Brookner views change women have faced in age of feminism

March 20, 1994|By Zofia Smardz

Remember a time when women made their way by riding the subtle waves of charm? When the sole measure of a woman's success was whether she managed to attract a man? When female solidarity was an oxymoron instead of a feminist ideal?

It's not so long in the past, that time, and yet a lifetime ago. Already the women who lived by its rules and proscriptions seem like relics of a quaint Stone Age -- faintly fascinating, faintly despised.

Such a woman is Dolly, the eponymous heroine of Anita Brookner's 13th novel. A woman of energy, vitality and fervent but strictly bridled lusts, Dolly strides into the life of 5-year-old Jane Manning on the arm of Uncle Hugo. Clad in alluring, handmade silk dresses, flashing at all her most calculating smiles, she exhorts Jane to embrace the seductive power of charm. "Singing and dancing, Jane!" she says. "That's what it's all about."

Jane herself is less than charmed by this middle-aged coquette of an aunt, with her large appetites and self-centered desires. Yet their lives are destined to become, over the years, ever more intricately entwined.

When Uncle Hugo unexpectedly dies in the early 1970s, Dolly moves from Brussels to London to be near Hugo's family, which has now become her sole support. In the manner of so many women of her generation, she settles into a resentful but relentless financial dependency, first on Hugo's mother, Toni, and later on Jane's own gentle mother, Etta.

Meanwhile, her life consists of entertaining an endless round of dull female friends with bridge and dainty delicacies, as befitting a proper widow, and, of course, waiting -- for a man, for love, for a renewal of life.

When Etta goes to her untimely grave, the responsibility for Dolly devolves to 18-year-old Jane herself. By this time, however, Dolly has found a man.

This complication sets the stage for a confrontation between two strong-willed women of contrasting generations, each of whom is ultimately taught a lesson about the unpredictable nature of love and the risks inherent in "the real business of life."

The prolific Ms. Brookner has established herself as one of Britain's most consistent and popular literary novelists. She has always had a slightly archaic touch, frequently writing about lonely, middle-aged British spinsters of a sort the world hardly recognizes anymore. But there's no denying that in spinning her cocoon-like world, describing the fish out of the water, the woman out of step with the times around her, Ms. Brookner is a master and a mesmerizer.

At first glance, "Dolly" would appear to be a departure for her, with its vibrant, sensual central figure reaching out for life, and the young, impressionable narrator with her contemporary, working-girl's attitude toward existence. Yet on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that in fact Ms. Brookner has not strayed far from her usual stomping grounds.

For Dolly, though lusty and forceful, is clearly a vestige of a bygone age, when women believed, for better or worse, in romance, held themselves chaste until marriage, and sought fulfillment chiefly in that state.

Jane, for all her adherence to the form of her feminist time, finds herself questioning the values of that time and the barrenness of its ends. Each is lonely and uncertain in the uncomfortable transitional age in which their lives have merged.

Through the prism of these disparate characters, Ms. Brookner views the transformation that women have undergone -- not always voluntarily -- in the age of modern feminism. She returns a highly ambivalent verdict that is clearly that of an artist rather than a social engineer. She admits to a yearning for "all the attractions of archaism and futility," and to the pull of "older simpler longings" that may well never be fully stilled.

That's not a surprising conclusion for a writer who is the high priestess of archaism. It's also the sort of precise recognition and provocative probing of a human condition we've come to expect from this elegant and insightful writer.

Ms. Smardz is a writer who lives in Washington.

Title: "Dolly"

Author: Anita Brookner

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 260 pages, $22

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