The 1984 winner of the Booker Prize — back when we in the U.S. were just starting to pay attention to the Booker Prize — was a short quiet novel about an English spinster, called Hotel du Lac. The author, Anita Brookner, was an art historian who had suddenly broken into the fiction big time, and several of her previous novels were published in the U.S. around that time. Brookner’s popularity followed on the rediscovery of English novelist Barbara Pym (more spinsters) and the English movie Stevie, about the poet Stevie Smith. Also a spinster.
All this concern about unmarried women: was that a cultural phenomenon, or did I just perceive it as such? I think it must have been real, springing from an anxiety about women’s roles that was in turn the offspring of second-wave feminism. The protagonist of Hotel du Lac is Edith Hope, a 39-year-old writer of women’s romances who has been packed off to a Swiss resort hotel to recover from some disaster she’s brought on herself. Brookner piques our curiosity by declining to explain just what happened. Instead she focuses on the characters at the hotel, most of whom are women. As Edith gets to know them, they resolve into examples of different approaches to femininity. There are the Pusey women, mother and daughter: voracious consumers and manipulators of masculinity. There is Monica, anorectic, sent to Switzerland to fatten up so she can conceive an heir for her husband. Then lame, deaf Madame de Bonneuil has been exiled to the hotel by her unloving son. The hotel, we understand, is a microcosm of the world, in which the flashy, dramatic, overtly sexy Pusey women are the successes. The sole male guest at the Hotel du Lac is handsome sardonic Philip Neville who tells Edith a few unpleasant truths:
‘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.’
It turns out that Hotel du Lac is a mild little retelling of the Faust tale, with Philip Neville standing in for the devil (catch the name rhyming?) who offers Edith the great bargain of marriage. But she would certainly have to give him her soul.
This is most of the plot, and I’m sorry to have given it away, but Hotel du Lac isn’t the kind of book you read for the plot. Rather you read it for the sharp observations and Brookner’s insights, as well as her deft, economical characterizations. It does feel like a period piece, though; a snapshot of a surprisingly recent moment when women still defined themselves through their relationships to men.