Undue Influence: Anita Brookner

Fresh on the heels of Anita Brookner’s Dolly, I turned to Undue Influence, the story of a young, single woman who becomes embroiled in a peculiar marriage. Claire Pitts’s mother has recently died when Claire meets an attractive married man who comes into the bookshop where she works. He’s looking for a copy of Jenny Triebel, and Claire, remembering where a copy is located in the shop, offers to drop it by. She doesn’t waste any time, and on the way home from work, she stops by his house only to discover that he’s married…but what a strange marriage it is. His wife, Cynthia Gibson, an attractive woman, is an invalid. She never leaves her room and has the care of a daily nurse. It’s her heart, apparently, but in spite of the fact that Cynthia is bedbound, she controls everyone in her orbit–starting with her husband Martin and soon Claire is swept up in the Gibson’s self-focused world.

“She’s lovely,” I said, quite sincerely. That air of a full-blown rose just going to seed was one I could appreciate. It went with ample forms, still visible beneath the elaborate negligées, anxious eyes, and a mouth that implied that no quarter would be given. She looked like what she was: a hardened coquette.


Claire has a habit, and we know this very early in the novel, of writing scripts for the lives of the people she’s met. This is an imaginative way of filling in the blanks. Claire does this with her employers–two elderly spinsters: Hester and Muriel Collier, the Gibsons, a neighbour she barely knows and even her own mother. While this speculation is mostly harmless, Claire assigns emotion and difficulty to people where it is perhaps absent, or at the very least different. She tells us within the first few pages of the book that her speculations can be wrong:

People are mysterious, I know that. And they do reveal mysterious connections. But sometimes one is merely anxious to alter the script. It was not the first time I had been guilty of a misapprehension.

Claire is intrigued by the Gibsons, and perhaps some of that interest is sparked by her own father’s long illness and by the sacrifices, as she sees it, made by her mother as she nursed her husband for about a decade. And of course, Claire’s interest in Martin Gibson is warped by attraction–she imagines Martin and Cynthia’s courtship, and their marriage ruled by the “tyranny” of the ill. Over time she builds an entire narrative of the Gibsons’ relationship, and it’s easy to see why; the Gibsons live in their own world, and other people are the entertainment.

This was their secret, I decided; they had both decreed, with some justification, that they were tragic figures, whose pleas must be heard at a higher court. They were not simply solipsists, they were soliloquists, drawn together in a fateful bond which demanded witnesses There was no room, there was no place, for outsiders, for third parties. my role was to register their predicament, in which they were so far gone that nobody but themselves could understand it. 

As in  Dolly, this is the story of a young woman whose parents are dead, but whereas in Dolly, the main character Jane is alone, but not lonely, Claire is definitely feeling the need for attachment. Claire is employed by the Collier sisters to memorialize their beloved father’s work, but as Claire pieces together the long-dead St John Collier’s work, she realises that this is the mediocre work of an unhappy man. Hester and Muriel Collier were devoted to their father, and their own long lives are sterile as a result of that devotion. Claire understands that sickness and devotion can create a sort of serfdom, and she has a horror of being trapped in a relationship in which her partner becomes ill. There are undercurrents buried in the sentences here of Claire’s sexual flings which seem to occur while she is on holiday–adventures which occur separately, and far from, her regular life.

Martin isn’t a particularly attractive figure, but Claire’s fascination seems to reside in his devotion to his wife, but there’s also something darker here; Claire identifies with Martin’s subjugation to the sick bed, and that makes her vulnerable. Brookner seems to argue that we can never really understand other people no matter how hard we work at building scripts of their lives.



Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

11 responses to “Undue Influence: Anita Brookner

  1. The novel begins not only with shopping for Fontane, but (I looked at an excerpt) reading Fontane? Outstanding!

    I mean, the rest of your review makes this sound like a good novel of high interest, but that beginning, it’s like a hook with my favorite flavor of bait.

  2. It sounds darker than I’d expect of Brookner, but then like most I’ve only read Hotel du Lac so what do I know?

    • I’ve yet to read that one but it’s on the list. Hotel du Lac doesn’t sound quite so dark but I’ve yet to go there so who knows how I’ll feel when I’ve read it.

  3. This does sound good. That idea of developing narratives of other people’s lives reminds me of a documentary made by Alan Bennett where he sits in the reception of a hotel in Harrogate and recalls the visits his parents made. Apparently his mother had a habit of writing back stories for the people she saw based on absolutely no evidence, just her imagination

  4. Very intriguing. I’m fascinated by this idea of the backstories we create for those around us. It reminds me a little of a film I saw a few years ago, the title of which escapes me right now (not the Alan Bennett doc mentioned above, but something different) – it’ll come back to me at some point.

  5. Another great Brookner, by the sound of it. She manages to do so much with that setup of the outsider single woman looking in on the lives of others, and every time it’s interesting.

  6. Great review, I wasn’t sure whether I’d read this one, but now I know I have:)

  7. Like Tom, the Fontane shopping caught my attention right away.
    Sounds very good too.

  8. Sounds wonderful – I love the idea of creating back stories for people we meet and projecting our own needs on to them.

  9. I came home from the library with Hotel du Lac rather than Undue Influence, and I note that the protagonist of the earlier novel also spends a great deal of energy “writing scripts for the lives of the people she’s met.” She occasionally reminds or chides herself to stop doing it. A running Brookner theme, I guess.

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