As I read it, it occurred to me that it might even be the right Brookner for fans of Elena Ferrante. It is not that Brookner shares Ferrante’s emotional tone: on the contrary, she is chilly and forbidding. But just as Ferrante traces the friendship of doubles Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan Quartet, so Brookner’s heroines Elizabeth and Betsy meet at school and shadow each other in their parallel adult lives. But, as you might expect, Brookner’s novel is a much more uncomfortable read.
Brookner is known for her solitary heroines, but these two are different, in that they marry. The narrator, Elizabeth, is cool and in control, not emotionally involved with friends or, later, her husband. Sound familiar? But hold on: both Elizabeth and her double, Betsy, are widowed while relatively young. And another thing sets them apart: their childless state.
it takes a while for Elizabeth to address their childlessness. She begins with a description of the inception of her long, uncomfortable friendship with the ebullient Betsy.
The chilly tone is established in Brookner’s first paragraph.
We met, and became friends of a sort, by virtue of the fact that we started school on the same day. Because we had the same Christian name it was decreed that she should choose an alternative. For some reason–largely, I think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny children’s books available in our milieu–she decided to be known as Betsy. When we met up again, several years later, she was Betsy de Sainte-Jourre. Not bad for a girl initially registered as Elizabeth Newton.
In the 1950s, the motherless Betsy tries too hard with Elizabeth’s mother, who despises her, partly because she despises Betsy’s father, a doctor, known for an excruciating mistake that killed a patient. Soon the doctor himself dies, and the orphaned Betsy continues to live with her spinster aunt. Betsy and the aunt go to the cinema for excitement on Saturday night. Elizabeth despises them.
As adults, Elizabeth and Betsy grow apart, but are unprepared for the sixties. They had the fifties dreams of marriage and family. Elizabeth takes a cooking class in Paris and spends her leisure walking alone and going to foreign films; Betsy goes to university to study languages and, while living in Paris, marries a very handsome radical activist. Meanwhile, Elizabeth marries Digby, a stolid, much older friend of her parents. At the wedding, Betsy widens her eyes when she sees Elizabeth’s unattractive husband. (There are moments when we dislike Betsy for widening her eyes, though she is the more likable of the two friends.) Elizabeth does not, cannot, love Digby. But she is very comfortable in their flat.
So it would seem that Betsy is the more adventurous of the two, as well as the more emotional. But Elizabeth, who is honest and critical, but perhaps not an altogether reliable narrator, does not see it that way. She sees herself as smart and Betsy as the failure.
Surprisingly, Elizabeth has an affair with one of Digby’s friends, the beautiful Edmund Fairlie. She suspects his wife, Constance, knows all about it, because they meet at Edmund’s flat, obviously rented for his affairs. Elizabeth lies to Digby: she says she is taking evening classes. She reads so much that he doesn’t question this. During Digby’s vacation, she makes an error: she picks up a book at random, she thinks, and it is Madame Bovary. She immediately feels uncomfortable and puts it down. Digby picks it up.
“You won’t like that,” I warned him.
“I never have liked it. It’s a woman’s book, really.”
“Yet it was written by a man.”
“Yes, only a man would have killed her off.”
“She died because she had got into debt,” I reminded him coldly.
That’s Elizabeth all over.
Digby dies of a stroke. He does not want to die in the hospital, and she does not call a doctor. Then she breaks off her affair with Edmund. She is very much alone. When Betsy, also widowed, after her unstable husband dies in an accident, she comes back to London and, eerily, takes up Elizabeth’s life. Edmund is attracted to Betsy, and they have an affair. But this is not all: she tries to insinuate herself into his family life with Constance and the children.
Elizabeth views all this with despair. She sees what Edmund is doing, and knows Betsy still longs for a family.
Later, when Betsy is ill, Elizabeth begins to understand Betsy, the significance of her being an orphan. She grimly realizes their real problem: childlessness.
What united us, Betsy and I, in this strangest of pairings, was the fact that we had never had children, and that we had therefore failed the one essential test that all women feel obliged to pass. Even celibates measure their success or failure by this standard, and those who remain childless through their lives wonder what faculty has been lacking to bring this about. Yet neither of us had been maternal in our outlook, though Betsy gazed fondly on any child she encountered. She was, perhaps, too busy being her own child, the child she had to nurture in the absence of anyone else able or willing to do so. As for myself, I saw any potential children as an impediment to my freedom, for at the back of my mind I kept in readiness a plan of flight from circumstances I could no longer tolerate.
It is for Brookner’s brilliant insights that one reads. I am fascinated by doubles: we all have one, don’t we? And I am childless. I have always admired working mothers: how on earth can they go to work, raise the children, and then even read at night? Sometimes I look back and realize that a whole alternate life would have unfolded had if I had been careless with birth control. But I was not particularly maternal, and was horrified by friends who complained the only time they were alone was in the shower.
I need my solitude.
This is one of Brookner’s best.