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.