Back to Brookner with The Rules of Engagement, and what an interesting and yet somewhat frustrating main character we have here in Elizabeth.
The book opens with Elizabeth describing how she met another Elizabeth in school. To keep everything from being too confusing, the non-narrator Elizabeth chooses to switch her name to Betsy. Immediately there’s the idea (at least to me) that these two are somehow tied together but with Betsy branching off into her own zone. If we keep to that idea, then we see Elizabeth marrying Digby, a staid, responsible man, 27 years her senior, while Betsy goes to Paris and marries the radical Daniel.
Betsy fades in and out of Elizabeth’s life: appearing at her wedding (and obviously shocked by the groom’s age), but eventually returns to London years later. The two women aren’t exactly friends–although they call each other by that title. Rather they have a shared history buried in childhood. They have very little in common: Betsy longs for a family, while Elizabeth is all about clinical detachment.
This is the most introspective of Brookner’s novels I’ve read so far. Not a great deal happens, so I can’t talk much about plot without giving away the central dilemma. Instead I’ll focus on Elizabeth who really is a very strange character. At times I wondered if she were quite sane, or at least how she became so damaged. She marries a man old enough to be her father (which makes sense given her home life) but then very quickly begins an adulterous affair.
Elizabeth is a mass of contradictions, and there were times I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. For example, their wedding night would seem to be sexless:
He was tired, and it showed in his face. He looked nearly as old as my father, whom I had not managed to thank for all the fuss. As we drank our tea the strain we both felt slowly dissipated. We had baths, changed into simple clothes, decided to go out for dinner, and let the rest of the day take care of itself. We were due to catch an early plane the following morning, and would probably appreciate an early night. That was what Digby said. I envisaged a succession of early nights, in which nothing very remarkable would take place. In this I misjudged him, and was pleasantly surprised.
I read that passage over several times and interpreted it to mean that her predictions of early nights did not happen. Hints of evenings out, lively conversations or sex? After all Brookner is subtle. But then as the plot develops, we see Digby time and time again falling asleep in his chair.
I knew Digby would take the evening paper into the other room, switch on the television, and fall asleep. He slept heavily, more heavily than I did, and seemed unable to invest any energy into keeping awake.
After we had eaten he went into the other room as usual, and switched on the television. When I joined him I found him asleep, a scene of passion beaming out unnoticed. When two characters joined in a violent embrace I switched it off.
I really wasn’t sure how to align these two impressions: the sexless marriage and the part about being “pleasantly surprised.” But this was not the first time I was confused by Elizabeth. Here she is talking about the hairdresser:
For this was an establishment not favoured by the young: I liked it because it was so close to home, and because Alex, who did my hair, was so soothing and deferential. In my normal state of mind I found this irksome; in my reduced condition it felt like balm.
Early in the book Elizabeth mentions that both she and Betsy were born in 1948, and that “the sixties took us by surprise.” These two women were raised in one set of expectations but were then ambushed by the shifting nature of society, and this idea works well. I liked some parts of the book–especially Elizabeth’s introspection about her affair, but she seems very critical of poor Betsy (and tough on Digby too). On one hand, this is a very focused novel, but at the same time, it’s also blurry. I had no real indication of poor Digby as a living, breathing human being, and he remains a rather cardboard figure.
One of the criticisms I read of this book is that Elizabeth is too clinical and analytical, but the story is told in retrospect. Also Elizabeth really is a casebook for study, so much so, I began to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. She’s happy putting marriage and sex into different compartments, and while it seems that she married Digby as a father figure, there’s also the argument that she married him in order to avoid any sort of normal relationship. As the plot rolls on, that argument just strengthens. Ultimately, Elizabeth is a few cards short of a full deck–something happened in the emotion department.
order of preference so far:
The Rules of Engagement