The Civics of Civility: Aesthetics and Habitude in Anita Brookner’s novel Providence by Harrison Solow


anita-brookner

Providence, Anita Brookner, Vintage

Mr. Woodhouse was almost as much interested in the business [of writing charades] as the girls, and tried very often to recollect something worth putting in. “So many clever riddles as there used to be when he was young — he wondered he could not remember them! But he hoped he should in time.” And it always ended in “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid.”
—Jane Austen, Emma

Kitty, a fair but frozen maid, was born Catherine Josephine Thérèse Maule in Anita Brookner’s novel, Providence. Apparently unable or unwilling to live up to that name, she consents to be called “Kitty” long past the age of kittenhood. And yet, the name is somehow appropriate as she serves out a perpetual apprenticeship in what she hopes is a traditional romance, all the while completing a conclusive novitiate in the Romantic Tradition at a small English provincial university.

Kitty Maule is an academic: a researcher and a tutor, whose meticulous attention to and absorption of detail in the study of Constant’s Adolphe is not paralleled in her constant and anxious scrutiny of what it means to be English. She is in love with Maurice Bishop, colleague, history professor, onetime lover and now, to her dismay, merely a friend. As the story, such as it is, unfolds, Kitty is longing to be asked by Maurice to accompany him to France, where he will be going to research the great French cathedrals. He has told her all about his proposed trip while, incidentally, she was typing his lecture notes on the great English Cathedrals:

Her main preoccupation was whether Maurice would ask her to go to France with him. She would be useful, she knew, could do all the boring things, while he got on with driving the car and getting from one place to another and being inspired by what he saw. French after all, was her mother tongue; she could save him a lot of time and trouble. (22)

Born of an English father and a French mother (whose parents were French and Russian), Kitty “struggles incessantly between two worlds, the one, dead; the other powerless to be born.” (Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse) She thinks she wants, more than anything, the love of Maurice Bishop.

In reality, her most profound desire is to be English, only and simply English—to belong to one world and to that world completely. Wanting and having, however, are two different states of being, a fact that Kitty fails to realise throughout this painful novel. Wanting to be English does not make her so. Neither does wanting Maurice Bishop obtain him, despite her fervent belief that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” (Or indeed the belief that “servitude” is a desirable condition.) To this end, she lives two lives: one with her European grandparents on weekends; the other, during the week, in her small Chelsea flat. Having purposefully eschewed any affiliation with her French heritage except to speak its language flawlessly, she lays claim to England through her paternal heritage, with one conclusive, rehearsed remark. “My father was in the army,” Kitty repeats often, as if in incantation. “He died before I was born.”

This magic formula is the first sentence Kitty speaks in the novel. It is also the last, indicating not only that, like all magic formulas, it does not work; but also that, from cover to cover, Kitty has learned nothing. What should she have learned? Minimally, that which she attempted:

1. What it means to be English;
2. Why Maurice Bishop will not marry her, and;
3. Why these two factors are inextricably linked.

Let us first examine her pursuit of Englishness. When the book opens, Kitty is said “never to have been faulted on the grounds of her Englishness.” (Brookner, 5) This, in fact, is not true. Or if it is, it is truth in abeyance, allowed its limbo merely because it has not yet been put to a real test. For, as the novel progresses, Kitty is repeatedly perceived to be something other than English: a foreigner, by her colleague’s mother, to whom Kitty has been introduced as English and with whom Kitty has had several conversations; a French traveller, by an English schoolgirl on a train; and most significantly, a compatriot, by a French woman in France.

Kitty herself is acutely aware of the myriad habits, words, foods, body movements, assumptions, liberties, loyalties, attachments, humour, styles, among other impenetrable components that make up a culture, when she reads literature with her students. She has enough self-knowledge to realise that she is more at home with the French pattern of life than the English:

When asked about her background, Kitty usually simplified, for her family history was perhaps a little colourful. She found it too tiring to recount, for so much additional explanation was needed, footnotes on alien professions, habits, customs that most people could not be expected to understand and which to her were as native as the colour of her own hair. She usually said, ‘My father was in the army. He died before I was born.’

Why then, given the above awareness, is Kitty not equally aware that she has not yet acquired those habits and customs of her native and chosen land? Or, if she is so aware, why would she expect to win both the battle and the prize (in this case both represented by Maurice Bishop) against those combatants whose habiliments in the arena are impeccable?

It is difficult to accept that this character does not know that her stock answer is a very non-English response—that it is both defensive and blatant—neither of which are the typically English characteristics she seeks to display, if not actually acquire. While there is an argument to be made that there are no typical English characteristics, there are codes of behaviour and language in the particular set/strata of English society to which Maurice Bishop and other of Kitty’s colleagues and previous boarding school classmates belong. These characteristics are the attributes that Kitty defines as “English” and whether they are or not, they are the attributes she seeks to incorporate. Is it not obvious that having been selected from among the many answers she could give, it assumes undue and highly interpretable significance when distilled into twelve words, and indicates that her father, a lone and absent progenitor, is her only claim to Englishness?

A far more acceptable response would have been “My mother was French,” thus isolating an aberrant act in an otherwise impeccably English lineage. This would be worthy of comment, by virtue of its singularity – merely a charming eccentricity; an asset (despite the Englishman’s historical disdain for the French) in the more intellectually sophisticated and idiosyncratic academic world she intends to inhabit. Had she been confident enough, Kitty could have rephrased the information in an even more acceptably English way: the half expressed thought: “Those wartime liaisons…” However, being Kitty, a simple “My mother was French” would have served her purpose admirably. As it is now in the narrative, everyone knows that she prefers not to mention her background/mother/past; and that there must therefore be a reason for her reticence.

Kitty seems incapable of acquiring even the simplest of cultural identities. ‘Tell me about England,’ she begs silently, when Maurice seems remote. ‘Tell me about England,’ she pleads when

…his vague, pleasant and somehow mysterious smile closed her out, while closing in something highly significant, something foreign [my italics] to her. (26)

Tell me about England? But Kitty was born in England, went to an English boarding school and to an English university. She lives (and has always lived) in England, and she works in England. She is thirty years old. She has had many opportunities to become what she desires. If she does not know about England, it may be she who is at fault.

It must be said here that, structurally, Anita Brookner is also at fault. For what has happened to the Barbara Maule she introduced on page nine—the sister of Kitty’s father, John Maule, whom he escorted to Kitty’s grandparents’ salon for a fitting for her wedding dress, where he met and fell in love with Kitty’s mother, Marie-Thérèse? Where is she, this English aunt of Catherine Josephine Thérèse Maule, who could have supplied the instruction by way of example that Kitty missed by way of observation, in the ways of her native land? Where are Kitty’s paternal grandparents, as English as she could wish? And what could she have learned from them, had her childhood been spent in their care?

Before we explore this question, it is essential to point out that Louise and Vadim, Kitty’s maternal grandparents, have done the best they could to provide their Kitty/Thérèse with an English identity — both before and after the death of their passive daughter Marie-Thérèse. They sent her off to boarding school where her fellow boarders were “confident and energetic and kind and who invited her home in the holidays.” (12) They encouraged her to get a flat of her own two years before she came into her father’s money. What more could have been done? Presumably a great deal, in Kitty’s mind, since what was done was sadly inadequate to her happiness. And yet, one cannot help thinking that perhaps Kitty herself might have stirred from her colossal self-preoccupation as an only child, pretty daughter, clever kitten and opened her eyes, and looked around her.

For it is impossible to attribute her inadequacies solely to the fact that she had a French mother. Rather they may have grown large in the comfortable hothouse of her own introspection, with which she is so enraptured that she fails to see Maurice’s future wife, (and her own student) Miss Jane Fairchild, sitting before her in a large, dark blue jersey which Maurice had worn just hours before. It does not take Englishness to garner such information. A French woman — any woman — would have made that connection:

In the corner of her line of vision she could still see Maurice’s dark blue pullover, and she wondered if it were new — she had not known him to wear it before. (37)

Nor does she see it henceforward. Except, (not recognising it) on Jane. Of Miss Fairchild, Kitty observes, apart from the fact that she is exquisitely beautiful, only that

…she usually wore a cotton skirt and a dark blue pullover, borrowed, from a brother Kitty supposed, for its sleeves nearly covered her hands. Her full and rather low bosom occupied most of the front of it. (44)

Yet Kitty’s horrified reaction when confronted with the couple’s engagement, is simply to blame her inability to assimilate even the most obvious of facts on her non-English heritage:

I lacked the information, thought Kitty, trying to control her trembling hands. Quite simply, I lacked the information. She had the impression of being sent right back to the beginning of a game she thought she had been playing according to the rules. (182)

Let us be kind, for a moment, though naive, and assume that for some reason, by virtue of her bloodline, Kitty has been deprived of the rules of the game. What would an English background have taught her?

First, it would have taught her that seriousness of purpose need not be embalmed in seriousness of manner. Second, that eagerness, earnestness, and hard, bright, righteous sincerity, displayed too willingly, too often, are daunting rather than reassuring qualities in matters of love. Third, that perennial, incessant, reliable, helpfulness is as attractive as any other practical tool – a sturdy broom, or an efficient boiler. Fourth, that patience on a monument is as uncomfortable to take to bed as anything else made out of marble; and fifth, that the above four maxims have one thing in common: the qualities they depict are essentially, cellularly un-English.

For while it is true that, like everyone else on the planet, the English are, or can be serious, earnest, sincere, helpful, and patient, these attributes are rarely exhibited as proofs of worth in the England of Kitty’s desires. They are lightly handled, even flippantly dismissed, simply because they are intrinsic to the “inner man” rather than emissaries of it. Kitty, on the other hand, is never light-hearted. She silently begs, pleads and yearns, in an effort to be “worthy” of Maurice’s love, and in doing so, creates an atmosphere of tense inadequacy from which he instinctively retreats. “Maurice, thought Kitty, [at a faculty meeting] will you not look in my direction? I am only here for your sake.” Seeing him laughing with Professor Gault, “a tiny weary man,” she reacts only with “I wish he would look at me like that.” (32) She is a careful, deliberate, watchful magistrate in the court of Maurice the King, while his consort sits in her seminar and plays with her “long Pre-Raphaelite tendrils of beige hair.” (43)

Kitty’s every reaction begins with “I” and ends with “me.” Her self-centeredness is astonishing. Her context is so very much herself, that it is difficult to believe that she is truly in love. And yet if she has failed in thirty years to incorporate even the most rudimentary codes of English daily life into her life, it can only be concluded that she will also fail to incorporate another human being in her heart; her context, her world, as it were, being bounded on all fronts by her own skin. “I lacked the information,” she laments. But she did not. It has been there all her life.

There is in Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden a particularly illuminating description of an upper-class young man, with whom the heroine collides on the boat-train from Dover to Calais, which Kitty would have done well to study:

He helped her to her feet, anxiously dusting her coat, apologising, undistressed, so courteous and unconfused that she felt he had conferred on her a favour, and to her amazement she heard her own voice answering with equal ease, assuring him that no, she was not hurt, no, of course it was not his fault, yes, it certainly was the roughest she had ever known it. Then he left her and she watched him go: he had yellow hair, unmistakable yellow hair, and she said to herself there goes a public school boy. She was not familiar with the type but she recognised it when she saw it as she would have recognised the Eiffel Tower. (Drabble, Jerusalem the Golden, 62)

The operative word here is undistressed. He is “anxious” only that she is not hurt, thus marking him as a gentleman, but undistressed that it should have been he who was involved in the accident. He is not embarrassed; he does not morally blame himself, although he pays a social debt by courteously taking upon himself the clumsiness of falling, thereby relieving her of any doubt as to her own lack of grace. More than that, it does not signify. A Kitty, in addition to blaming herself for the weather system that caused the lurch (and here we must recognize that the very humility of self-blame is merely an indication of Kitty’s essential belief that she is somehow immensely significant, central even, to causality) would have listened intently to his every word – and missed the message.

The novel is teeming with missed messages. Quite apart from Miss Fairchild, there is the entire submerged foundation of family architecture to which Maurice, only son and heir, belongs, and which Kitty/Thérèse cannot fathom. When Maurice calls to postpone a date with her because his mother is coming to town, he displays a filial deference, proper in his world, which causes Kitty panic. (And yet, had their relationship been different, she would have, perhaps, been invited to join them for lunch or tea.) When he cuts his visit to France short because is godmother is arriving at the family estate, Kitty loses confidence.

Maurice’s strongest commendation of Miss Fairchild is that their families are neighbours, and that his mother thinks well of her. Kitty has no experience in such a permanent, secure interconnectedness, and is uneasy with all this proximity, unlike Miss Fairchild, who comes from the same background as Maurice. Consequently, although Maurice is a lecturer and Miss Fairchild is a student, he and she are on equal ground. Not so Kitty, who, regarding Maurice, “feels humbled by the comparison between them” and begins to become rather nauseating to the reader, in her description of Maurice as a “superior being”:

finer, large, better than she was, his insights nobler, his whole fabric superior. With his background, I suppose, she thought vaguely, imagining spacious lawns and grey stone and summer afternoons and his impeccable mother receiving guests. (Brookner, 22)

Maurice, although idealised by Kitty as a perfect symbol of England, (which she loved as only one who is not wholly English can do) is nevertheless an undeniable and immovable part of it. He is ‘county’ to the core, and lives in a world in which, and for which, he needs a eminently suitable, easily compatible, and undistressed wife. He will never wed private pleading, internal desperation, or social inadequacy. He will never consummate a marriage with The Romantic Tradition. For although Kitty is educated, respectable, attractive, and devoted, she is, in her earnest pursuit of worthiness, staunchly middle class —or, more accurately, bourgeoisie—

What the upper classes really dread is their child falling for someone middle class. ‘A thoroughly conventional man in good society,’ said Edward Lyttelton, a former headmaster of Eton, would rather that his son should resort to prostitutes than that he should marry a respectable girl of a distinctly lower station than his own.’ (Jilly Cooper, Class, 172)

It is important here to differentiate between social class and gentility; and moral class and gentility. Maurice is indisputably a “gentleman” (a word rarely used among members of his class) in the social sense, much like the Drabble character, polite, courteous, respectful. Whether he is equally morally endowed is not the province of this essay to explore. Kitty thinks he is. This is her context.

Kitty is very definitely a lady in the moral sense. Maurice finds nothing distasteful or inappropriate in her person. It is her social style that raises a barricade between them. Kitty recognises all this vaguely, but cannot see it for the fundamental principle that it is. For

Although kings have married beggar maids and peers daughters eloped with garage mechanics, the fact that gossip columnists get so excited when this happens stresses both the news value and the rarity of such an event. Most of us commit endogamy, which is not a sophisticated form of bestiality, but merely marrying someone of the same class. (159)

In British Society since 1945, Arthur Marwick points out the whether it is politically correct to speak of a class system in English society or not, it does exist if only because people “explicitly or implicitly recognize its existence and behave in ways which reflect its existence.” (38-39) Kitty comes closest to some realisation of the cultural difference between herself and Maurice when a colleague discusses The Romantic Tradition with her. In discussing Chateaubriand, Kitty remarks to her colleague,

“He was not a man for the barricades,”
‘I am,’ said the Roger Fry professor, surprisingly. ‘I think you have to be. There comes a point at which it is no longer wise to do nothing.’
Kitty turned her eyes away from Maurice and considered this.
‘Do you really think so?’ she asked. ‘What about all this wise passiveness we are always hearing about?’
‘…Wise passiveness gets you nowhere,’ he said…’Wise passiveness is a front. It means you don’t have to do any work.’ (Brookner, 37)

The Roger Fry professor (for so he is identified throughout the book like a Greek chorus) is speaking deliberately. He had once looked up from his notes at a meeting and saw Kitty watching Maurice and is in possession of her secret. Here he is suggesting what all her friends have been urging: Do something. Either confront Maurice or discard him. But again, Kitty misses the message. Having escaped an English way of speaking, she has consequently escaped an English way of listening and cannot extract a warning from a kindly (and self-evident) truth.

In Everyday England, Monica Redleigh makes the observation that the English often speak in well-worn platitudes, idioms, metaphors, adding that they have no desire to invent new ones, preferring to use those which exist already and are almost completely incurious as to their origin. Her most astute remark is that:

One important fact that must be borne in mind is the way in which the Englishman likes to quote them. More often than not he does not quote them in their entirety; after all, everyone else knows them just as well as he does. So he quotes a word or two — the first half of the saying, for instance — and leaves his hearer to complete it for himself. Half-quoting…is a very English habit. (Redlich, Everyday England, 171)

While Brookner does not allow the reader to hear Maurice interact with anyone other than Kitty, the fact that he does not engage Kitty in the half-worded, assumption-based, conversations in which he undoubtedly normally engages, indicates that he knows she is not capable of them. Still, it is evident throughout the novel that the words he does use, he uses cryptically, and they mean something far different to him than they do to Kitty.

There are two emblematic passages in Providence, which divide Kitty from Maurice forever. The first is her artless and instinctive response when told by her friend Pauline of a broken engagement in Maurice’s past: “‘Merde, alors,’ was Kitty’s immediate and uncensored (and French) reaction to this, and she was so ashamed that she felt herself blushing hotly as if she had been discovered in a major indiscretion” (Brookner, 26)

The second is that the message that everyone in her small circle has been trying to convey to her, “Try not to look so anxious. Remember, Kitty, man is the hunter,” (101) she understands best, but still only dimly, when she compares not her own internal atmosphere to Maurice’s, but her impeccable, French clothes:

Both of them were tall and graceful, but there the comparison ended. Kitty was artfully put together, manufactured, and tutored by her grandmother in the way of presenting herself advantageously, given the names of shoe designers and handbag makers and a special price because of the trade connections. She felt exhausted sometimes by the sheer effort of composing her appearance, and not always sure of the results. Was she perhaps too elaborate? Maurice was ineffably natural. He wore fine clothes, but carelessly, handmade shirts without a tie, cashmere pullovers instead of jackets… (22-23)

And here the pivotal paradox emerges. Kitty, on the verge of discovering that the “assumption of effortlessness,” might be the key to her relationship with Maurice, also discovers that she prefers art to nature after all. She instinctively chooses signature over atmosphere. Rather than simply talk with Maurice about the nature of their relationship, she merely concludes that if he takes her to France, it will be a sign. But of what? In the absence of any other more personal declaration, most Englishwomen – indeed most people – would be likely to think that a trip to France meant a trip to France – as indeed it does to Maurice.

Kitty is not to know what Maurice thinks, however. She has no pattern to follow. She is always alarmed at his silences, for it is then that he is “locked up in his private world, allowing her no access.” (55) She imagines that at these times, Maurice is morally occupied with purity, grandeur, the absolute. J. B. Priestly remarks in his amusing but acute study of the English character that

Hazlitt tells us somewhere about a Frenchwoman who married an Englishman …and when her friends complained about his long silences, she said solemnly,’ He is thinking about Locke and Newton.’ Fifty to one he wasn’t. (Priestly, The English, 27)

Let us then return to a passage we have seen once before, (in which Kitty’s attitude is clearly represented) in order to examine the basis upon which she expects to be embraced as a travelling companion,

She would be useful, she knew, could do all the boring things, while he got on with driving the car and getting from one place to another and being inspired by what he saw. French after all, was her mother tongue; she could save him a lot of time and trouble. (Brookner, 22)

How appealing a proposition this is, is evidenced by the fact that Maurice does not, in fact, ask Kitty to go. Kitty does not understand this. Miss Fairchild, on the other hand, understands it perfectly. And therein lies the tale.

For although Jane Fairchild’s beauty, youth, and sensuality are potent attractions, they are not, in the end, the qualities for which her hand in marriage is sought. For all her apparent desirability, Jane Fairchild is not overtly passionate. She is rather quiet, and “quite pleasant, in a detached sort of manner.” (130) Kitty, for all her ardour, is frozen in a terrorised and brittle passion, not unlike the writhing Romantics she teaches. Anita Brookner paints Miss Fairchild in flesh tones — she is depicted as a warm, affectionate, living person. Her cheeks flush, she smiles, her forehead grows damp. Kitty, by contrast, is an artefact. For even though we see the world through her eyes, even though we are mired for the duration of the novel in her moral context, with its commandments and purgatories; its monuments and sacrificial ardour, it is nearly impossible to like her. She lacks humanity. Even her closest (and apparently only) friends, Caroline and Pauline, though very different from one another, are portrayed as people with whom she spends time only because Maurice is not available. In this context, they have no intrinsic worth to her.

Barbara Pym, to whom Anita Brookner (to her annoyance) has been compared often, paints quite a different picture of female friendship in her novel A Glass of Blessings in which two women friends prepare for a cocktail party together:

Rowena laughed. ‘I wonder if I have time to put on some nail varnish? It might do something for my hands.’ She held them out and glanced down at them a little sadly. I hate coloured nail varnish myself, though I could not but agree that Rowena’s hands needed something. Even though she had a reasonable amount of domestic help, they looked stained and rough, the nails uncared for, hardly even clean.

But suddenly, from studying them with critical detachment, I found myself remembering her hands as they had been when we were young and gay Wren officers in Italy. The hand that Rocky Napier had once held on the balcony of the admiral’s villa had been soft and smooth, delicately pink-tipped…

My eyes filled with tears at the memory…of Rowena’s hands as how they used to be. Perhaps it was the contrast of the rough little hands with the elegant black dress that so moved me, and the feeling that they had done so many more worthwhile things than my own which were just as soft and smooth as they had ever been. (Pym, A Glass of Blessings, 42)

There is more real affection in that one passage than there is in all of Providence. If she learns nothing else about being English; about whom Maurice will choose to marry; and about the connection between these two seemingly unrelated aspects of life, Kitty, a fair but frozen maid, who studies everything except Maurice with “critical detachment,” must learn this:

The English have no monopoly on affection but they have a great deal more of it, both in life and in literature, than most other peoples have. Wild consuming love, no, reckless passion, fanatical devotion — no; but affection, yes, indeed… Affection flourishes in a region somewhere between love and benevolence on principle. It is warmer than goodwill and more aware of its object, though not in terms of worth, for we can have a lasting affection for the unworthy, for even a rogue, so long as he is not callous and cruel, is very much himself, and somehow enjoyable… In its hazy irrationality, its constant low warmth without fire, it is, I believe, an essential part of Englishness. (Priestly, The English, 21)

Maurice will choose Miss Fairchild—her affectionate detachment, her warmth, her loose cotton skirt.

There are dozens of signs Kitty misses throughout the novel that substantiate the validity of Maurice’s choice. Let us look at an afternoon seminar in which Miss Kitty Maule examines the words of Benjamin Constant in Adolphe with her students:

To Kitty’s resolutely professional eye, Adolphe was mainly interesting for its conjunction of eighteenth century classicism and Romantic melancholy. If she concentrated on this aspect of the story, she could overlook its enfeebling message: that a man gets tired of a woman if she sacrifices everything for him…she asked her students to analyse the use of words and to dedicate the last half-hour of her class to a wider investigation of Romantic accidie. (Brookner, 41)

Kitty Maule asks each of her students in turn to examine Adolphe’s dilemma. The title character has seduced a young woman, Ellenore, grown tired of her, and, as Anita Brookner states (through John Larter, another of Kitty’s students) “wants to return to a more suitable way of life.”

To the English, not given to superlatives, describing something as “suitable” can often be the highest of praise. Kitty, being essentially French, does not give this word the significance that it is due. She concentrates instead on Constant’s description of Adolphe’s suffering in wishing to abandon Ellenore — his passionate moral anguish, his wretched Existentialist despair (It is perhaps significant to mention here that Benjamin Constant is believed to have coined the phrase l’art pour l’art —”art for art’s sake” — in 1804.) While Kitty is ensconced in this emphasis, conveying to her students the depth, the melancholy, the precise meaning of the Romantic Tradition, it is left to Miss Fairchild to provide the only comment which would be of any benefit to Kitty, could she but understand it:

Miss Fairchild raised her startling eyelids and smiled, to herself rather than at the question, as Kitty feared. ‘Well,’ she said, very slowly, ‘this woman is a nuisance. She’s old and she’s foreign. She’s ruining his career. Obviously, she’s being unfair.’ (45)

Early in the novel, when Maurice and Kitty are having coffee after dinner at her flat, when Kitty first mentions Jane Fairchild, she remarks that Jane is the only student who worries her.

‘Jane Fairchild?’ he asked. ‘My mother thinks she’s rather bright.’
‘Your mother?’ said Kitty in astonishment.
‘She lives quite near us in Gloucestershire. Her parents are friends of mine.’
‘She’s very beautiful,’ said Kitty, digesting this news.
[Maurice moves over to the sofa, stretches out his long legs, and crosses his hands behind his head...]
‘Quite a pretty girl, yes.’ (54)

Epilogue

I fear I have been too hard on Ms. Brookner, whose writing I admire more than that of any twentieth century novelist, with the possible exception of Antonia White. It is not because she is deserving of such negative attention as a creator that I have been so critical of her creation, but simply because the central love affair in all of her work is between the author and the word, not between one character and another. This is what makes her prose so entrancing, despite the fact that her women are generally enervating, incompetent, self-absorbed mutants, who hardly deserve the honour of being distinguished by such superlative rhetoric. It is the form that is of far more interest that the solitary, whiney subject, sitting on a pile of mattresses, looking for peas to complain about. I wish she would remember this.

*

Harrison Solow’s many writing awards include the prestigious Pushcart Prize for Literature (2008). She is published by The University of California Press, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins, among others, in the USA, Wales, Canada and England. Writer-in-Residence at the University of Wales in 2008 and Trinity College in 2007, Harrison teaches Literature, Creative Writing, Professional Writing and Cultural Studies at American and British universities. Harrison is a member of the Welsh Academi and has two literary non-fiction books due out in 2010.

3 responses to “The Civics of Civility: Aesthetics and Habitude in Anita Brookner’s novel Providence by Harrison Solow

  1. Thank you for the kind words. This is just to let you know that I just finished a book on Barbara Pym, entitlted Felicity and Barbara Pym, which will be out next May. In it, I make reference to Anita Brookner and the differences and similarities between both authors. I appreciate your comment!

  2. This is the best critical analysis I’ve ever come across on Brookner. I don’t understand why there aren’t many Brookner’s fans. She was one of the most under rated writers. I went to a bookshop the other day, Waterstone’s, I believe, I was shocked to discover that her books are not on the shelves. I think that there isn’t much market for serious books like Brookner’s. You made a nice comparison of Brookner’s work to B. Pym’s. Pym is also another favourite author of mine. But I think that Pym’s work tend to be a bit more humourous especially her earlier work. She writes dialogues more than Brookner’s. Brookner’s writing tend to focus more on prose than plots. Your post made my day because this is the only post where two of my favourite authors are mentioned.

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