Old age should be a time of great and significant self-indulgence, she thought; otherwise it is too bitter.
In Anita Brookner’s novel Visitors, the arrival of an unexpected guest disrupts the quiet, ordered routine of a 70-year-old widow, and over the course of a few days she confronts her past, her present and her uncertain future.
Dorothea May, following the death of her husband Henry, has been widowed for 15 years, but in his absence, Dorothea maintains relationships with Henry’s two cousins: the very glamorous Kitty who is married to Austin, and Kitty’s sister Molly who is married to Harold. Both Kitty and Molly are ‘sensitive’ and suffer from ‘nerves,’ and they’re both lucky enough to be married to husbands whose mission in life seems to be to protect and coddle these two women–although to be honest, of the two sisters, Kitty is much more extreme. Dorothea maintains legacy relationships with Kitty, Molly and their husbands, dining at their houses, attending their birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but she’s always remained very much an outsider. Both Molly and Kitty phone and check on Dorothea periodically.
This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry’s priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry’s wife.
Dorothea’s routine is disrupted when Kitty’s estranged granddaughter Ann announces that she and her fiancé David are travelling from America in order to be married in England. With virtually no notice and a wedding to plan, this throws Kitty into a panic, and she asks Dorothea if she’ll house the best man, Steve Best. Reluctantly, and against her better judgement, Dorothea agrees.
To her surprise, Dorothea (Thea) finds herself rather enjoying all the domestic drama that unfolds around the upcoming nuptials. Kitty and Austin have an estranged son, “the missing link” Gerald, rumoured by some to have joined a commune, thought by others to be in prison. Austin made contact with Gerald a few years previously and the resulting meeting almost killed him. It seems possible that Gerald will attend his daughter’s wedding, a possibility fraught with tension and emotional upset.
Part of the reason that Dorothea is able to enjoy the proceedings with the very sullen Ann and her zealously religious fiancé, David, who’s always on the lookout for a convert, is that she has no emotional investment in these relationships. Whereas Kitty is constantly (and vainly) trying to please Ann, Dorothea finds Ann, David, and Stephen graceless, ungrateful and devoid of any charm. Ann’s drama brings Dorothea into the inner family circle in a way that marriage to Henry never did.
Visitors is a meditation of the unbreachable gap between youth and old age: those who think their whole lives await, and those who live with disappointment and regret. To Ann and Stephen, Dorothea and Kitty are bourgeois and mainly concerned with money–yet both the self-focused Ann and the rudderless Stephen have somewhat conveniently latched onto the wealthy David. Stephen’s presence in Dorothea’s life awakens memories of Henry and also of her first love affair. It’s because of Stephen that Dorothea and Molly think about their childlessness (which may be a blessing given how anguished Kitty and Austin are over their absent son), but also Dorothea finds herself mulling over the limitations of her life–past and present.
Mrs May found that she did not miss the young people, not even Steve. With her new old woman’s perceptions she saw them as crude, affectless. She was willing to concede that they felt affronted by their enforced contact with Kitty, with Molly, with herself, but at the same time she saw little evidence of wit or charm. Charm alone would have done, she thought, but they had not mastered the art. Worse, they were unaware it was recommended.
The characters of Ann and Stephen were particularly annoying as, I think, they were meant to be–at one point, Dorothea thinks of them as “predators.” Ann moans about the big wedding and all the fuss, but she must have wanted that–otherwise why contact an estranged, wealthy English grandmother and tell her that she wants to get married in England? For this reader, Stephen and Ann got away with far too much bad behaviour. One moan from Ann about the fuss, and Kitty should have put her cheque book away and cancelled the honeymoon to Paris, but Kitty and Austin are people who throw their money at problems.
As for Stephen, he manages to get under Dorothea’s skin (as he intends to) and she loses her equilibrium as a result. He awakens a deep-seated fear she has of losing her home, and yet Stephen’s barely veiled contempt for Dorothea’s restrictions leads to her wondering just how valuable her life really is and whether she has lived too “unadventurously.”
When she thought of Henry it was of someone in another room, laughing, talking on the telephone: she could almost smell the fragrant smoke of his cigar. Although he was so gregarious and she so solitary they had been good friends. Perhaps it was easier for her to make adjustments, concessions: she was of an obedient disposition.
Visitors is my least favourite Brookner so far, but I still liked it which says a great deal, doesn’t it?