Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month. I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it. I will therefore put it to you!
But let’s start with Brookner. Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London. She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher. In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.
However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing. She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years. “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.
For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,” they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me. I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.
However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.
Here is the book’s plot, in brief. Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,” has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun. Edith has not had plenty of fun. Instead, she has a secret: David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years. David has children and will not divorce. For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her. But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife. She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding. She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down. (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)
At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests: an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries. There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days. Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.
About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal. [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.] He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:
Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like. You live in London. You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone. You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this. And yet you have a secret life, Edith. Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’
Edith sat very still.
…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’
‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.
…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth. I am in fact extremely discriminating. I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain. I am away a certain amount of the time. But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there. You would fit perfectly into that setting.’
A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’
‘Edith, what else will you do? Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal. My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock. I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite. People seem to want you to break down. However, that’s all in the past. I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’
‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.
‘I am making it easier for you. I have watched you, trying to talk to those women. You are desolate. And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter. And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow. You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’
‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’
‘You are a lady, Edith. They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed. As my wife, you will do very well. Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’
‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked. And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.
‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to. In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could. Edith Neville is a fine name for an author. You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’
‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’
‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity. I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man. I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings. Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love. I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest. I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold. I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind. A partnership based on esteem, if you like. Also out of fashion, by the way. 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. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse. Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. 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 be able to entertain your friends, of course. And you will find that they treat you quite differently. This comes back to what I was saying before. 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. And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..
‘I don’t love you. Does that bother you?’
‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings. All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….
‘And you don’t love me?’
He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you. But you have got under my guard. You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched. You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….
‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.
‘Not too long, I hope. I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you. You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..
‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.
This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.
‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.
Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again. She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address. She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.
She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter. As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother. She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London. First, she writes, “Coming home.” Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate. She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”
When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave. Now I think Edith was a damn fool. Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.
This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.” First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different: at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her. But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong. And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.
It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.
So I ask you, friends: What do you think? If you were in my book group, what would you have said?