
Although she is still unmarried at the age of thirty-nine, Edith refuses to renounce the search for love. She admits to Mr. Neville that she cannot be fully herself without love; it is vital for her existence: "I cannot think or act or speak or write or even dream with any kind of energy in the absence of love. I feel excluded from the living world." Her idea of happiness, she continues, is to spend the day alone, reading and writing, secure in the knowledge that the man she loves will be returning in the evening. What she craves is not the passion and ecstasy of romantic love, but what she calls "the simplicity of routine."
It is this desire for domesticity that persuades Edith twice within a year to accept proposals of marriage, even when she does not love the man concerned. She convinces herself that if she cannot have the deep love she wants, she can at least accept the offer of companionship and security for which she has an equal longing. But in the case of Geoffrey Long, she realizes, in the nick of time, that marriage to a man whom she neither loves nor deeply respects—it is the sight of his "mouse-like seemliness" as he waits for her at the Registry Office that convinces her she cannot go through with it—will bring her no happiness. In the case of Mr. Neville, when she sees him emerging from Jennifer's room she realizes that the bargain she has struck with him, under which she would acquire social position and respectability in exchange for his freedom to pursue love and sex elsewhere, is distasteful to her.
Topics For Further Study
- How does Hotel du Lac parallel popular romance novels and how does it differ from them? Do romance novels offer merely escapist entertainment or do they embody some truth? Do they show what men and women really desire and how they really behave? Read a novel by Barbara Cartland and then write an essay comparing it to Hotel du Lac.
- In a work of literature, a foil is a character that sets off another character by contrast. They may react to similar situations very differently, for example. Discuss how foils are used in Hotel du Lac. Examples might include Mrs. Pusey, Penelope, and Mme de Bonneuil as foils for Edith.
- Research what makes a successful marriage. On what basis do people select their future partners? Are all successful marriages based on romantic love? How important is companionship? Then make a chart in which you evaluate the relationship Edith has with David as compared to the potential relationship she might find with Mr. Neville.
- Hotel du Lac is not considered a feminist novel, even though it features a female protagonist and many female characters. Why should this be? Does the novel express a view of the world incompatible with feminism? Is Edith a rather old-fashioned woman in her attitudes to what women want? Write a feminist critique of Hotel du Lac, using Showalter s work, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, as one of your references.
In both cases, Edith's essentially romantic nature, the existence of which she denies in her conversation with Mr. Neville, will not allow her to make a sterile compromise in the name of security. In the end, she elects to continue her affair with David, even though it is in so many respects an unsatisfactory relationship. David, unlike Geoffrey Long and Philip Neville, will never marry her, because he will never leave his wife. His relationship with Edith is one-sided in the sense that she means far less to him than he does to her. For David, Edith appears to be little more than an easy source of sex and food. (She notes his voracious appetite and how pleasurable it has been for her to cook for him.) But she loves him, nonetheless, and the fact that she has someone at least peripherally in her life whom she can address as "My dearest," and write lines to such as "You are the breath of life to me," means more to her than the promise of a more socially acceptable relationship devoid of passion. Her need to cling to David because he is all she has is a testament at once to the preciousness of love, that she will accept such an imperfect version of it, and to Edith's great loneliness, that she can find nothing better.
The setting, by a large lake in Switzerland, plays an important role in the novel. The imagery associated with the lake is of mist, fog, and grayness. The opening sentence sets the tone: "From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden … lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore." The grayness reflects the dull, somber, dispiriting nature of Edith's life at this time; it lacks color and vitality. The simile in which the lake is compared to an anaesthetic expands on this parallel, suggesting life dulled of feeling and sensation.
The image of grayness recurs often in the novel, as when Edith takes her trip on the lake with Mr. Neville, and "the grey mist … encompassed the lake as far as the eye could see." That grayness is used to reflect Edith's mood is clear when she thinks to herself, of a particularly depressing moment during her stay, "Now she was as grey as the season itself."
Not all the days are gray, however. There are times when the landscape is "full of colour and incident," and these are the times when Edith's mood tends to change. When she lunches with Mr. Neville high above the mists of the lake, the weather is brighter and clearer, and Edith is no longer "the mild and careful creature that she had been on the lake shore." In the higher air, she is "harder, brighter, more decisive, realistic, able to savour enjoyment, even to expect it."
The imagery of grayness in Edith's present location is contrasted with the nostalgia with which she recalls her house in London. She remembers the "sharpness of the scents" as she sits in the garden as evening comes on, and the quality of the light at sunset, which "was of such very great interest to her she would put down her book just to watch it fade, and change colour, and finally become opaque and uninteresting." Her home acts as a pleasant refuge from the world, whereas the gray lake is an uncomfortable reminder of its realities.
Point of View
The novel is told almost entirely from Edith's point of view. This is done mostly in the third person, but also, in the three letters Edith writes to David, in the first person. Occasionally, and very briefly, the narrative switches to a male point of view, including that of M. Huber, Edith's gardener, David, and Mr. Neville. This form of narrative is known as selective or limited omniscience, in which the narrator enters the mind of a limited number of characters (in this case, mostly a single character).
Limiting the point of view almost exclusively to Edith is effective because it brings out Edith's introspective nature, in which she is constantly examining her own feelings and situation in life. The tiniest fluctuations in her mood and perceptions are noted. As she sits in the deserted salon, for example, "she felt her precarious dignity hard-pressed and about to succumb in the light of her earlier sadness."
The point of view also brings out the fact that Edith is an observer of life. She witnesses events as much as participates in them. She is also subject to error, as when she misjudges the ages of Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer, only gradually arriving at the truth. She also makes misjudgments about Mme de Bonneuil and Monica, which lead her to remark wryly to David, "So much for the novelist's famed powers, etc." She means famed powers of observation, which reminds the reader not only of the subjectivity of perception—people are as they are perceived to be, and objective truth is hard to establish—but also of the fact that Edith herself is a writer, a creator of fictional characters.
Women's Movement and Feminist Literature
The modern women's movement that began in the 1960s produced an upsurge in literature by and about women. In the United States this was stimulated by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. In Britain, the publication of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962) raised similar issues about the status of women and the expectations they had about their lives. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970) and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) were also influential in what was called at the time "consciousness-raising" for women. Such books encouraged women to organize politically and lobby for equal pay in the workplace, for abortion rights, and for freedom from sexual harassment and sex discrimination. According to Elaine Showalter in her important work of literary criticism, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronté to Lessing (1977, rev. 1999), the pace of the women's movement were slower in the United Kingdom than in the United States. The British movement produced no charismatic leaders, and the media was slower to publicize the movement. Some British feminists also scorned television and newspapers because of the media's perceived distortions. However, as Showalter noted, by the late 1970s, the English movement was beginning to catch up. Laws guaranteeing equal rights for women were passed, and women's studies programs sprang up in universities.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance fiction in the world, sells romance books in a hundred international markets; the books are translated into twenty-three languages. Harlequin has an estimated twenty million readers in North America and fifty million around the world.
Today: According to Romance Writers of America, romance novels are read by fifty-one million people in the United States each year and account for 49 percent of paperback book sales. Sales amount to over $1 billion yearly. The genre is rapidly diversifying to reflect the realities of contemporary women's lives. Heroines may be single mothers or divorced women, for example, and "hen lit" features older heroines. Romantic suspense, in which the heroine not only finds romance but also solves crime, is increasingly popular. Other sub-divisions include paranormal/science fiction romance and gay romance.
- 1980s: In Britain, the 1980s are a more conservative decade than the 1960s and 1970s. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher promotes free market reform, privatizes state-run industries, checks the growth of the welfare state, and reins in the power of the trade unions. The start of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 makes people more cautious in their sexual behavior.
Today: The Conservative Party is no longer in power, having been ousted in 1997 by the Labour Party. From 1997 to 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair wins a record three successive general elections for Labour, but in 2005, the Labour Party's majority in Parliament is sharply reduced. This change is partly a result of the unpopularity with the British public of the war in Iraq, in which the British government is a strong supporter of U.S. policy.
- 1980s: British women writers begin to experiment with new forms and ideas beyond realism. These include popular genres such as detective fiction, science fiction, romances, thrillers, and horror. British black writers and British writers of Asian descent produce some of the "richest and most innovative" writing in Britain, according to Diana Wallace. However, some of the optimism of earlier decades gives way to pessimism about the future as ideals of liberation collide with what may actually be possible in an imperfect world.
Today: Discussing contemporary British women's literature, Elaine Showalter in the revised edition of A Literature of Their Own: British Women's Novelists from Bronté to Lessing points out that the pioneering themes and metaphors typical of women's fiction from the 1970s onward have become part of every female writer's repertoire. She also notes that British literature by women has become less insular, with strong American and European influence, and less homogenous in style. This development reflects the contemporary global culture. Women writers are no longer limited to the social and domestic but participate in the literary mainstream "as postmodern innovators, politically engaged observers, and limitless storytellers."
As noted by Diana Wallace, in "'Writing as Revision': Women's Writing in Britain, 1945 to the Present Day," in the 1970s and 1980s there was also a boom in women's publishing in Britain, since "[f]eminism provided a theory and a language which many writers found enabling." Many women's presses were formed, starting with Virago in 1973 and followed by The Women's Press, Onlywomen, Pandora, Sheba, and Honno. These presses often published work by women that mainstream publishers turned down.
According to Nicci Gerrard, in Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women's Writing, the dominant form of the emerging genre of feminist women's fiction in the 1960s and 1970s was domestic realism, as produced by Lessing and other authors such as Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Marge Piercy, and Marilyn French. Gerrard notes that
For the first time, women's experiences were treated as central and significant: it mattered that daily and domestic details were recorded; that shopping and cooking, nappies and sleepless nights, menstruation and sexual desire, heterosexual and homosexual relationships were written about from a woman's point of view.
Such novels reflected women's lives as they were really lived and helped to create a sense of solidarity between women, giving many the courage to change unsatisfactory lives.
Gerrard points out that during the 1980s, there was a plethora of what she calls "feminist confessional" novels about "female suffering in a patriarchal world (sexual abuse, inequality, rape, pregnancy and abortion, the trap of motherhood and female conditioning)." However, she also points out that many leading British writers of the period, including novelists Antonia Byatt, Maggie Gee, and Emma Tennant, eschewed the feminist label, arguing that to accept it would imply that their work had a narrow ideological agenda rather than being an expression of a deeper level of artistic consciousness.
It has often been pointed out that Brookner's novels seem to be written against the prevailing feminist trend. In Hotel du Lac, for example, the heroine Edith Hope is not only a writer of popular romance novels (and thus implicitly unsympathetic to the goals of feminism), but also seeks romance and domesticity as her ultimate happiness. Her career as a writer, although moderately successful, seems to take second place in her mind. She wants what a woman is traditionally supposed to want: a man and a home. Patricia Waugh points out how unsuited Brookner's heroines seem to be for life in the contemporary world: "Their moral strengths function as weaknesses in the patriarchal, consumerist, and acquisitive world of the post-1960s, and they themselves internalize this disparaging view of their qualities, resulting in a perpetually low self-esteem."
Flora Alexander reaches a similar verdict about Brookner's work. She writes of Brookner's "detached and wary" attitude toward feminism. Brookner "does not see in feminism any remedy for the problem that she understands best—the problem of wishing for things, such as affection and family life, that by chance have been denied."
It is this inwardness of Brookner's work, the fact that she does not engage contemporary social and political issues, that makes her work in the 1980s untypical of the prevailing trends in women's fiction. Perhaps that is why The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English defines her work as "in the tradition of English psychological fiction."
The awarding of the 1984 Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, to Brookner for Hotel du Lac sparked some controversy. Although the style and structure of the novel were generally admired, some critics felt that the judges were playing safe, rewarding a traditional kind of novel at the expense of more innovative work. However, reviews in Britain were positive, and Hotel du Lac quickly became a bestseller. Over fifty thousand copies were sold within the first five months of publication.
In the United States, the novel was also a bestseller, although critical reaction was mixed. Walter Clemons, in Newsweek, described it as "impeccably written and suffused with a pleasing, sub-acid wit," but he also thought it inferior to similar novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Christina Stead.
Anne Tyler, in the New York Times Book Review, had a more positive verdict, declaring the book to be Brookner's "most absorbing novel," partly because in contrast to earlier Brookner heroines, Edith Hope is "more philosophical … more self-reliant, more conscious that a solitary life is not, after all, an unmitigated tragedy." Tyler points out, as other reviewers do, the general uneventfulness of life at the hotel, but she seizes on the contrast between Edith and the Puseys, who "come to stand for all that Edith has missed (or dismissed) in her life," as conveying the central meaning of the novel. Edith comes to see through their superficiality, leading Tyler to the conclusion that though the Puseys may be, to use the analogy that Edith employs, the hares who always beat the tortoises in the race of life, the author intimates "that it's sort of silly even to run the race, let alone to win it."
The reviewer for the New Yorker also delivered a positive verdict, commenting that "Miss Brookner has the art to give us characters who have character, and the intelligence and the vocabulary and the grace of style … to bring them menacingly to life."
Less enthusiastic was Adam Mars-Jones, in the New York Review of Books, who argued that the success of the novel depended on "its heroine's being convincingly vulnerable, a softly complex creature likely to be trampled by a brutal world." But while acknowledging that Edith's temperament is "so thoroughly self-punishing that she doesn't actually need to be treated badly in order to generate the demure agony that is her recurrent emotion," Mars-Jones noted that Edith is in fact made of sterner stuff; her supposed weakness and helplessness are belied by her intelligence, her powers of observation, and her cutting remarks about others, including her friends. According to Mars-Jones, Edith prefers it if her friends underestimate her and do not recognize her power.
A hostile review came from the pen of Robert Jones, and was published in Commonweal. Jones complained that the novel was "humorless," with "stock characters and … lifeless prose," and suffered from a paucity of ideas. His conclusion was that Hotel du Lac "is the kind of fiction that often wins awards because it gives the illusion of being 'literary' without unsettling us by its vision or eliciting any response but a sigh of received ideas."
Views such as that of Jones have been very much in the minority, however. In the twenty years that have elapsed since Brookner wrote Hotel du Lac, she has written another nineteen novels, but Hotel du Lac is still generally regarded as one of her finest, if not her very best.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he discusses the conflict in the protagonist between romanticism and realism, and how Brookner subverts the stereotypes of the popular romance novel.
A number of reviewers offered the opinion that Hotel du Lac was merely a more sophisticated version of a pulp romance, a "Harlequin Romance for highbrows," as Martha Bayles put it in The New Republic. For Angela McRobbie, in Britain's New Statesman, "The slow sorrow with life which finds temporary release in the strong-jawed hero is here displaced into a more upmarket world." Brookner herself told interviewer Olga Kenyon that when she started writing the novel, she "simply wanted to write a love story in which something unexpected happened, and in which love really triumphed." Of course, when a writer begins to write, the mysterious process of creativity takes over, and what emerges in the final version is often very different from what the writer may have had in mind at the beginning. Hotel du Lac is far from being a story in which love triumphs. There is not a single relationship described or alluded to in the entire novel that would fit such a description. Instead, Brookner produced a subtle novel which plays with and subverts the romantic stereotypes embodied in the popular romance genre. For all its romantic underpinnings, Hotel du Lac reaches for a more hard-nosed view of reality, but one which does provide some hope for the future for its lonely protagonist.
What Do I Read Next?
- Brookner's novel, The Misalliance (1987), like Hotel du Lac, features a lonely middle-aged heroine and the inner conflicts she tries to overcome. Blanche Vernon has been deserted by her husband of twenty years, whom she still loves. Struggling to find meaning and purpose in her newly solitary existence, she strikes up a friendship with Sally, a carefree young woman. Through Blanche, Sally, and other female characters, the novel offers a contrast between two different types of women: the dutiful, trustworthy, and reliable and the superficial, selfish, and irresponsible.
- English novelist Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way (1987) follows the lives of three middle-aged, well-educated women in 1980s England. The title is ironic, since life in England during the Thatcher era is presented as anything but radiant. All the women experience losses of some kind or another, such as divorce, loss of job, or bereavement. The texture of the novel is rich and rewarding, full of social and personal detail, and ranging across the entire fabric of the nation.
- Excellent Women (1952) by Barbara Pym has been hailed as one of the finest English comic novels of the twentieth century. Pym has often been compared to Brookner, and in this novel she explores the lives of women in 1950s London. Like the heroines in many of Brookner's novels, Pym's protagonist is a rather self-effacing unmarried woman in her thirties. She lives a quiet life until a new couple moves into the apartment below hers, disrupting old relationships and bringing in new ones. As with all Pym's novels, Excellent Women is distinguished by its gentle wit and astute observations of the lives of women, and of men, too.
- Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women by Tania Modleski (1984) analyzes popular entertainments aimed at women, such as romance and Gothic novels and soap operas. Modleski argues that popular culture shapes women's understanding of themselves but the desires so produced cannot be satisfied within a patriarchal world.
One of Edith Hope's most noticeable qualities is her diffidence. Since she has no confidence that her desires in life will be met, she has difficulty asserting herself and allows other people to shape her actions and expectations. The origins of this personality trait lie in Edith's memories of her emotionally deprived childhood. Her mother Rosa was too overwhelmed by her own disappointments in life to offer any emotional support to her young daughter, and she would behave cruelly toward her. Edith therefore learned at an early age how to suppress her own needs, since there appeared to be no possibility they would ever be met. Her kind and well-meaning father, at a loss to know how to deal with the tears of a small girl, would try to encourage her with the saying, "this is when character tells," a phrase that has stayed with Edith her whole life, and which she invokes (with some irony) whenever she is in an emotionally challenging situation. It means, in effect, one should grit one's teeth and endure, ignoring emotional pain in favor of a stoic attitude of resignation. It hardly seems like the recipe for a life lived in joy and emotional freedom.
Unfulfilled desires that are repressed, especially such powerful ones as the desire for comfort, security, and love, rarely disappear entirely in a person. They may find temporary underground hiding places, deep in the psyche but will eventually find a way of making their presence felt and dictating, to a certain extent, a person's behavior. Edith, crippled by her childhood deprivations and failing to make deep, loving connections with others in her adult life, finds some kind of salvation in the writing of romance novels, in which the desire for love can be expressed in all its instinctive ardor and its fulfillment guaranteed. In the novels Edith writes under the name of Vanessa Wilde, it is, she tells her agent Harold Webb, the "mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return." Knowing herself to be that mouse-like girl, Edith boosts her own disappointed self by writing wish-fulfillment fantasies that, at one level at least, she knows are not true. As she wittily explains to her literary agent, using an analogy based on Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare, she writes for the "tortoise market." In real life, she says, the hare always wins the race with the tortoise, but the hares are so busy enjoying the fruits of their success that they do not bother to read books, which are left to the tortoises—losers in life but eternal victors in the world of the popular romance novel.
At another level, however, Edith does believe in what she writes. She may tell her agent that "The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction," but in her letter to David at the end of the novel, when she is in a confessional mood and has no wish to lie to him or herself, she admits, in reference to her novels, "I believed every word I wrote." So it appears that Edith holds two contradictory beliefs in her mind: the romantic ideal is not attainable; or it is. She is at once realist and romantic. When she speaks to her agent, it is her intellect that comes to the fore, but when she writes to David, it is the heart that speaks, for the heart clings stubbornly to what it longs for, whatever the mind, with its habit of claiming a superior wisdom, may seek to tell it.
So what, in the real world, is a woman torn between realism and romanticism to do? How is Edith, to use the jargon of the advertising world, to "position" herself as a woman in order to get what she wants and needs but in a way that preserves her emotional integrity? This is the question that occupies her mind during her two-week stay at the hotel. It arises in full force after her first encounter with the Puseys: "[W]hat behaviour most becomes a woman" is how she frames it, acknowledging that this is "the question around which she had written most of her novels … the question she had failed to answer and which she now saw to be of the most vital importance."
The reader has already learned, from Edith's conversation with Harold Webb, that she has little sympathy with the goals of feminism, in which women compete on equal terms with men. When Harold tells her how the market for romance novels is changing—"It's sex for the young woman executive now, the Cosmopolitan reader, the girl with the executive briefcase"—Edith replies that women prefer what she calls the "old myths," that the right man will miraculously appear just when all seems lost and will abandon everything to be with her.
Although, according to Edith, women may prefer such myths, there is only one character in the novel who could claim that the myth had come true for her, and that is Mrs. Pusey. This elderly but strong-willed and confident lady is an example of what Edith later calls the "ultra-feminine." At first, Edith is fascinated by her. Mrs. Pusey has completely accepted the old-fashioned contract between men and women and done very nicely for herself out of it. Edith observes that it is Mrs. Pusey's "femininity which has always provided her with life's chief delights." As Mrs. Pusey herself declares, "A woman should be able to make a man worship her," and it appears that her late husband easily succumbed to her feminine powers of enchantment. She frequently tells Edith that he loved her so much he gave her a blank check to spend on whatever she desired, and thanks to his apparently limitless Swiss bank account she is still able to live a luxurious life, even after his death.
But although Edith is initially impressed by Mrs. Pusey, she eventually sees through the glittering façade and rejects the "ultra-feminine" quality of her elderly acquaintance. She does so in no uncertain terms, dismissing such women as "complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges…. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonorable."
It is while Edith is considering such notions of the proper behavior for a woman—an issue she never satisfactorily resolves for herself—that she encounters Mr. Neville. It is here that Brookner quietly satirizes the stereotypes of contemporary romance novels. Edith meets Mr. Neville when she is having tea with the Puseys: "Startled, she looked up to see a tall man in a light grey suit smiling down at her." This might come from the pages of any pulp romance. The man is tall—of course—and he looks down at her—implying a position of strength and authority. As he hands Edith the notebook she inadvertently let slip, he says something to her ("Are you a writer?") that implies he has some secret knowledge, some secret insight into her, and this leaves poor Edith "in some confusion." Of course. But Mr. Neville will turn out to be as far from the ideal hero of pulp romance as could possibly be. Whereas all romantic heroes are expected to have muscular chests (prominently displayed on the cover of course, along with the long legs and spectacular cleavage of the heroine), what Edith most notices about Mr. Neville is his—ankles. As Edith tries to sleep that night, "the fine ankles, the unexpected evening pumps of the man in grey," are among the images that fill her mind. The next day, she observes him "crossing his elegant ankles," and it is not until they are formally introduced that she "register[s] his existence above ankle level and the profile usually presented to her." Ankles are what nineteenth-century Victorian gentlemen used to admire in women, a lady's trim ankle being considered a fine and alluring sight. Edith's first encounter with Mr. Neville may be the only example in literature in which the roles are comically reversed.
If real men whisk their beloved off to exotic and exciting destinations, men like Mr. Neville take them on chilly, desolate boat trips, such as the one that prompts Edith to reflect: "This banal and inappropriate excursion seemed to her almost perverse in its lack of attractions." She had been hoping for something better:
But no, he had forced her on to this terrible boat, this almost deserted and pilotless vessel, from which there was no hope of rescue; she saw them drifting, their aimlessness raised to almost mythological status, into ever thicker mists, while real people, on the shore, went on with their real lives, indifferent to this ghost ship which seemed, to Edith, almost to have passed out of normal existence.
Mr. Neville is in fact a Mephistophelean figure, although even in that role he disappoints. A demonic tempter, such as the Satan who tempts Christ or the Mephistopheles who tempts Faust, usually offers his victim everything he desires if he will only agree to serve him. Mr. Neville, calculating businessman that he is, offers Edith exactly half of what she dearly wants: security and domesticity, but not love. Edith can only be thankful that she comes to her senses and rejects this chary Mephistopheles before it is too late.
Brookner uses much the same technique in satirizing Edith's lover David. He and Edith meet at a party, where they say almost nothing to each other. He is tall (obviously), and she looks up at him (of course), and they exchange nothing more than a silent glance. A few hours later, however, David pops over to her house, as she, apparently, knew he would. Not a single word is exchanged, a "long and hard look" being sufficient for their purpose, following which they go straight to bed together. Perhaps such things do happen in Vanessa Wilde's novels, but surely not in the life of Edith Hope.
David turns out to be a rather unorthodox romantic hero. There is no evidence that he is any great shakes in the chest department, but what he may lack in thoracic appeal, he surely makes up for only slightly lower down, for he is forever eating. Quickly noticing his remarkable appetite, Edith makes a habit of cooking "heroic fry-ups," which prompt him to reflect on what he calls "food fit for heroes." It appears that what a man requires in a woman is not a full and open heart but a full and open larder.
To her credit, Edith has no illusions about her lover. She knows, or suspects, that she is being used. While David probably regards their arrangement as perfect, for Edith, every encounter with him is tinged with a terrible sadness that he, being too busy eating, never notices.
By the end of the novel, Edith has learned something from her experiences. In the telegram she sends to David, she changes the message from "Coming home," to "Returning." This is a more honest appraisal of her situation, since Edith's solitary existence, without husband or family, hardly fulfills her idea of what a home should be. The new wording suggests that she is now ready to look at her life less through the lens of romantic illusions and more with the eye of the realist. While not suppressing her romantic nature, she is prepared to see things the way they are, not the way she wants them to be.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Hotel du Lac, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Cheryl Alexander Malcolm
In the following essay excerpt, Malcolm notes differences between Hotel du Lac and Brookner's previous novels, most notably the former's optimistic outcome.
Brookner continues to explore the limits of free will in Hotel du Lac. But the outcome is far more optimistic. A subtle shift in Brookner's writing is first indicated in the novel's Swiss setting, which signifies a move away from London and families. Even in Look at Me, the adult protagonist regards herself in terms of her family and is frequently referred to as an orphan by other characters. Also, she remains in her family home although she knows she is wholly out of place in an apartment complex in which all its inhabitants are twice her age. Hotel du Lac's Edith Hope is shown on her own in a Swiss hotel. Her anonymity should denote personal freedom. Her single suitcase should symbolize her lack of encumbering duties and the ease with which she can move on. In these respects, Hotel du Lac promises a new beginning for its protagonist, a beginning which, unlike that in Brookner's first three novels, is not centered on a male figure.
The title Hotel du Lac differs from the pattern set by Brookner's first three novels in that it refers to a place, rather than a theme concerning its protagonist. Nonetheless, Hotel du Lac, as much as its predecessors, concerns a single protagonist. The setting to which the title refers in fact reflects the condition of Edith Hope's life as much as it is a place for events to happen. From the start of the novel, as the narrative progresses from descriptions of the scenery to Edith Hope's self-observations, the protagonist and her surroundings become inextricably linked. The result is the introduction of suspense, as the elusiveness of the Swiss landscape in fog prepares us for mysteries surrounding this protagonist: "from the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthethic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d'Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling." The contrast between the grey dormancy of the lake and its "colour and incident" at other times will directly parallel the trouble with Edith Hope. For this protagonist, who dresses so impeccably and appears so very proper, does something so shocking that she is put on a flight to Switzerland by a friend who "was prepared to forgive her only on condition that she disappeared for a decent length of time and came back older, wiser, and properly apologetic." All expectations are that Edith Hope will not only return to London chastened, but moreover her old self again before "the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile" and "that apparently dreadful thing" she had done. What comes across immediately in this passage is a gulf between others' perception of the "thing" that happened and the protagonist's. Another discrepancy is introduced between others' perception of Edith Hope's normal character and that which she reveals on this singular occasion. Chapter 1 closes with the head of the hotel staring with equal confusion at the protagonist's name in the hotel register. His thoughts, in the form of the notebook jottings of a detective, invite even further interest in the protagonist. Here he guesses from her name that Edith Hope is not easily definable or easily placed: "One new arrival. Hope, Edith Johanna. An unusual name for an English lady. Perhaps not entirely English. Perhaps not entirely a lady. Recommended, of course. But in this business one never knew."
Hotel du Lac, like the fog-covered lake for which its hotel is named, is a novel propelled by the unveiling of mysteries. The first is, what has the protagonist done to deserve social ostracization to such an extreme? The second is, what does this say about the protagonist's character? Other mysteries relating to the backgrounds, pasts, even ages of the other single women staying at the hotel contribute to an atmosphere of expectancy and anticipation for the reader. Otherwise, remarkably little happens in this novel. Its plot moves as little as the fog. But when it does, revelations are indeed startling. Almost every observation on the part of the protagonist, a romance novelist who studies people with a writer's eye, proves false. Similarly, any view we may have that this protagonist is the inspiration for the meek heroines of her romance novels is dashed. Twice offered marriage, she twice refuses. Why? Her name, after all, may be the clue. She is not "entirely a lady," but is the mistress of a man she writes to every day while she is a way, and to whom she will return in England. She is also "not entirely English," having been raised by a Viennese mother, aunt, and grandmother.
Protagonists of mixed background have featured in The Debut and Providence and will continue to figure prominently in Brookner's writing. Whether the protagonists' parentage is English and non-English and/or Christian and Jewish, feelings of being slightly out of place within one's family foreshadow these protagonists' unease in wider, adult social situations. The protagonist of Hotel du Lac is no exception. Although she has fame as a romance novelist and a face that people recognize from the covers of her books, she does not regard herself as a "wordly" sort of woman. She is a wearer of cardigans, who bears a "physical resemblance to Virginia Woolf." Others just might invite her to their table in the dining room of the Hotel du Lac, but it would never occur to her to do the same. Too content to be an observer of people and too self-conscious of her lack of levity to fit in with them, Edith Hope bears many of the character traits of Brookner's previous protagonists. What makes Hotel du Lac stand out from its predecessors is the incorporation of so many of their features in one text.
Stylistically, Hotel du Lac exhibits the circular pattern that Brookner has employed in earlier novels. It begins and ends with the protagonist's writing to her married lover, David. The first is a letter in which she gives a jocular account of her friend's driving her to the airport ("Penelope drove fast and kept her eyes grimly ahead, as if escorting a prisoner from the dock to a maximum security wing"), followed by an equally colorful description of the other guests in the hotel and ending with deep-felt expressions of her love. The second is a telegram that first reads, "Coming home," then is changed to the single word "Returning." At first glance, this circular pattern, which coincides with the protagonist's arrival in Switzerland and imminent return to England, might suggest a lack of progression or a dispiriting conclusion to the novel. But this is where Hotel du Lac dramatically differs from Brookner's earlier work. A closer look at the pieces of writing that frame the narrative shows marked differences that indicate a change in the protagonist's attitude and actions. The most striking difference is the change in length from many pages to a single word. The next is a difference in tone, from the letter's mask of joviality barely concealing deep sadness and anxiety to the telegram's resolute no-nonsense message. The other difference between these pieces of writing, and the most crucial, is that the telegram is actually sent, whereas the love letter never leaves Edith Hope's possession. If the letter at the start of the text shows Edith Hope to be a stoically passive person who allows herself to be put on a plane to a destiny she has not chosen and one where she spends her time silently observing the people around her, the telegram at the end of the text dispels this view altogether.
Hotel du Lac is basically about making choices. One occurs in the past, the other occurs in the present. The first is the reason for her being "exiled" to an out-of-season Swiss resort. The importance of this first choice is indicated by the many references to it that build anticipation by concealing more than they disclose. It is also shown in the devotion of an entire chapter to it. Whereas earlier there had been brief flashbacks concerning her lover, David, chapter 9 exclusively concerns the past as related by its omnipresent narrator. Beginning with the words "On the day of her wedding …" this chapter reveals how the protagonist decides, at the last instant, not to go through with a thoroughly respectable but passionless marriage. More than answering the mystery that has been steadily built around the protagonist's past, this earlier chance at marriage foreshadows a second one to come. What the reader cannot be sure of, however, is whether or not she will go through with it this time. Given events in the past, a proposal of marriage at the Hotel du Lac is given a momentousness that otherwise might not have been the case. After all, Edith Hope had been told by her married friends that "she had had her last chance" when she spurned Geoffrey.
One of Brookner's talents is to so subtly lure readers' interest in her protagonists through uncovering of mysteries that the many clues she scatters throughout the narrative can oftentimes go unnoticed. In retrospect, for example, the names of characters in Hotel du Lac virtually predict their future, in addition to revealing their innermost character. "Edith" is a fairly old-fashioned name, more usually given to women of an earlier generation than that of the protagonist. The implication is that she is somehow out of date. Her refusal to update her romance novels, in other words to reflect the social realities of sexually liberated career women, may make her appear prudish. Yet her refusal to cater to the tastes of "those multi-orgasmic girls with the executive briefcases" is rooted in her sense of justice. By perpetuating the maxim that "the meek will inherit the earth" (in her books "it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero"), she is effectively putting the world aright. Extracts from her letters to her married lover, which interrupt the narrative, serve most of all to remind us that this is not a sexually inexperienced or repressed woman. Would the latter, after cancelling her wedding, have her married lover back to the house to help her finish the party champagne before making love, as Edith Hope does? It may seem old-fashioned to believe in the supremacy of romantic love over casual sex or marriages of convenience, but it increasingly makes sense coming from as unflinching a realist as this protagonist.
A quick look at the names of Edith Hope's three male love interests reveals some striking differences that help explain the choices she makes in their regard. The would-be husband whom she deserts in London is named "Geoffrey." The soft alliteration and assonance in this name should alert us to how he is flawed. "The totality of his mouse-like seem-liness" strikes the protagonist when she sees him on the morning of their wedding. By leaving him standing on the steps of the registry office, she has spared herself (we are led to believe) seeing his "mouselike seemliness" in bed. "Everyone [who] had said how good he had been to his mother … how lucky his wife would be … how lucky Edith was" did not suppose that this protagonist might want a husband who was at least as good a lover as he was a caregiver. True to her last name, "Hope," this protagonist aspires to more than that.
Edith Hope's second would-be husband is as flawed morally as the first is physically. Even Philip Neville's last name suggests there is something of the devil about him. And when he proposes to the protagonist, what comes to mind is the Faust legend. Like Mephistopheles, he comes not with a suitor's flowers, but proffering a new life. In a pragmatic tone and manner more suited to a business contract than affairs of the heart, he offers Edith Hope a marriage based on her natural virtue's being corrupted. Asked how his "doctrine of selfishness" is to be shared, he explains:
"I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind…. If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner."
"And if you …"
"The same applies, of course…. Think, Edith. Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication? Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?…"
Edith bowed her head.
"… You will find that you can behave as badly as you like. As badly as everybody else likes, too. That is the way of the world."
By repeatedly referring to this character as Mr. Neville, rather than just Philip, Brookner lends an air of authority to him that is confirmed seemingly by the protagonist's decision to accept his offer. Edith Hope changes her mind, however, when she finds him coming out of Jennifer Pusey's room the next morning. Mrs. Pusey's pampered life is in keeping with her kitten-like last name. The vulgar use of "pussy" to denote a woman's sex, especially in the context of "getting some" (i.e., sex), now makes the name "Pusey" appropriate for her daughter as well. In contrast to these characters' names, which have so many negative associations, the name of Edith's lover, David, has only positive ones.
Both associations with the name "Pusey" draw attention to the essential difference between these female characters and the protagonist. Whereas the former would seem to naturally draw adoration or sexual attraction, Edith Hope is the one who adores and gives herself over physically as an expression of her devotion. That David Simmonds may be unworthy occurs not only to the reader but also to her. In this, the depiction of love in Hotel du Lac is consistent with that in The Debut, Providence, and Look at Me. Inherent in each is the premise that love is no more rational than religious faith. Associations with the name "David" reinforce this view. In the Bible, David is the one chosen to be king. To explain this unlikely choice of a shepherd boy, we are told, "The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." Since appearances repeatedly prove to be misleading, whether it is Edith Hope who is misjudged by others or she who misreads people's ages, occupations, social status, and character, trusting one's heart might after all be more advisable. This message at the end of Hotel du Lacsets it apart from Brookner's previous novels about single women in love. Edith Hope may be a romantic, but in the context of this novel it is a virtue that also makes good sense.
Source: Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, "Can't Buy Me Love," in Understanding Anita Brookner, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 53-61.
Alexander, Flora, Contemporary Women Novelists, Edward Arnold, 1989, p. 30.
Bayles, Martha, "Review of Hotel du Lac," in The New Republic, Vol. 192, No. 37, March 25, 1985, p. 38.
Brookner, Anita, Hotel du Lac, Dutton, 1986.
The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, edited by Lorna Sage, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 93.
Clemons, Walter, Review of Hotel du Lac, in Newsweek, Vol. 105, No. 87, February 25, 1885, p. 87.
Gerrard, Nicci, Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women's Writing, Pandora, 1989, pp. 111-12.
Jones, Robert, Review of Hotel du Lac, in Commonweal, September 20, 1985, pp. 502-03.
Kenyon, Olga, Women Writers Talk: Interviews with 10 Women Writers, Lennard Publishing, 1989, p. 13.
Mars-Jones, Adam, Review of Hotel du Lac, in New York Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 17, January 31, 1985, pp. 17-19.
McRobbie, Angela, "Review of Hotel du Lac," in New Statesman, Vol. 108, No. 32, September 7, 1984, p. 34.
Review of Hotel du Lac, in the New Yorker, February 18, 1985, p. 121.
Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, expanded edition, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 323.
Tyler, Anne, "A Solitary Life," in New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, pp. 1, 31.
Wallace, Diana, "'Writing as Re-vision': Women's Writing in Britain, 1945 to the Present Day," in An Introduction to Women's Writing: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Marion Shaw, Prentice-Hall, 1998, pp. 249, 255.
Waugh, Patricia, Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern, Routledge, 1989, p. 126.
Haffenden, John, Novelists in Interview, Methuen, 1985, pp. 57-75.
In this interview, Brookner talks engagingly about her family background, her work as novelist and art historian, her love of nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens and Trollope, Stendhal and Flaubert. On Hotel du Lac, she says that Mr. Neville is "really a very wicked man" and "Edith is desperate."
Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander, Understanding Anita Brookner, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 51-61.
Malcolm argues that the novel is basically about making choices and that Edith learns by the end to trust her heart.
Sadler, Lynn Veach, Anita Brookner, Twayne's English Authors Series, No. 473, Twayne, 1990, pp. 54-67.
Sadler argues that at the end of the novel, Edith remains essentially unchanged, still attached to her romantic view of the world. Her problem is the lack of suitable men; she is unable to see the flaws in David.
Skinner, John, The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 66-83.
Skinner analyzes the allusions in Hotel du Lac to the world of popular romance. He argues that the novel exemplifies the ambivalent relationship between parody and the text being parodied; the relationship is not only of contrast but also of intimacy. The novel is typical of Brookner's fiction in that it presents romantic longing alongside detached analysis of such feelings.
Stetz, Margaret Diane, "Anita Brookner: Woman Writer as Reluctant Feminist," in Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 96-112.
Stetz argues that although Brookner has in interviews been dismissive of feminism, if definitions of feminism can be expanded to include the elements that recur in her fiction, such as the championing of literature written by and to women (Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac, for example), and the focusing of attention on the woman writer, Brookner might be considered a feminist, albeit a reluctant one.
Watson, Daphne, Their Own Worst Enemies: Women Writers of Women's Fiction, Pluto Press, 1995, pp. 37-55.
Watson compares Brookner's work with that of another British novelist, Barbara Pym, concluding that both writers are indebted to the Prince Charming myth. Their heroines embody a kind of hollowness, convinced that they need a man to release them from their humdrum lives.