“I reflected how easy it is for a man to reduce women of a certain age to imbecility. All he has to do is give an impersonation of desire, or better still, of secret knowledge, for a woman to feel herself a source of power”
Anita Brookner’s novel Dolly is an introspective, quiet, beautifully written novel, placed squarely in the character-study category. The novel describes the minuscule world of our narrator, Jane, the only child of a very happy loving marriage between her two parents, Henrietta Ferber and Paul Manning. As the only, much loved child brought up in a happy home, the single cloud of discontent to appear on the horizon appears in the form of Jane’s rather exotic Aunt Dolly, who is married to Henrietta’s brother, Hugo. Dolly, at first, appears as a very minor, distant character in Jane’s life, but over the years her importance grows.
Dolly begins when Jane is a child, and one of the significant events in her childhood is the arrival of Aunt Dolly and Uncle Hugo from Brussels. Jane is fascinated by Dolly for her exoticism–her powerful perfume, her foreign mannerisms and her expensive clothing. Dolly, who is childless, isn’t exactly a doting aunt, however, and her entrances and exits into Jane’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood are punctuated with advice–mainly directed towards getting a man. These snippets of advice that could so easily wither a girl of weaker character serve only to intrigue Jane in their disconnect and frank absurdity. Wise, self-possessed Jane realises that Dolly’s barbed comments reveal more about the speaker than her intended target.
A great deal of the story goes back into the recent Ferber/Manning family history, and we see that Toni Ferber, Jane’s grandmother, who originally hailed from Vienna, is a spoiled, autocratic, selfish woman whose husband eventually gets the sense and courage to run off. Toni Ferber, left to her own affluent devices, dominates the life of her son, Hugo, and mostly ignores her daughter, Henrietta. When Toni Ferber and Hugo meet Dolly and her German mother at a seaside resort, Toni, fatally underestimating Dolly’s character and imagining that she will make a malleable daughter-in-law, pushes her son into Dolly’s arms. For his part, Hugo is content to exchange one domineering woman for another.
On the other side of the family, there’s Jane’s Manning grandmother:
My other grandmother I knew even less, a fact which I did not regret since she seemed, from what I heard of her, to be slightly mad, and may even have been so for all I know. She was a widow living in South Kensington with two small wire-haired terriers to whom she devoted all her leisure hours. She really should have been a dog breeder rather than a mother, for she felt for her son a mild affection only one degree warmer than indifference, whereas she would actually play games with the dogs, for whom she bought expensive rubber toys. The dogs were taken out morning and afternoon for an extensive run in Hyde Park, where my tireless grandmother, dressed winter and summer in trousers, a short-sleeved blouse, and an old tweed jacket belonging to her dead husband, threw balls and sticks, shouted instructions and encouragements, and scarcely noticed the seasons changing all around her.
Jane’s observant eye records Dolly’s behaviour and mannerisms from her “meaningless smile” to her irritation and constant barbed comments about money. Dolly has a way of diminishing other women, and it’s that power that fascinates Jane. She records the trajectory of Dolly’s life, and quietly, in the background, Jane. alone but not lonely, evolves into an accomplished woman.
Not a great deal happens in the novel, and for its treacly-slow pace, some readers may not enjoy Dolly. Possibly because I once had an exotic aunt of my own, Dolly had great appeal. Anita Brookner creates some powerful characters here–the Manning grandmother, for example, who doesn’t actually appear except as a description. I like the way Brookner divided her characters into quiet people and those who dominate and take control. Jane’s parents are indeed “a haven to each other,” and their relationship, given their respective backgrounds, makes a great deal of sense.
I wasn’t quite sure about the ending which, while it rather nicely focuses on Jane’s career, extrapolates on the idea of Sleeping Beauty, and what women want. The novel covers many decades and slips in the idea of the shifting roles of women. This connects to Dolly and how a woman who has used her looks and her sex to get ahead in life adjusts to aging, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with that last chapter.
I have to send out a thank you to Jacqui for pointing me towards Brookner with her review of Providence. I thought, from reading the review that I’d like the book, but then at the same time I also thought I’d read an Anita Brookner book and disliked it. The title of the book I’d read eluded me (I initially thought it was Hotel du Lac), and then after some digging I realised I’d read a book by Anita Shreve NOT Anita Brookner and in all fairness to the latter, I had to read one.