Tuesday 21 April 2020

The Sum of Her Books

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.


  1. Hello and good morning. I hope you are doing well. 

    I am intrigued to learn about Brookner's review on Mary Wesley's novel, A Dubious Legacy. Both writers came from very different worlds.

    Mary Wesley's novels are quintessentially English and her characters belong to the world she came from, the world of privileged class from a bygone era (for example, 1984 novel, The Camomile Lawn). Whereas, Brookner came from a very European tradition with much more cultured and educated background.

    The only affinity that I can think of between the two writers is that the actress, Anna Massey who read almost all the novels by Mary Wesley (her voice was the author's favourite) and she also played the Brookner's character, Edith Hope in TV adaptation of Hotel du Lac.

    Mary Weslely's novels are not entirely devoid of grace or narrative power. Some characters in her books are just as melancholy as Brookner's characters. For example, the protagonist, Matilda in Mary Wesley's first novel, Jumping the Queue (1983), is portrayed as a lonely old woman who is living a quiet life of desperation.

    Perhaps you are right about the question of sentimentality in a certain type of English novelists (definitely there is a lot of it in the other author you mentioned in this post). But then, there is sentimentality in Dickens too. I think that the themes of love, sexuality, hatred, revenge and betrayal in Mary Wesley's novels are more similar to the other Rosamond, i.e. Rosamond Lehmann's novels.

    Best wishes & thanks again for your amazing archive and knowledge.


    1. Many thanks for your comments, always insightful and knowledgeable. It is very true to think of B's novels as European, something lazily missed by other critics. I confess I haven't read Mary Wesley. My own contemporary reading is rather thin. Sadly I'm a slow reader, and also wedded to the nineteenth century in large part, though of course I have a lot more time on my hands at the moment.


Questions and comments are always welcome. (Please note: there will be a short delay before publication, as comments are moderated.)