Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Sheer Beauty of the Reasoning

One comes back to nineteenth-century novels again and again, largely because of the sheer beauty of the reasoning: happiness at last, achieved through the exercise of faithfulness and right thinking. That this was still possible if one were a lesser, even a fallen being, I doubted; nevertheless it continued to make a forceful impression. And there was always a marriage, seen as the right true end, and this I did not doubt. The fragmentation of present-day society had meant a loss of hope, so that those who harboured traditional leanings were largely disappointed.
The Rules of Engagement, Ch. 15

Followers of this blog will recall that I recently read Villette. I had forgotten that Elizabeth in The Rules of Engagement does the same. Elizabeth is one of Brookner's most disenchanted, disaffected heroines, bearing comparison with Rachel in A Friend from England. Yet Elizabeth balks at Lucy Snowe, whose isolation and periods of debility she might have sympathised with, and which we might carelessly suppose to be Brooknerian. But Lucy is noble: Elizabeth marvels 'with something like despair' at a heroine whose 'trusting behaviour' she nevertheless identifies as superior. She cannot imagine Lucy ever 'languishing'. Lucy Snowe has dark moments, but she never despairs, and is always trustingly oriented in the direction of marriage and a good outcome. Marriage for Brookner's Elizabeth is a thing of the failed past; and, a denizen of the postlapsarian world, she sees little prospect of a happy ending. But the rhythms and certainties of the nineteenth-century still enchant: the reasoning is just so beautiful. This is the classic Brookner bind, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett pointed out: the Brookner message, the Brookner reading, may be severe, may be uncompromising, but the expansiveness of the medium and of the form never loses its power to seduce.

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