“That Was Her Tragedy”: Anita Brookner, Dolly

dollyNobody loved Dolly; that was her tragedy. Nobody even liked her very much, and she knew that too. She was accepted as a friend by women inferior to herself because she was vigorous and clever, because she entertained and fed them, because she sorted out their affairs, and listened with every appearance of interest to their feeble gossip. Unnerved and enervated by years of this company she had succumbed to the first man to make a show of virility in her presence, and thus, like any victim, had cast herself under his spell. And he had partly compensated her for many humiliations by allowing her to reassert her right to be a normal woman, with a normal woman’s expectations, love, certainly, even marriage.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Anita Brookner’s Dolly. I didn’t like it that much as I was reading it, but it kept me interested and has left me puzzling over it, which is perhaps a sign that there is something to it. Well, it’s by Anita Brookner, so of course there’s something to it, and part of that is her trademark fineness of attention–to character, to social nuance, and to the potential for pathos, especially in women’s lives.

Though everyone in the novel is drawn with scrupulous detail, most of her attention in this case goes to the eponymous Dolly, who is shown to us through the eyes of her often skeptical, even hostile, niece Jane. To Jane, Dolly is at once repellent and magnetic. Where Jane is pale, reserved, and solitary, Dolly is intense, charismatic, and hungry for company, especially male company. Widowed by the death of Jane’s uncle Hugo, Dolly becomes parasitic on his well-to-do family, living off an allowance that Jane herself ultimately, after her parents’ deaths, takes over. Jane is not exactly resentful of Dolly’s willed dependence: in fact, much of the novel is spent explaining Dolly to us–her personality, her upbringing, her relationships– in such a way that it seems impossible, perhaps even unjust, to expect anything else of her. When Dolly takes up with the handsome but slightly sleazy Harry, Jane hopes he will marry her: dolly-2

for she was in many ways an old-fashioned woman, apt to hang on a man’s words, brought up in any case to flatter, to placate, to cajole, as if this were a profession in itself, as it must have been before women worked and earned their own money … Not only was it of prime importance to a woman like Dolly to have a man of her own, but that same man, if he were willing … would, in marrying her, confer on her a status which she had not enjoyed for many years.

Dolly, in other words, is a woman of a different generation, one defined by the narrow gender norms of an earlier time. I think one of Brookner’s goals in the novel is to trace how these norms have changed and what that means for allegiances between women now divided by conflicting values and expectations. In the last chapters especially, when Jane is a successful children’s author often invited to give talks to academics, she becomes almost defensive on Dolly’s behalf, as if mentally warding off contemporary criticisms of her type.

But this is where things get complicated, and also, for me, problematic. Jane herself has an ambivalent relationship to feminism:

I find them exhausting, these women of goodwill, with their agenda of wrongs to be righted, of injustices to be eliminated. I want to stand still in the dusk and contemplate the lake, seeing only mist, hearing only a brief ripple where the wing of a bird disturbs the surface of the water, but I must respond intelligently, employ a certain kind of feminised argument, feel myself to be the victim of a monstrous wrong which has been passed down to me from generation to generation.

This wish to be free of politics is itself, of course, highly political and also a symptom of Jane’s class privilege: though she has worked, for one thing, she never had to. She notes that her feminist interlocutors seem disappointed that she replies to inquiries about her “experience in the workplace” by saying she was “never happier” and never experienced any discrimination, but to her this is more a symptom of their determination to be aggrieved than of her own statistically anomalous good fortune. She is self-conscious about the advantages of her private wealth but does not seem to see how this might make her individual experience an unreliable measure of systemic problems.

Not least because these discussions appear so  late in the novel and are not (that I noticed) convincingly anticipated, they felt to me like Brookner having her say, about feminism and academia, rather than developing something essential to Jane’s character or story. “Who really benefits,” she has Jane wonder,

from studies in re-reading gender in 1950s melodrama, or women’s revolutionary fiction in Depression America? Is there any chance that a feminist theory of the state will ever be taken seriously? Must we campaign for surrogate motherhood? Or review the legal representations of lesbians in cases of discrimination by employers?

These works pour out from university presses, and are produced by the most excellent of women, many of whom have welcomed me with great cordiality. I appreciate them for their fervour and their courage. And yet a doubt creeps in. I do not want to fight. I want, rather, to explore the world without prejudice, and to be allowed a measure of lenity in my dealings with the world. Sometimes I even long to take the coward’s way out and to live my life without benefit of any sort of agenda …

The assumption that ignoring “the legal representations of lesbians in cases of discrimination by employers” is “without prejudice,” that feminist analysis is an “agenda” that can be done without–these are not neutral statements, and neither is the model of female identity Jane claims to have rejected but says “opens doors on to older simpler longings, regrettable, no doubt, even deplorable,” but compelling to her nonetheless.

dolly-3This is the model of Dolly: “Charm, Jane, charm!” Jane, or the novel, acknowledges that Dolly’s way of life has been discredited by feminism, but the idea sometimes seems to be that those “older simpler longings” are natural, essential, defining, not just of Dolly but of what women need and want. “I now understand,” Jane explains, reflecting on her own reactions to Dolly’s choices,

that what I wanted to be was not independent, but its very opposite: dependent. I now understood–but of course did not at the time–that Dolly and I had something in common, an age-old ache that may have been no more and no less than a longing to be taken in, to be appropriated, to be endowed with someone’s worldly good whosoever they might be, for in that extremity of longing it might hardly matter. But I was young then, and unfeeling, as they all thought, and so, although I was not shocked by Dolly’s behaviour I was sincerely disapproving.

Jane’s own choices do not win her uncompromised happiness. “Self-sufficient as I am,” she says, “I too feel a longing which I am reluctant to ascribe to the feminine condition alone.” When her friend asserts “personhood” as the most important goal, not being identified as “a wife or mother,” Jane finds this answer pat, “it has an obstinate sound, as if in keeping with the agenda.” The trajectory of the novel is not towards understanding Dolly as a product, even to some extent a victim, of a world that gave a woman with her resources and will to power few options or resources. It seemed to me to move towards criticizing the modern rejection of the values Dolly lives by, the kind of power she exercises, and the ends to which she dedicates her life. Instead of Jane historicizing her own modern judgment, that is (something I struggle sometimes to get my students to do when they discuss the heroines of 19th-century novels), Jane seems to see Dolly as embodying “true” femininity, an essentialized version of womanhood characterized by an “age-old” desire to be dependent, even dominated. There is something touching in the evolution of Jane’s feelings for Dolly, but the love she finally feels for her is explicitly in defiance of her “feminist friends,” who she says “would not recognise the woman I become in Dolly’s presence.”

It’s Jane’s unlikely love we are supposed to be inspired by, but for me Jane’s insistence on setting it up in opposition to feminism was both unconvincing and unappealing. I think it also impeded a genuinely sympathetic portrait of Dolly  herself: at first unattractive as a predatory type, by the end she is standing in for a theory of “what women want”–normal women, as Jane says in my epigraph–that I just can’t like or accept. As a result, Dolly is my least favorite Brookner novel to date.

4 thoughts on ““That Was Her Tragedy”: Anita Brookner, Dolly

  1. irene May 20, 2019 / 4:36 am

    The real question is, Why do we read Anita Brookner when we could be reading Barbara Pym? Brookner is good at setting up a tableau–loving but isolated family with obnoxious dependent–but cant seem to get the characters moving from there, short of killing them.
    Can we believe that the ethical lawyer would spill the details of the will at a bridge party?
    That Jane’s friend Marigold wouldn’t notice her serious depression?
    That Dolly wouldn’t be nicer to the person on whom she is financially dependent?

    And if Jane’s success is as Harry-Potter-like as it seems to be, wouldn’t her life change in ways worth telling about?

    The anti-feminism at the end hardly seems mentioning since the rest of the plotting is so inept.


    • Rohan Maitzen May 20, 2019 / 7:23 am

      Well, a lot of us read both!

      I agree about those details, but I don’t think they make the anti-feminism unimportant. What a book is saying through its plot devices matters a lot, to me anyway. Even if this novel were brilliantly plotted, if it still turned on the conviction that “normal” women want to be managed by men I would not like it.


    • Thomas May 20, 2019 / 3:07 pm

      Implausible things in novels normally set off alarm bells with me, but there is something about Brookner’s world that keeps me from questioning her judgment–for the most part. So much about her characters and her plots seem so foreign to me. Lives seemingly laid to waste for lack of effort, energy, will power, or anything that might set something in motion. Her world is a marvel to me. Half comforting and half cautionary tale.

      Brookner started publishing novels not long after the Pym revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was influenced by Pym’s work. Quartet in Autumn published in 1977 seems particularly like a precursor to Brookner’s world. In general I think Pym has more of a sense of humor and seems to write about her characters with a bit of a knowing wink. There is humor in Brookner but it is as dry as the desert.

      In any case, I love both authors immensely and couldn’t live without either of them.


      • Rohan Maitzen May 21, 2019 / 4:41 pm

        “Half comforting, half cautionary tale” is so well put: there’s a lot of bleakness but the shadows are not altogether foreboding.


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