Back in September last year, I read an early Anita Brookner, Providence (1982), a novel I loved for its central characterisation and sensitive portrayal of life’s disappointments both large and small. By rights, I should have begun with her debut novel, A Start in Life (1981), but it wasn’t available at the time – hence the decision to go with Providence instead. Having just finished A Start in Life, I would have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to Brookner’s style and themes. In some ways, it is a richer novel than Providence, more rounded and fleshed out. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.
As A Start in Life opens, Ruth Weiss, a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels, is looking back on her life, the striking opening lines setting the tone for the story that follows.
Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. (p. 7)
Interestingly, the balance between the relative merits of pursuing a path of virtue vs. one of vice is a central theme in the novel – more on this point a little later in the review.
Winding back to Ruth’s childhood at the family home in West London, the picture is somewhat unconventional and chaotic. Ruth’s mother, Helen, a relatively successful actress (at least at first) is beautiful, spoilt, lazy and self-centred, a high-spirited woman who spares little thought for the future. By contrast, Ruth’s father, George, a dealer in rare books, devotes much of his time and energy to keeping his wife happy, enacting his role as Helen’s charming and attentive husband. Neither of them seems to have much time for Ruth whose care is largely entrusted to George’s mother, the elderly Mrs Weiss, who also shares the family home. Mrs Weiss is under no illusions about the rather feckless nature of her son’s wife. Moreover, she is concerned that Helen and George’s childlike behaviour and ‘facile love-play’ will damage Ruth in some way. As such, she does her best to maintain the household, looking out for the young girl wherever possible.
Unfortunately for Ruth, the situation deteriorates when Mrs Weiss dies, a development that prompts Helen to ‘get a woman in’ to look after the house. The housekeeper in question is Mrs Cutler, ‘a wry, spry widow, quick to take offence’. Mrs Cutler is a wonderful gossipy creation, and there are some priceless scenes as she begins to insert herself into the lives of Helen and George, always mindful of how to play the situation to her full advantage. Ruth, for her part, is pretty much left to her own devices as the household rapidly goes to pot.
As the years slip by, Helen starts to go downhill fairly dramatically. No longer in work, her looks begin to fade along with her previous zest for life, points that become abundantly clear to George when he catches Helen in one of her private moments.
The bones of her shoulders were sharply outlined. Her wedding ring was loose and sometimes she took it off. Her red hair was now a secret between herself and her hairdresser, and on the days when she was due to have it done she found the atmosphere in the streets threatening. Eventually, Mrs Cutler, the Hoover abandoned in the middle of the floor, would take her, leaving George to finish whatever work she had or had not been doing. On their return, both women would pronounce themselves exhausted, and Helen would retire to bed, where she knew she looked her best. George, harassed, would join her for a drink. Helen’s blue eyes, more prominent now in their pronounced sockets, would gaze out of the window with a wistful and ardent expression, her thoughts winging to past triumphs, part travels, past love affairs. George, looking at her in these unguarded moments, would be shocked to see how quickly she had aged. (p. 36)
George, for his part, finds solace in the company of Sally Jacobs, the widow who buys his book business, as a growing dependency develops between the two.
Meanwhile, Ruth begins to carve out a daily routine for herself. By now she is studying literature at one of the London Universities, living at home again after a brief and somewhat disastrous attempt to break away on her own in a room near the King’s Road – her dedicated attempt to woo an attractive fellow student, Richard, with a romantic dinner for two having ended in crushing disappointment. There are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, library work in the evenings. In some ways, the relative safety/security of the University environment feels like more of a home to Ruth than her family residence in Oakwood Court. It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse. Nevertheless, as Ruth reflects on her studies of Balzac, she begins to question whether there is more to life. Is the pursuit of a life of goodness and virtue the best path to the discovery of true love? Surely a little Balzacian opportunism wouldn’t go amiss for Ruth too?
She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her dissertation on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can more easily be appraised when they are dead and gone. (p. 136)
Once again, Ruth attempts to add a little freedom, romance and excitement to her days. She secures a scholarship for a year in Paris to further her studies in Balzac, with the ultimate intention of visiting some of the places depicted in his novels. During her time in the capital, Ruth begins to live a little, albeit relatively briefly. She meets a bohemian English couple who take her under their wing, encouraging her to improve her image with a smart new haircut and fashionable clothes. Before long, Ruth falls for a literature professor, a married man who treats her kindly, even though their time together is somewhat limited. She longs for an opportunity to be alone with him in a private place, almost a hope against hope given her previous attempt at romance as a student in London. (I love this next quote; it feels like vintage Brooker.)
If only she could sit with him in a room, quietly, talking. If only she could wait for him in some place of her own, hear his footsteps approaching. If she could cook for him, make him comfortable, make him laugh. More than that, she knew, she could not expect. Can anyone? She still measured her efforts and her experience against her disastrous failure with Richard, remembering her expectations and the reality that had destroyed them. That reality had made her wary. Disappointment was now built into any hope she might have had left. But so far Duplessis had not disappointed her. (p. 130)
I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Ruth never quite manages to break free from the demands of her parents as a mercy call from home cuts short her time in Paris.
A Start in Life is a really terrific debut, beautifully written and brilliantly observed. The characterisation is superb – not just in the creation of Ruth, but the other leading players too. In many ways, the novel explores the classic Anita Brookner territory of fading hopes and dashed dreams as happiness and fulfilment remain somewhat out of reach. I strongly suspect there is a lot of Brookner herself in the character of Ruth Weiss, a rather fragile woman who seems destined to experience significant loneliness and disappointment in her life. In many respects, Ruth is constrained by the demands of those around her, frequently bending to the will of others to the detriment of her own desires. There appear to be some parallels between Ruth’s situation and that of Balzac’s heroine, Eugénie Grandet, so much so that I am sure a familiarity with Balzac’s work (and this book in particular) would bring another dimension to the experience of reading of A Start in Life.
Before I finish, a few words on the novel’s tone. While Ruth’s story is shot through with a delicate sense of sadness, this is beautifully balanced by Brookner’s dry wit and keen eye for a humorous situation. (In this respect, I was reminded of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly The Soul of Kindness which I reviewed back in January.) There are some marvellous scenes involving Helen, George and their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, a woman who always seems to have a cigarette on the go. I’ll finish with a quote which I hope captures something of this tone. Mrs Cutler is imagining her future life running a care home with Leslie Dunlop, a man she has met through a dating agency.
She saw herself in the Lurex two-piece she had bought in the sales, being absolutely charming to some old dear while her husband hovered cheerily in the background. ‘My husband will take care of it,’ she would say. ‘You will have to speak to my husband about that.’ They would make an ideal pair. After all, if she could look after Helen, she could look after a few more. And they had nurses, didn’t they? She sent Leslie back to Folkestone with instructions to make enquiries at all likely establishments along the coast. Then she nipped back to the Black Lion and had two gins to steady her nerves after her momentous afternoon. (p. 114)
A Start in Life is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.