A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living narrow, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. That probably makes the novels sound rather dull; however, in reality, they are anything but. I find them very appealing – both for their exquisite prose and for their astute insights into character, particularly as Brookner’s women feel very relatable to me. 

First published in 1986, A Misalliance is very much in this vein, focusing as it does on Blanche Vernon, a respectable middle-aged woman who now lives alone in her central London apartment. Blanche’s husband of twenty years, Bertie, has left her for ‘Mousie’ – a much younger, frivolous woman who has succeeded in capturing Bertie’s imagination and protective instincts. Consequently, Blanche endeavours to fill her days with charitable work at one of the London hospitals and trips to the National Gallery where she studies the nymphs, reflecting on their romantic allure – a vision that presents a sharp contrast to the drabness of her life. Money is not an issue for Blanche – she has a small private income – and with no job or children to occupy her time, we quickly get the sense that facing the day ahead often presents something of a challenge. The expensive food and wine she buys give her little pleasure, heightening her longing for the night and a release into sleep.

Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay. In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations. […]

Leaving her house – in reality a tall brick building containing several mysterious high ceilinged apartments – was the event of the day, after which she felt she could breathe more freely, having launched herself yet again on the world without meeting any resistance. (p. 5)

With her ‘tweed suit and polished shoes’, Blanche is considered somewhat eccentric and unapproachable by her neighbours and acquaintances. She remains friendly with Barbara, Bertie’s sister, and the two women talk to one another on the phone every night.

Bertie, for his part, has also not completely severed all ties with Blanche, occasionally dropping in on her for an evening drink and a slice of apple tart. In truth, Blanche secretly hopes that Bertie might tire of Mousie and her little-girl-lost act at some point, prompting him to return to the fold even though the Vernons are officially divorced. Mostly though, Blanche is left wondering why some women – like the emotional Mousie and the mocking nymphs in the National Gallery – seem to attract men like magnets, while other, more sensible individuals, such as herself, do not. Moreover, when Blanche meets Sally Beamish, a woman who shares something of Mousie’s alluring qualities, these thoughts are accentuated, throwing the emptiness of her life into sharp relief.

She [Blanche] even thought, and not for the first time, that it was her timorous decency, disguised as brusqueness, that had caused her to lose Bertie, and she compared herself with the distantly musing Sally entirely to her own disadvantage. For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honourable, and to be excluded. (p. 79)

Blanche meets Sally and her three-year-old mute stepdaughter, Elinor, while dispensing tea in the hospital outpatients’ department. Almost immediately, Blanche sees something of herself in Elinor with her serious demeanour and quiet determination, prompting a desire to know more about the child and the family’s circumstances. It’s an interest that Sally quickly intuits and seeks to take advantage of, casually leveraging Blanche’s attachment to Elinor for her own personal gain. In short, Sally has grown used to a glamorous lifestyle but no longer has the means to sustain it, especially as her husband, Paul, is currently working overseas. Before long, Blanche is leaving £10 notes under the teapot in Sally’s flat to ‘tide her over’ and looking after Elinor while Sally amuses herself with a friend.

The situation intensifies when Sally pressurises Blanche to intervene in personal matters involving her husband, Paul, and his employers, a wealthy American couple, the Demuths. It’s a request that Blanche initially resists, knowing nothing of Paul and his rather mysterious financial arrangements. As this scenario plays out – I won’t go into it here – we see another man falling for the charms of a younger, attention-seeking woman who is fully aware of her appeal to the opposite sex. Once again, Blanche is left to reflect on the vagaries of romantic attraction – why do vulnerable or manipulative women seem so attractive to men, while their more refined or restrained counterparts are frequently ignored?

While I loved the first half of this novel for its compelling set-up, I found the second half just a little looser and less convincing. Still, there is plenty for fans of Brookner to enjoy here. As ever with this author, the characterisation is excellent, particularly Blanche, who appears to be a classic Brookner heroine reflecting on the unfairness of life. The secondary characters are great value too, especially Miss Elphinstone, Blanche’s talkative charwoman, a figure who could have easily stepped out of an Elizabeth Taylor novel – A Wreath of Roses and At Mrs Lippincote’s both spring to mind. However, unlike Blanche, Miss Elphinstone – who also appears to live alone – has fashioned a perfectly acceptable strategy for occupying her time, throwing herself into church activities with steeliness and gusto. 

Miss Elphinstone seemed to enjoy a lively and dramatic existence lived in the shadow of some excitable church whose activities absorbed most of her time and whose members abounded in competitive acts of selflessness. Thus was ensured an avalanche of information that took up most of the morning. Severely hatted, and wearing an overall under Blanche’s last season‘s black coat, Miss Elphinstone carried an equally severe black leather hold-all which contained a pair of rubber gloves, a change of shoes, and a religious magazine to read on the bus… (p. 22)

We also meet the dentist’s wife, Mrs Duff, a kindly woman who takes care of Blanche after a particularly trying meeting with Paul’s employers. In Mrs Duff, Brookner shows us another type of life – a woman seemingly content with a lack of excitement, having settled into the rhythms and routines of a longstanding marriage.

In summary, then, A Misalliance is an exquisitely written exploration of loneliness and the complexities of emotional entanglements, especially for a woman in Blanche’s position. There are some astute observations on womanhood, manipulation and loneliness here. Highly recommended for fans of Brookner and quiet, character-driven fiction with a focus on women’s lives.

36 thoughts on “A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

  1. M. L. Kappa

    I’ve always loved Anita Brookner, and have read most of her stuff. Not sure if I’ve read this one, though. Im tempted to Re-read her. Sigh…so many books, so little time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, if it’s any help, I think her books almost certainly yield more on a second reading. That was certainly my experience with Hotel du Lac, which I only fully connected with on a third reading. Also, when you already know where a book is going from a narrative POV, you can focus on other things, like the subtleties of character, craftsmanship and structure. Maybe re-read a favourite Brookner, just to see what you think?

      Reply
  2. Liz Dexter

    I find Brookner exquisite but can only cope with her earlier novels – I thought I’d manage to age with her protagonists but I seem to just see too much for myself in the books and get panicky. But I do re-read the early ones!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I get that. Her protagonists are very recognisable, painfully so at times! I don’t think Blanche is very old at this point, maybe early forties, although her clothes and controlled personality make her seem very staid.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I must confess to having kept a look out for Brookner on my recent trip to the charity shops – I’m convinced I need to give her another go, since I’ve only ever tried “Hotel du Lac”. Alas no luck! However, I’m sensing this might not be the best place to start with her, as you indicate the second have lacks a little (although the quotes are wonderful). Where would you recommend I go? :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the individual elements are all here (hence the quality of the quotes), but the novel as a whole didn’t quite go where I was expecting it to. Maybe that’s my fault for having a certain expectation or preconception of where it ought to end up! Anyway, as you say it’s probably not the best place to start for Brookner newbies – or readers such as yourself who are looking to give her another go. Lovely to hear that you’re willing to try again with her, that’s great! Her first novel, A Start in Life, would be top of my list for you. The central character, Ruth, is looking back on her youth in London and then Paris, where she spent a year studying Balzac. There’s a bohemian feel to it, which I think you’d like. Look at Me is also well worth snapping up if you see it on your travels – another early Brookner, and one of Andy Miller’s favourites. The Backlisted team covered it on their podcast a few years ago.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I love Anita Brookner, her sad, quiet novels are really quite beautiful and it ages since I read one. This is one that I haven’t read, I do have a couple unread Brookners tbr but can’t remember which they are. Still, this is going straight on my wishlist. Lots of elements of a great Brookner novel, so it’s a shame it weakened in the second half.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The slight dip in the last third may well have been my fault, tbh, as I think I was expecting the story to go in a particular direction (which didn’t happen). So, when it ended up in a somewhat unexpected place, I felt ever so slightly let down. If I were to read the book again, however, I would probably be completely fine with it, knowing where it would end up!
      There are some classic Brookner elements here: a somewhat bemused middle-aged woman, wondering why her life has turned out to be a disappointment; a man who seems content to have his cake and eat it (at Blanche’s expense); and some brilliant secondary characters to boot (she’s similar to Elizabeth Taylor in that respect). I think you’d like it very much!

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Ohhhhh Jacquiwine, I’ve been waiting for you to read this one! Your Brookner review last spring (Family and Friends, as I recall) reminded me of how much I had always enjoyed Brookner’s work. Off I hurried to the shelf to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites; such a favorite in fact that I hung onto my original copy during my great book purge of 2020, when so many lovely books were so rudely yanked from their resting places to be redistributed to folks who weren’t doing a long-distance move.
    Since I first read Misalliance shortly after it was published back in the 1980s, I was interested to see if I still enjoyed it after so many years. The answer was “yes” for all the reasons you discussed in your very perceptive review. As you pointed out, the writing is lovely, Brookner’s psychological insight is acute and there are some really great secondary characters. During both reads I also found myself drawn into the dramatic situation Brookner has created for her protagonist. Blanche is smart, she’s accomplished and cultured, she’s a nice person who played by the rules and her reward is? Her husband ditches her for a much younger woman known affectionately as “Mousie” (a name that says it all and one of Brookner’s very sure comedic touches). After a blow like this, wouldn’t any excellent woman (and, yes, I’m deliberating invoking Pym!) such as Blanche head over to the National Gallery to ponder those joyous, half-naked nymphs before imbibing that second (or is it third?) glass of wine? Despite my sympathy for her plight, however, I must admit that on my second time around with Blanche I found myself a tad more impatient with her misery. Aside from her obvious advantages (no money problems; a lovely flat and a cultivated sensibility combined with easy access to some really great art!), Blanche is not without her charms. After all, Bertie isn’t quite able to keep himself away from her, is he?
    I have enormous respect for Brookner’s rather relentless exploration into the role of a solitary woman, sans conventional family ties, who attempts to make a place for herself in a world that regards her (at best) as superfluous. Although they’re very, very dissimilar writers I think that in at least a few of their works Brookner, Barbara Pym and Jean Rhys are asking a very similar question, i.e., what’s a “single” woman to do with her life? How does she fit into the world of couples and families? Pym’s Mildred (Excellent Women, a favorite of mine) helps the vicar with the jumble sale; Brookner’s Blanche (Misalliance) ponders art, drinks and waits for Bertie to come to his senses (she does help at the hospital, which draws her into deeper considerations of family) and Rhys heroines (it’s been awhile since I read Rhys; perhaps Julia in Leaving Mr. Mackenzie?) tends to loose themselves in a miasma of pills, booze and self-destructive behavior. Three different solutions, but the same basic “problem,” I think.
    Thanks again for a wonderful review and keep those Brookner novels coming! Which one is next on the list?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! A fascinating series of comments as ever, Janakay. I love your comparisons between Blanche and some of Pym’s ‘excellent women’. It’s a really interesting connection – not one that had occurred to me before you mentioned it, but I can totally see where you’re coming from with it.

      As you say, I think Brookner is very interested in the role of the solitary woman who finds herself without children or family ties (or the network of a supportive close friend or two). It’s very much the theme she explores with Edith in Hotel du Lac. i.e. what should Edith do with her life? How should she live? Should she go through with the respectable wedding to Geoffrey as initially arranged, possibly her last chance of marriage? (Well, we learn the outcome of that as the novel unfolds.) Should settle for Philip Neville, who then proposes to her at the hotel? Or should she take her chances and refuse his offer, maybe continuing to see her married lover, David, back in London, even though he will be never leave his wife? I think Brookner is exploring different facets of this theme in these books. Weighing up the benefits of a solitary existence (complete with its small pleasures and sense of freedom / independence) vs the advantages of marriage (e.g. companionship, social acceptability). Naturally, there are downsides to both scenarios, which also have to be considered and traded.

      Anyway, lots to think about! I love the fact that you’ve brought Jean Rhys into the conversation too, another writer with an interest in the position of the single women in society and what she has to do to survive. As you say, the Rhys heroine has a particularly tragic kind of life, frequently having to rely on men for survival – very much a hand-to-mouth existence compared to the relative comfort of a Brookner protagonist.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, and I forgot to answer your question about which Brookner will be next! A Friend from England, I think, as I’m trying to read them in order. Have you read it?

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    In addition to the swaths of adoration from the Backlisted crowd, one of the critics on the NYT books podcast has returned to Brookner recently; y’all are making it really hard to keep with the contemporary fiction. (She’s on my MustReadEverything list, but I’ve read relatively little, four, I think?)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I shall have to listen to the podcast. Do you recall the critics name? I’m wondering if it’s John Williams, who I follow on Twitter.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I went on a huge Brookner binge many years ago. I would recommend spacing her books out a little. i did become impatient with the limited range of options that seemed to be available to these female characters. Only really three paths as Janakay says. And she does loneliness so well….

    Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ve yet to read either of those, although they’re looming on the horizon. Latecomers in particular comes very highly recommended, so I’m delighted to hear that you rate it too!

          Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Anita Brookner is like an iceberg of a writer, there’s that impressive mountain above the surface that can first be seen but underneath there’s so much more. I can understand why you say her books repay re-reading. Definitely a writer I want to spend more time with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A wonderful description! An iceberg writer, that’s a great way of putting it. Her books feel so beautifully crafted too – a testament to her skill as a writer with a key eye on structure.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that happened to me when I first read Hotel du Lac, back in my early twenties when I was too young / inexperienced to appreciate all its subtleties. The novel seemed dull and lacking in drive or momentum, and I found it difficult to relate to Edith as a character. She felt like a figure from the 1950s, the sort of woman who was old before her time. It’s funny how our perceptions of these things change over time!

      Reply
  9. Rick

    I really must read more Brookner. I’ve only read Hotel du Lac (which I loved) but I have a copy of Look At Me which I’ll get to soon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s one her best early novels. Probably my favourite so far, although Hotel du Lac runs it very close! I’ll be interested to see what you think…

      Reply
  10. pagebypage14

    I enjoyed your review, Jacqui, and reading through the comments. I’m also reading Brookner in order and am up to A Private View. As a single woman myself, I’ve never thought Brookner’s heroines had particularly sad lives as they mostly seem to have interesting jobs and private incomes but for some reason they don’t have many friends. My favorite Brookners are Look at Me and A Start in Life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lovely! You’re well into her ’90s novels with A Private View… That’s a good point about Brookner’s heroines having interesting jobs. Several of them are interested in literature and/or art, which probably reflects the author’s own background to a certain extent. I’m curious to read Latecomers and Lewis Percy to see she portrays her male protagonists, especially given Gert’s comments above.

      Reply
  11. Mark Jackson-Hancock

    What a great review Jacqui! Misalliance is my all time favourite Brookner novel and I’m inspired to read it again now. Blanche is a great character and in this novel in particular we are reminded of Anita Brookner’s ability to write high comedy. Its a beautiful book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mark! How lovely to hear from you, and I hope all is well in your world. As you say, Brookner had an eye for those comic moments, and there are definitely some great examples in this novel. Miss Elphinstone, the charlady, is worth the entry price alone…

      Reply
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  13. madamebibilophile

    As a middle-aged single woman who works for a charity I wondered if this might be too close to the bone – but my flat is in a grotty area of London rather than a well to do area so there the resemblance ends :-D Seriously though, I’ve started reading Brookner in the last few years (like you, I tried Hotel du Lac in my 20s and was definitely too young for it) and I so enjoy her carefully observed characterisations. Even though the second half has a few wobbles there still sounds much to enjoy here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although I think my niggles with the second half might well be a function of my own expectations, rather than any inherent difficulties within the book itself. I had a very clear idea of where the book was heading as I reading it, and when it didn’t quite go there I was left feeling just a little shortchanged. Still, that’s probably my fault for wanting the book to deliver something that Brookner had never set out to achieve! I’d be interested to hear what you think of it, should you decide to pick it up!

      Reply

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