Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac

Hotel Du LacAnita Brookner died earlier this year, and that seemed reason enough to pull her Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel Du Lac from my top shelf, where it had been gathering dust for years. The novel begins with a description of the view from a window, where “all that could be seen was a receding area of grey,” within which is a drab and lifeless garden. At the limits of the scene lies a “vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic” towards all that can’t be seen: a distant shore, a range of mountains, and the snow that may or may not be falling on their peaks. Before she has given us character or plot or even setting, Brookner has set her tone, and it is one of simultaneous hope and despair, pessimism and possibility. Shortly thereafter we are given our setting: the Hotel du Lac, on Lake Geneva, “a stolid and dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.” It is September and the hotel is preparing to enter into its off-season when Edith Hope, “a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name,” takes up residence. She is in exile, without friend or family, having left England out of shame and embarrassment, though at what we are not told.

The hotel is frequented by the well-to-do, but at this late season only a handful of odd patrons are in residence: the wealthy widower Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, who seems more an appendage of her mother than an individual; Monica, who has come to the hotel to recover from an eating disorder at her husband’s insistence, but who nonetheless feeds her small dog most of the food intended for her; and Mr. Neville, a mysterious businessman and divorcee. Evidently, no happy couples vacation at the Hotel du Lac.

Edith, we learn, is somewhere in her late 30s, and understands – and is made to understand by her friends from England – that her prospects for marriage and family are rapidly dwindling. On this score, at least, she is not naive, though the novels she writes sell a comforting lie to her mostly-female audience. In a discussion with her editor about why it is that supposedly liberated women – that is, women born after the feminist triumphs of the 1960s – do not do the hard work of approaching the men they find desirable, Edith is hard-nosed:

It’s because they prefer the old myths, when it comes to the crunch. They want to believe that they are going to be discovered, looking their best, behind closed doors, just when they thought that all was lost, by a man who has battled across continents, abandoning whatever he may have have in his in-tray, to reclaim them.

She sells myths, packages them for maximum delusion:

‘And what is the most potent myth of all?’ she went on […]. ‘The tortoise and the hare,’ she pronounced. ‘People love this one, especially women. Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is 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. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course,’ she said […]. ‘In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you.’

Relationships, particularly from the female perspective, are the novel’s primary focus, and the more we learn about Edith, the more we understand this preoccupation. Her past life is revealed to us through letters she writers to her lover, Jonathan, who is unhappily married, and we later learn the reason for her exile to the hotel also has to do with a man, Geoffrey Long, to whom she is engaged to be married. Geoffrey, however, is not exactly the paragon of manliness found in women’s romance novels:

Geoffrey Long, that kind man who had been produced for her at that not too far distant dinner party, and who had been so lonely since his mother died: what more excellent guarantee could anyone produce of a safe and sensible future? Only a very innocent man, she thought, could play the traditional suitor so openly, and how impressed everyone had been, especially Penelope, but in the end even Edith herself, with his devotion, his generosity, his endless flowers, his fussy care, and finally his mother’s gloomy opal ring.

Edith elects to leave Geoffrey on their wedding day, instructing the hired chauffeur to drive them past the altar and the celebrations and the safe, predictable married life her friends prize. Her stay in the Hotel du Lac begins as an exile, imposed on her by the propriety of her friends after her transgression against marriage and good manners, but she discovers, in her solitude, that the solitary life has its own appeals; that marriage, without passion or love, is no antidote to loneliness