Visitors by Anita Brookner and Big Women by Fay Weldon

July 23, 2011

Visitors by Anita Brookner

Visitors By: Anita Brookner

Publisher: Doubleday, 256 pp., $29.95

Reading Fay Weldon’s and Anita Brookner’s new novels is like going on a road journey with Carole Pope and Liona Boyd, or a rowdy talkative schoolgirl and a shy, though perceptive librarian. Initially the schoolgirl’s company is more pleasurable, her energy makes the journey seem fun and carefree, but over time the good manners and discretion of the librarian prove more conducive to seeing the countryside.

With Big Women Fay Weldon takes on a controversial subject, feminism, controversially. Her premise is that feminism has accomplished what it set out to accomplish and now a “gender switch” has been thrown and men have become the victims, the power-under sex.

In an interview with The Guardian in December 1997, Weldon said, “It is left to me to speak for men.” Women must “remember that men are people, too, and [should] try to see them as person first and of a certain gender second, as once we beseeched men to do for us.”

Weldon’s novel unfolds through five central characters, four of whom launch an feminist publishing house, Medusa Press, which Weldon has loosely based on an actual feminist publisher in Britain called Virago.

Layla is an irreverent, sensual, independently wealthy woman who is the business mind in the enterprise. Stephanie, nicknamed “f—ing stuffy Stephie,” is an angry dogmatic feminist always protesting, always upset when other people don’t toe the line, ruthless in her own way.

Alice is the group’s muse—an intellectually radical academic at the beginning, she veers onto an extreme path of goddess worship and white witchery. 

Nancy is Medusa’s dogsbody, a hefty, plain, practical and bright New Zealander who keeps the press functioning while the other women indulge in idealatry.

The fifth character, Zoe, is a timid, maternal being who possesses a hidden intellect and who chooses to remain under the shadow of a domineering and inadequate husband. Halfway thought the novel she commits suicide and her daughter, Saffron, who represents the so-called post-feminist (a precipitous coinage) generation, picks up her mother’s part of the narrative and carries it through to the novel’s conclusion.

Big Women is absolutely a satire. Weldon views her characters through a distant, morally critical lens, reducing their behaviour to the lowest common motivation—unenlightened self-interest.

From this standpoint she favours the two characters who end up having the most fun and pleasure along the way, Layla and Nancy, leaving the others to wander their personal polemical wastelands.

Zoe’s suicide is the beginning of the end for Medusa Press, serving to expose the callousness of self-servingness underlying the other women’s political activism, how sweeping political statements are always conveniently a criticism of everybody else and a not-so-covert endorsement of the speaker.

Weldon exposes her characters’ follies with irreverence. Medusa Press is conceived one night at a consciousness-raising meeting, and one of the women who has been rebuked by the group finds herself upstairs in Stephanie’s bed with Stephanie’s husband.

Weldon counterpoints the feminist discussion downstairs with the sound of bedsprings squeaking above. Alice says, “‘We must all accept that the person is the political.’ There is a silence while they consider this. Squeaking from above, albeit coincidentally, stops as well, thus underlying the importance of the utterance.”

The kid gloves are off. The irreverent free hand Weldon takes with feminism is refreshing but also reckless and occasionally embarrassingly unwitty, as when she describes Zoe’s relationship with her husband—“He was an engineer and talked mostly of bridges, and occasionally slapped Zoe, which was not the sin it nowadays is. And which she could not have prevented has she really tried, but she enjoyed occupying the moral high ground.” (My italics.)

On the subject of psychoanalysis, Weldon’s observations are a tangle of spot-on insights and personal peeves. “Freud had tried psychoanalysis with women: it never really worked. They’d all been f—ed by their fathers anyway. Or was it that they just said they had? Or were angry because they hadn’t been? It was impossible to discover which. In the end one was just sorry for the fathers.” Was one, indeed?

Big Women is a fun romp through the British feminist movement. Intriguing in a gossipy way, it reads like a particularly acerbic feminist issue of People magazine. Despite the distant lens through which we view her characters, Weldon makes us curious about how their lives will unfold, how their ideologies will play out. 

In referring to one of the hazards of any civic rights movement—blaming others for the outcome of one’s own life—Weldon tries to sum up the last 25 years of feminism. Her summary leaves out too much. The novel ends: “Four women who changed the world, because it seemed simpler than changing themselves. Big women, not little women, that was the point, and still flourishing.”

On the other hand, Anita Brookner’s main character, Dorothea May, far from setting out to change the world, never really sets out at all. Her world is extremely interior, her consciousness finely tuned to subtlety and nuance of intention, motive an social consequence. 

Like all Brookner’s protagonists, Dorothea is a person left outside the social whirl, someone who watches other people’s seemingly colourful, happy, pleasurable lives unfold while observing that she is excluded.

Brookner counterpoints the pain of not belonging, the orphan’s loneliness, with the satisfaction of being intellectually rigorous, or not lying, or colluding, or living in illusion. It’s not a comforting life; but it’s not a life without its comforts and even moments of sudden, ecstatic connection.

Dorothea May is 70, widowed 15 years, childless and an only child herself. The only contact she has with other people, beside chance encounters with shopkeepers and fellow bus passengers, is with her deceased husband’s cousins, Kitty and Molly, and their husbands, Austin and Harold, who, with “faithful though absent-minded attention” call her every Sunday evening “to ascertain that she [is] still alive.”

Out of the blue, Kitty’s American granddaughter, Ann, writes to say she is getting married and wants to do so in London. She is arriving in one week with her fiancé David and his best man, Steve . Kitty asks Dorothea to host Steve, a complete stranger.

Visitors charts the course of this stay: Dorothea’s alarm at the invasion of her privacy and solitude, her surprised pleasure at Steve’s taciturn, even sarcastic, but agreeably distant company, her need to reassert her authority over her small territory and finally, upon the visit’s completion, the beginning of true connections. 

She enjoys the flurry of activity, the drama of Kitty and Ann’s conflicts and mood-swings, and, in a turn of events that is quite unusual for a Brookner novel, Thea ends by seeing the cousins, the “haves” to her own “have-not,” the actors to her audience, as genuine people, suffering their own losses—sees them as vulnerable people coping with the same kinds of narrowed circumstances she’s coping with. She comes to accept their attention to her as genuine and authentic, albeit limited.

Brookner writes precisely and elegantly about aging:
London, six o’clock on a Sunday evening in early September. It was the hour at which she was accustomed to experience a slight failure of nerve. At 70 she understood how closely she was being subsumed into the natural process, feared the dark, welcomed the light. On this particular day the sun had provided a respite from bodily ills; she . . . put her faith in its continuation. The sun was constant, encouraging one to regard it as familiar. Winter, even autumn, seemed far away, almost unimaginable. She shut her mind against both.

After recalling an illicit affair, Dorothea reflects:
And now, in old age, the mask had become the face, so that she was rigorously and genuinely dull. Bu there remained an awareness of more troubled sensations which she tried to metamorphose into detachment; usually she was successful, but for some reason not as present. She had been unprepared for old age to render her so harmless. It was as if her sins had been wiped away, leaving only concealment in their place.

Brookner’s novels are depressing, but reading them is not a depressing experience. The intelligence of her observations, the bracing clarity of thought and the simple elegance of her style make walking beside her characters a passionate, exhilarating experience.

For a rebellious weekend away from drudgery, Big Women is the companion of choice. Reserve Visitors for the journey through territory you want to explore intimately and remember forever.