Anita Brookner on a Chilly Friendship: The Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement brookner 2e1c123e613b659bf8215d5b9d890a22-w204@1xI wonder if The Rules of Engagement is my favorite Anita Brookner novel.

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.

13 thoughts on “Anita Brookner on a Chilly Friendship: The Rules of Engagement

  1. Great review Kat – you’re doing a grand job of convincing me I need to read more Brookner! This sounds laced with a lot of bitterness. As for children – it’s a choice women need to be able to make clear headedly because they do completely change your life. I don’t think Brookner had any, did she, and this may reflect in her books.

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    • Yes, it is a bitter novel! Elizabeth knows she lacks the qualities that make satisfying relationships, and her criticism of Betsy is often harsh. The novel does not end as one would wish, though I do understand Elizabeth. Yes, Brookner was unmarried and childless. She writes very well about this kind of character (and is well worth reading: her books are spoken of as though they’re the same, but they seem to have grown more complex, and perhaps less likable, over the years).

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  2. I too enjoyed reading the story and experiencing the characters through your representation — which I’m sure is an accurate conveying of Brookner’s text. Brookner is filled with insights. Ferrante is not explicit in the same way: the Italian tradition is so different from the English which is moralizing from the mid-18th century on. I agree that Ferrante has a very different emotional tone: she’s upfront on the page, next to you with intensities.

    People try to use the word childfree but it doesn’t stick. A huge percentage of women have at least one child, far larger than the percentage who marry. It’s not hard to become pregnant and the culture enforces pregnancy and having children as this wonderful thing — though the experience is hard, childbirth dangerous; the insistence on breast-feeding is another part of this disciplinary enforcement.

    The true price of children is high and the experience ambiguous. So many things kick in that are awful: like having to cope with the schools and seeing what happens to your children in them.

    I was glad to see the reviews recognized Brookner. I wish they had made more of her career as an art historian. Today maybe she’d write feminist art criticism and “unearth” more women’s stories there.

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    • Yes, Ferrante and Brookner are different, though dealing with the same idea of women’s friendship here. The word “child-free” seems silly to me. “Childless” is in the great tradition of “tireless” and “reckless.” I wonder if someone misunderstood the use of the suffix “less”?

      There is much pressure on women to have children. It is certainly not the right life for everyone. And, in these overpopulated days, it is a good idea for some not to go that route! Some women are natural mothers, some struggle. I think the stats may have changed slightly over the years, so that a higher percentage of women are childless. On the other hand, it does seem to me that in TV sitcoms and movies the unwed mother is now romanticized: meaning that more pressure is put on women!

      I don’t know her art criticism, and probably it is not a subject her readers know well. But I’m sure it was important work.

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  3. Now that I’m finishing the Neapolitan Quartet, I may read Brookers’s novel. It sounds like Ferrante read this one although Lenu and Lila are different in that they have children and from varied relationships. These two women can indeed be read as doubles. Ferrante has stated how she contrasts the two in their development.

    Thanks for the review and for taking up Brookner.

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    • You never know: Ferrante MIGHT have read Brookner! But of course there are many novels about women’s friendships. Brookner is so much better than I’d remembered! Perhaps it’s my age: I appreciate her more.

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      • Yes, may have read it. The similarity of the names of the two girls is striking as is the fact that Ferrante emphasizes how Lila often squints or nearly closes her eyes when she is displeased. How many novels focus on the friends women have as children and follow through on their development? It seems there is an Italian translation as well. Certainly Brookner was famous enough to have attracted attention amongst diverse writers.

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  4. I think you may be over-identifying Elizabeth with Brookner in the paragraph about childlessness you quote. The important thing about Brookner is that she was a great art critic and a great novelist and these may well have been more important to her than children could ever be. Elizabeth and Betsy don’t have these alternatives. Elizabeth isn’t a reliable narrator – thouough she’s a very convincing one. Brookner, I’d guess, never “kept in readiness a plan of flight from circumstances I could no longer tolerate” and never needed to.
    Have you read Philip Larkin’s poems? In some of them – “Dockery & Son” is an example – he has and thinks about children and chldlessness in a way very similar to yours.

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    • Oh, I love Brookner, and didn’t mean to indicate I thought she identified with Elizabeth. I’m the one who does that, to an extent, though I am closer to Betsy in my lack of coolness. Reviewers seem to think she wrote the same book over and over, and I am finding them very different indeed. I don’t read her books as autobiography, because I know very little about her. I can see where Larkin’s poems would be a good pairing with her prose.

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