|The Spectator Annual 1992|
Lived through, the Nineties seemed a dull and disappointing decade after its glitzier predecessor. Now one looks back with longing on an era of civilised quietude and gentility.
The cover says it all: Mr Major temporarily distracted from a game of cricket on a sunny afternoon. Within: a time capsule; names long-forgotten or still very much with us; antique attitudes (Auberon Waugh's 'Why we over-50s are quite happy with Europe'); Jeffrey Bernard's incomparable 'Low Life' columns; and a piece by Anita Brookner, 'How to be very, very popular', a review of a novel by Mary Wesley.
(I get confused between Mary Wesley and Rosamunde Pilcher, whose nostalgic countrified books were also once very, very popular. They continue to be so, oddly, in Germany: at Christmas in Stuttgart I had a stilted conversation with an old lady who knew little of England other than what she had gleaned from the work of Rosamunde Pilcher.)
I find Mary Wesley, about whom, and about whose popularity, Brookner is unusually sniffy - I find Wesley more or less out of print now. Whereas Brookner...
I guess the Spectator editors had a small laugh when they gave Brookner A Dubious Legacy to read. Brookner knows the joke is on her, depicting herself as a 'critic, perhaps a little morose at being excluded from what seems to be universal enjoyment and appreciation'.
She finds the novel slight, unreal and tedious. 'A certain doggedness is needed to keep one's eye on the page.'
And yet she admires Wesley, her determination, the 'sheer grit of composing a novel a year'. A novel a year? Perhaps Brookner is comparing herself, just as prolific, with Wesley? If so, it is Wesley who comes off worse. Mary Wesley, also a late starter, and later than Brookner, older than Brookner too, may seem worldly and cynical, with her ancient eye, but Brookner detects a soft sentimentality beneath the facade. She has a lot of fun at the expense of Wesley's swaggering appearance in press photos. But Brookner's own portraits were just as stagy.
'The lady herself is clearly more than the sum of her books,' Brookner concludes. One would hardly know where to place Anita Brookner herself in such an equation.