Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My first experience of this novel was back in the mid-‘80s, shortly after it had won the Booker Prize. I was in my early twenties at the time – clearly much too young and lacking in life experience to fully appreciate the book’s many nuances and subtleties. At thirty-nine, Edith Hope (the central character) seemed middle-aged, old before her time – something I found difficult to connect with in the foolishness of my youth. Revisiting it now, I see it as a very different book – much more interesting and closely observed than it seemed on my first reading. The level of precision is remarkable, particularly in relation to detail and character. 

As the novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere, traditional hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal.

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name, remained standing at the window, as if an access of good will could pierce the mysterious opacity with which she had been presented, although she had been promised a tonic cheerfulness, a climate devoid of illusions, an utterly commonsensical, not to say pragmatic, set of circumstances – quiet hotel, excellent cuisine, long walks, lack of excitement, early nights – in which she could be counted upon to retrieve her serious and hard-working personality and to forget the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile, in this apparently unpopulated place, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home…(p. 8)

(The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book, so I shall endeavour to avoid any spoilers about this.)

It is late September, out of season, and the hotel is a sparse, soulless place, a bastion of respectability and privacy. The sort of place that doctors know about, where troubled or troublesome relatives can be sent for a period of rest and recuperation. New residents are occasionally accepted, but only on the recommendation of known parties.

At the end of her first evening, Edith is ‘adopted’ by Iris Pusey, a glamorous, well-dressed woman of commanding personality and indeterminate age. In return, Edith soon realises that she is to be an audience for Mrs Pusey’s views – a series of opinions, reminiscences and judgements on various aspects of life. This Edith is happy to do, partly because it allows her to observe an ‘alien species’, the study of human behaviour being a key component of her craft. Moreover, Mrs Pusey is accompanied by her grown-up daughter, Jennifer, a less-polished version of Mrs P, but equally striking in her own, rather girlish way.

The Puseys spend their days shopping for clothes, viewing their annual trip to the Hotel du Lac as a necessity in their social calendar. Luckily for Mrs Pusey, she is extremely wealthy, her late husband having left enough money for mother and daughter to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Edith is rather fascinated by Jennifer whose age also proves difficult to define. (She is in fact thirty-nine, something that comes as quite a surprise given her childlike demeanour.)  At times, Jennifer seems very young, like a little girl still devoted to her mother; at others, a more mature side of her personality emerges, revealing her to be something of an odalisque aware of her sexual attractiveness.

There are other guests at the hotel too, women whose lives have been defined by more dominant members of their families – primarily men. Consequently, these women have little influence or agency of their own. There is Monica, the tall, beautiful lady with a dog, whom Edith encounters shortly after she arrives at the hotel. Lady Monica, whose relationship with food is dictated by an eating disorder, has been sent to the hotel ‘to get herself in working order’ to produce a baby. Monica’s husband is desperate for an heir, and should one not be forthcoming soon, Monica will likely be dismissed, thereby enabling Sir John to make ‘alternative arrangements’.  

Mme de Bonneuil is also of note here. Deposited at the hotel by her unfeeling son and his self-centred wife, this elderly lady will soon be dispatched to her winter quarters in Lausanne where a long, dark season surely beckons. With her sequined veil and walking stick, Mme B cuts a poignant figure, particularly as the move to Lausanne edges ever closer.  

Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. As a writer of romantic novels, Edith is continually exploring the lives of women. ‘What behaviour most becomes a woman?’ What is deemed to be respectable or acceptable?

Edith’s position in relation to these points is brought sharply into focus with the arrival of Philip Neville, a perceptive, sophisticated man who is intrigued by Edith. He swiftly surmises her position, identifying her single status as a disadvantage. While her career as a writer has enabled Edith to live an independent life, she remains somewhat annexed from polite society – pitied by her friends, some of whom have tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to arrange suitable matches. (Little do they know that Edith has a married lover, David, a man she is deeply in love with, despite the fact that he will never leave his wife.) This separateness is something Edith is acutely aware of – even so, the extent to which Mr Neville intuits her situation cuts like a knife.

‘What you need, Edith, is not love. What you need is a social position. What you need is marriage.’

‘I know,’ she said.

‘And once you are married, you can behave as badly as everyone else. Worse, given your unused capacity.’

‘The relief,’ she agreed.

‘And you will be popular with one and all, and have so much more to talk about. And never have to wait by the telephone again.’

Edith stood up. ‘It’s getting cold,’ she said. ‘Shall we go.’

She strode on ahead of him. That last remark was regrettable, she thought. Vulgar. And he knows where to plant the knife. (p. 101)

As the novel reaches its denouement, Mr Neville proposes to Edith. It is not a proposal borne out of love – instead, he is offering her a partnership based on mutual self-esteem. Following the messy breakdown of his previous marriage, Mr Neville is looking a wife, someone he can trust, someone who will not let him down or embarrass him in the future. In return, marriage will give Edith a respectable social position, something that will confer on her an air of confidence and sophistication. Furthermore, she will retain the freedom to write, to continue with her career as desired. Both parties will be free to see other people should they wish, as long as they remain discreet.

In the end, Edith must choose the kind of life she is to lead. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures, its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for the benefit of social acceptability? (There is also the question of whether it will be possible for Edith to go back to her familiar life in England, should she wish to do so. This is not at all certain given her recent history.) Ultimately, an unexpected discovery forces Edith’s hand, revealing unpalatable truths about two of the hotel’s residents, while also signalling what may lay ahead for Edith should she opt for a particular path.

I could have written a very different piece to this, one that explores Edith’s dilemma in light of the events that prefaced her exile; but that would have revealed too many spoilers, I think. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. This time around, I absolutely loved it.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

67 thoughts on “Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

      1. Tredynas Days

        It occurred to me from your account of the plot that it owes a debt to Victorian fictional representations of the plight of women – G. Eliot especially. Even Trollope, who seemed to become increasingly aware of the injustice of women’s position & destiny in society,

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a good point. There are definitely echoes of ‘classic’ novels which deal with that theme. Eliot is a massive gap in my reading, I must admit. Trollope I’m more familiar with, but there’s still quite a lot for me to explore. I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Taylor as I was re-reading Hotel du Lac. It could have been written in the 1950s given the options open to Edith (or apparent constraints surrounding them).

          Reply
          1. Tredynas Days

            Funny you should mention E Taylor: she came to my mind, too, in terms of the depiction of intelligent, thwarted central female characters, perceived from a wry, sympathetic narrative viewpoint. I suppose the Swiss setting also brings in echoes of other Victorian and later fictions set there, from H James to DH Lawrence. Something about the purity of the mountain air, the stunning, landlocked scenery, contrasting with the perceived blandness and self-satisfaction of the citizens who live and visit there, etc. Then there’s Robert Walser and others who were born there, who give a very different view of the place.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, exactly (re: Taylor). Harriet from Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek came to mind as I was reading this. I don’t know if you read AGoHaS, but it’s very good indeed, probably one of ET’s best.

              Good point too about the setting; the hotel itself is almost a sanatorium, like something out of a novel by Stefan Zweig or another writer of his ilk. I haven’t read enough Henry James or D.H. Lawrence to comment on those two, but I’m sure you’re right!

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m so glad to have finally *got* it, so to speak. It felt like a completely different book this time around, much more fascinating than it had ever seemed before. A quiet revelation is an excellent way of describing it – both the book and my response to it!

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    A wonderful book and thanks to your tactful review I can read it again and let the events unfold with some degree of uncertainty. As for your point about thinking Edith was old at thirty-nine, I remember reading Thirty-Nine Steps for the first time, where John Buchan describes Richard Hannay as a ‘young man of thirty-seven’, and laughing in disbelief.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I think my original view of Edith was framed by the fact that Brookner had made her seem old before her time, as if she were in her fifties (ironically, about the age I am now!) with her cardigans and somewhat fusty demeanour. Looking at her now, I see a very different woman, partly because I can see an element of myself in her (or at least where I was in my mid thirties). Isn’t it fascinating how our perceptions of certain characters can change over time as we age and develop in terms of our our life experiences? It’s a point that never fails to fascinate me – and a good argument for re-reading particular novels now and again.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I had the same reaction as you when I read it in my early 20s. Then I reread it nearly 20 years later, mostly because I was living in the area she describes in the book. And, of course, given more life experience and maturity, I appreciated it far more the second time around, like you didn. I do wonder if Anita Brookner is best appreciated from the mid-thirties onwards.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s something in that, for sure. You probably need to get to a point where you’ve had some experience of relationships under your belt, particularly an insight into the disappointment of unrequited love, the frustration of unfulfilling affairs or other similarly painful encounters. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was in my early twenties and full of the innocence of youth!

      Reply
  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Lovely review of a book that’s (IMO) quite difficult to review without spoiling the plot! I absolutely adore Hotel du Lac, which, like you, I first read when it won the Booker. It was my introduction to Brookner and the beginning of a major Brookner “kick;” I followed her output for many years (i even looked at some of her art criticism, after I became interested in painting), reading each novel as it came out (my favorite after Hotel is “A Friend from England”). I eventually became a little tired of Brookner’s theme(s); decided to give her a rest and, sadly never returned, so there are still several Brookners from her later work that await me! I’ve actually been thinking of catching up with these and doing some re-reads of her earlier novels. Again, like you, I’m fascinated by how our reactions to books & writers change over time so I’m a great fan of re-reading.
    I think your review captured Brookner’s great observational skill, which does so much to enrich the novel. I remember being fascinated by the Hotel’s other “inhabitants,” with their briefly sketched but very vibrant back stories. I also really enjoyed how you presented Edith’s central dilemma, of just how does an unmarried, intelligent, competent, professional woman live her life in a world of couples and families? What IS her place? I also think there’s a real struggle going on, in this novel and elsewhere in Brookner’s work, over how the protagonist should/can respond to male-defined femininity, i.e., to the male tendency to be attracted to the Mrs. Puseys and the Jennifers of the world and to overlook the Ediths.
    I don’t know about others, but I found that Hotel had a rather odd, timeless quality to it (I think that the comments and allusions to Trollope & Victorian literature hint at this). It was published in the 1980s and depicts a contemporary world (or at least I think it does) but in many respects Edith appears a very 19th century character (even 40 years ago, who’s packed off by friends to live down a social disgrace?), although her dilemma, alas, is all too contemporary, as we still see women wrestling with the same issue of how to define themselves.
    Did you find Brookner very funny at times, in a very understated way? I recall thinking some of the lines/dialogue very amusing — didn’t Neville tell Edith something along the lines of “whoever told you that you resembled Virginia Woolf did you a great disservice?” And the description of Edith’s disgraceful episode (the one getting her sent to the Hotel) — I recall it being very funny indeed. Also Edith’s own description of her romantic novels, where the outcome (Plain Jane always wins) does not reflect real life.
    I can’t believe I’ve nattered on so much, all before breakfast! But I loved this book and it was a real treat to read your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I think Edith’s position is the central dilemma of the novel, which is partly why it holds various resonances with classic literature. In fact your fascinating sequence of comments has prompted me to think of another potential reference point for this story – the New York society that Edith Wharton depicts so brilliantly in novels such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. Edith’s banishment to Switzerland is right out of Wharton’s world. (I mean, they’ve even got the same Christian name!) There’s definitely a Wharton story (Autres Temps, I think) in which a woman is living in exile in Europe having left her husband for another man – oh, the scandal of it!

      That’s an excellent point too about the Brooker protagonist and male-defined femininity. There is something vaguely obscene about Mrs Pusey and Jennifer, particularly Mrs P in her to desire to be the centre of attention. She reminds me a little of that awful woman in Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca, the one who the second Mrs de Winter is working for as a paid companion before Maxim rescues her.

      And yes, I do find Brookner very funny at times! Her humour is vastly underrated, so it’s wonderful to see you highlighting it here. You’re right about the Virginia Woolf comment, spot on. There’s also a rather amusing scene in which Philip Neville reveals his knowledge of Edith’s true identity as the author of those somewhat racy romantic novels. He actually makes Edith laugh, I think! And that chapter about the scandalous episode is brilliantly observed, complete with Penelope and the charwoman watching in horror as everything unfolds. A truly wonderful book!

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Spot on, JacquiWine, with the Edith Wharton comparison! I CAN’T believe that I never noticed the shared names — Brookner is too careful a writer for that to be a coincidence. I love Wharton but have only read some of the novels, so I’ll have to seek out that short story.
        I had forgotten the scene in which Neville reveals that he knows about Edith’s novels — you are really making me itch for re-read, JacquiWine — laundry and dishs can wait! (a woman’s eternal dilemma never changes, does it?) The scandalous episode scene, in my memory, is one of the funniest I’ve read, right up there with certain scenes from “Lucky Jim.” A stray thought occurs — we know from the start that Edith is a romantic novelist by trade, which foreshadows the ultimate choice she will make.
        And yet, for all my love of Brookner, I did over time become a little uneasy with some of her protagonists. In particular, I recall “Look at Me” as being a real turnoff. Rightly or not (again, time for re-reads) I recall many of Brookner’s protagonists being almost paralyzed, locked into roles of observers of other people’s lives rather than actively shaping their own. I believe Brookner also tried her hand at doing a male protagonist or two and expanding from one main character to more of an ensemble. Brookner’s such a prolific writer it’s almost impossible to keep track of, or even read, all of her novels. Add to that a very successful character as an art historian (at the Courtauld, no less), along with a professional book or two, and I’m in total awe. I remember reading a very nice piece in the Guardian when she died a few years back, which I’ve just tracked down. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/15/anita-brookner-obituary

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great point about some of Brookner’s protagonists being observers of other people’s lives rather than active participants in their own. There’s a strong element that in Look at Me, where the Brookner heroine, Frances Hilton, gets drawn into the lives of a relatively sophisticated young couple, Alix and Nick. It’s a fascinating dynamic, partly because of the sense of attraction-repulsion surrounding Frances’ feelings towards Alix and Nick. There are times when she desperately wants to be part of their world and others when she does not. I found it a really interesting (and brilliantly observed) novel but can understand why others might not care for it as much! There’s a fair bit of observing rather than participating in Providence, too – although I get the sense that Kitty (the central character in the novel) would jump at the chance of a more fulfilling life with her lover if only he were willing to commit. Latecomers (which I haven’t read) features two male protagonists, if my memory serves me correctly. And Lewis Percy sounds as if it revolves around a man…

          As you say, Brookner was a very impressive individual indeed. Thanks for the link to the Guardian obituary – I shall take a look at that.

          Reply
  4. Jane

    I must have read this at the same sort of time as you and you’re right, reading your review, I didn’t get it at all! Time for another go I think!

    Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    Like you I read this in my early 20s. I recall I liked but didn’t love it. I think Marina has a point that there may be a minimum age to get the best of this book (as some perhaps have a maximum age).

    I read it again myself too not too long ago. I agree with the view it can be very funny, and the argument that it’s very 19th C in feel is I think a very good one. I still found it a bit arid though. Much better, but lacking warmth.

    Not that everything has to be warm of course.

    Anyway, nice review and discussion too. I do like it more than Look at Me which ultimately I don’t think I cared for.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Funnily enough, this is actually my third reading of the book. It would have been too long-winded to include at the beginning of this post, but I revisited it in January this year and liked it a lot more than I had done back in the mid 1980s. But even so, I still felt there was something elusive about it, particularly around the scenes in Switzerland. (I loved the flashback to the scandalous incident in England; but the rest, not so much.) This time around, I think I’ve finally warmed to dynamics within the hotel – the various scenes with the other characters and what these say about Edith’s position. Nevertheless, I can fully appreciate why you found it somewhat dry and airless. I think that’s where I was after my first re-read earlier this year.

      There is something a little cruel about some of Brookner’s books, something painful running through them. I don’t know if that’s the right way of putting it, but there’s definitely an element of cruelty to Alix and Nick’s treatment of Frances. I loved that book and thought it was brilliantly written; but, once again, I can understand why you didn’t care for it very much…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, almost as if there was some unfinished business still hanging in the air. I hadn’t written about it back in January – so before moving on to Family and Friends (the next Brooker in order of pub.) I wanted to revisit HdL again – partly to get it out of my system and partly to try to write about it. Anyway, long story short, I adored it this time around, especially the scenes in Switzerland which I hadn’t particularly warmed to back in January. Weird, isn’t it? But a definite case for re-reading a book if something is gnawing away in your mind…

          Reply
  6. heavenali

    Lovely review, Hotel du Lac was my first Brookner, a good few years ago now, and although I did enjoy it, I think I would get a lot more from it now. Brookner is so good at portraying these kinds of women, and exploring them in some depth. I also love a hotel setting of course.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I couldn’t agree more about her ability to capture the inner lives of these women. She portrays their emotions so well. All that frustration, rage and disappointment on the page…it’s brilliantly done.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great post Jacqui. I’m another one who struggled with this, and I did revisit it more recently but still felt that I wanted there to be something more in it which I felt was missing. I’ve been told that it isn’t necessarily her best, so I may well have to try something different and see if I get that then come back to Hotel. Maybe it will click then!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For you, I would recommend A Start in Life, Brookner’s debut, partly because it has a more ‘bohemian’ feel than some of her other novels and partly because of the resonances with certain literary figures, which I think you might enjoy. Ruth Weiss, the central character, is a student of Balzac, so there are references to one of two of this author’s texts. It’s a really terrific novel, one that might suit you better than HdL? I reviewed it here if it’s of interest:
      https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/a-start-in-life-by-anita-brookner/

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very welcome. I do think it’s worth you giving Brokner another try, especially as Hotel du Lac is considered to be somewhat different from her other early work…

          Reply
  8. inthemistandrain

    I read this around Booker winning time, I know I enjoyed it but feel sure I didn’t appreciate just how good it is. Just searched, no copy in the house so feel another purchase coming on….. What I did find though was a copy of Family and Friends which I haven’t read, I seem to recall it being highly recommended somewhere. Would love to read any Brookner fans thoughts on it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really want to read Family and Friends next, partly because it’s the one that comes directly after Hotel du Lac in order of publication. Not sure if there’s a review of it anywhere, but I do recall seeing one or two positive things about it on Twitter a while ago. In the meantime, if you do decide to read it, I’d love to hear how you get on!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear you loved the book. It’s taken me a while to click with it, but I’ve got there now…

      There’s definitely a BBC TV adaption from the mid-1980s, with Anna Massey as Edith and Denholm Eliot as Philip Neville. Still available on YouTube, I think!

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Really interesting that you found the book completely different now. People often reread favourite novels from when they were younger (and are often disappointed) but I wonder how many return to something they didn’t connect with first time around?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good point. It’s probably more common to revisit something you loved in the days of your youth than to do it this way around. Nevertheless, it’s been really interesting to hear how many other readers didn’t connect with HdL when they were in their twenties or early thirties – not just through the comments here but over on Twitter, too. A slightly different spin on this, but I wonder if Bonjour Tristesse might be another novel that evokes different responses in readers depending on their age, with younger readers identifying more closely with 17yo Cecile and older readers with Anne (who is similar in age to Cecile’s father).

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    I was really keen to read your review Jacqui, as like you I read this in my early 20s and didn’t get on with it. Having read Brookner again more recently, I thought I should give it another go as I was certainly too young for it then. Your lovely review and the other comments have convinced me to give it another try!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I suspect you’ll find it a different book now. It does seem to be a common experience with Hotel du Lac, the sense of not quite connecting with it in the days of our youth…

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I watched the TV adaptation first and wasn’t keen on the actress. Maybe that influence me because I could have sworn the protagonist is in her fifties. To think it was written in the 80s. The women she describes seem from another age. I suppose that could be because she herself was in her fifties when she write it. Some authors can only write their own age.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Anna Massey. I like her a lot, but she does seem old before her time for a character who is thirty-nine. Mind you, that was very much my initial impression of Edith from the book on my first reading…
      And yes, the setting does feel as if it’s from another era (1950s?), especially the hotel…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, are you thinking of Moira Shearer, by any chance? I think Anna Massey was in Peeping Tom (along with Shearer) but not The Red Shoes, unless I’ve missed her…

          Reply
  12. BookerTalk

    My experience echoes yours. I too read it a few years after it was published and really enjoyed the atmosphere and the exploration of Edith’s character. I felt the ending was sad, thinking that this woman had given up a chance of happiness and would now return to her fairly solitary existence. It wasn’t until I read it many many years later that I saw how wrong my interpretation had been. Edith isn’t settling for second best and retreating into her shell, she is emerging from it, deciding that she will live her life the way she wants, on her own terms and not according to how others expect her to live

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree – you’ve expressed it very well. She’s making an active choice at the end, not settling for some kind of unsatisfactory compromise with Philip Neville. I only wish she could have had a more fulfilling relationship with David…

      Reply
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  14. buriedinprint

    Well, I did love this as a young reader. I think I was about 20 when I first read it. But I think what drew me to the story was the sense of solitude, the quiet loneliness, not qualities I was finding elsewhere in the fiction. It also might have been one of the first books in my reading history to have ignited my love of hotel stories, how people come and go and cross paths. It’s refreshing to hear that you’ve revisited it two — three even — times and have found such a lot to admire and enjoy and appreciate. You’ve definitely made me want to reread it as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can definitely understand the appeal of solitude and quiet loneliness, two qualities I have grown to love in fiction over the past 15 years (even if I didn’t fully appreciate them in my youth)! And the hotel setting is definitely a draw – again, more so now than it was back then, when the Swiss establishment seemed so formal and icy. As you say, it’s a excellent backdrop for fiction, often throwing together individuals with radically different backgrounds and personalities. Have you read Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel? It’s one of my favourites ‘hotel novels’, a very cleverly constructed story of the ups and downs of various individuals as their lives intersect in Weimer-era Berlin.

      Reply

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