Adventures in Reading

Fiction: The Visitors by Anita Brookner

“This was surely the stuff of fiction? A strong plot, unusual characters, a threatened outcome: who could ask for worthier diversions?”

Anita Brookner’s Visitors was an impulse selection from the library book sale. Its publishing house Vintage often puts out nice books and I liked the texture of the cover. And after concluding Visitors, I enjoyed it so much that I quickly Bookmooched her Hotel du Lac – a Man Booker Prize-Winner. Visitors is a story of disruption. Dorothea May is a solitary, elderly widow living alone when a member of her extended family asks her to house an impromptu visitor: Steven from America.

Brookner takes great care in establishing her novel. Dorothea is isolated, estranged from all relationships, though seemingly satisfied with this. As a result, much of the book is the internal dialogs and thoughts of Dorothea. The writing style and usage of the book befits this character perfectly and it wasn’t until after roughly thirty pages that I had any indication what time the novel was set in (besides after the invention of the telephone) and I was quite shocked when Rollerblades were finally mentioned.

This visitor Steven is young, brash, and with a party of other young people. This party is invading the space of a set and reliable elderly group. Both groups confront the unknown in an exchange of values and mores that range from wedding planning to religion to manners. From Dorothea’s perspective, Visitors becomes a book about what it means to be old and looking back on her life. “Those who survived and grew old were in a country without maps: she knew that. All that was left to them was to find some middle way, between acceptance and defeat. When grace was gone only usefulness remained.”

Reminiscing on Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Dorothea describes that “The world of Persuasion had been long gone even when she had read it as a girl, believing it to be the norm. Yet Jane Austen had never gone out of fashion; rather the opposite. It was as if those who flouted traditional values long to be reminded of fine manners, even if they marveled at them, and made little attempt to emulate them.”

Visitors is a delicate and subtle novel filled with well-crafted complexities and demands. While my literary experience has been largely lacking with regard to elderly protagonists, Dorothea confronts her reader with all the fears of age (from dying to breaking a hip) and graceful acceptance of her life. Brookner has written a tender novel and I cannot wait to get my copy of Hotel du Lac.

Conclusion: Keeper.


Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Pt. 2
January 16, 2008, 10:05 am
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , , , , ,
Lady Russell had only to listen composedly, and wish them happy; but internally her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove.

The romance in Persuasion occurs between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. It is a bit more dramatically romantic than Austen’s other romaces as the two characters are separated for nearly a decade as the result of advice or duty or persuasion. A family friend and particular confidant of Anne’s, Lady Russell, talked her out of accepting the engagement. Much of Persuasion consists of overheard remarks and charged conversations that indirectly describe Anne and Wentworth’s failed relationship. Anne was talked out of it and Wentworth reflects unhappily and withour respect on being persuaded out of a commitment.

Volume one of Persuasion ends with Anne thinking “it could scarcely escape him [Wentworth] to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character” (1156). This reflection is given after the silly Louisa Musgrove does not heed Wentworth’s advice and takes a tumble that could have caused her bodily harm if not killed her. Volume two consists of the Elliot family’s removal to Bath and various intruiges and gossips (including Anne’s cousin’s Mr. Elliot’s romantic attentions directed at her) and ends with one of my all time literary conversations: whether it is man or woman who feels love more deeply (1220 – 22).

Now the Elliot’s have left for bath as a result of financial difficulty and the eldest daughter and father’s excessive spending – a result of their vanity. I found it interesting that in Persuasion Austen has a strong emphasis on female economics and money wits. Anne’s mother Lady Elizabeth had kept them financially afloat until she died, Lady Russell seems to manage her own affairs, estate, and was asked for advice regarding the Elliot’s money problems, Mrs. Croft is described as a more serious home economic advisor compared to her husband, and Anne certainly has strong sensibilities in finances as well. Of course, Austen does not over gild the female mind for money as Miss Elliot, Anne’s older sisters, is just as poor with money and peacockish about herself as her father.

One sentence in particular of Persuasion caught my attention. In volume two, chapter eleven in the opening paragraph Austen uses a simile that seems rather out of place in her usual narrative style. Upon describing that Anne must wait to inform Lady Russell of Mr. Elliot’s true character, the narrator describes that, “Her faith was plighted, and Mr. Elliot’s character, like the Sultaness Scheherazade’s head, must live another day” (1218). Austen certainly has literary allusions in her other novels and also specifically mentions certain texts and their authors. However, I cannot recall Austen ever writing something similar. From a historical standpoint, it is also one of Austen’s growing examples of the Eastern World’s growing influence on the West.

Another character I have yet to mention but that plays an enormous part is Mrs. Smith. Anne knew Mrs. Smith from her school days and only knew that shortly after Anne left the school that this woman became Mrs. Smith and seemed to have married quite well. When Anne rediscovers her, Mrs. Smith is an invalid, dependent on the “kindness of strangers”, selling hand made crafts through a friend, and living most of her life in two small and shabby rooms. Mrs. Smith plays a key role in revealing Mr. Elliot’s (the cousin and heir) true character to Anne, but I will say I found her more of a remarkable character after reading about Austen’s own invalid brother. Perhaps there is no connection, but at the very least Mrs. Smith is a very interesting comparison to Lady de Bourgh’s daughter in Pride & Prejudice.

All ends well with Anne and Wentworth after a bit of communication. I did find it intruiging though that Anne does not regret her past behavior. While she was persuaded out of the match by her family and Lady Russell, Anne reflects that it was her duty towards them. Now that they have waited she can enter the match with neither qualms nor regrets. The perspective though is interesting. Perhaps Lady Russell was wrong in her advice for attempting to groom Anne to replace Lady Elizabeth (the mother). Then again, how easy would it have been for the Elliot sisters to replicate the stories of of the three sisters in Mansfield Park? How easily could have Anne become just another Mrs. Price?

Other opinions: The Books of My Numberless Dreams, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, Bookfoolery and Babble, Educating Petunia, A Striped Armchair, Rebekah’s Book Reviews, Deliciously Clean Reads, Historical Tapestry, Between the Covers, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops.