Leaving Home is Anita Brookner’s twenty-third novel in as many years. Her annual book is an event of sorts in the publishing year, with reviewers berating her for producing the same uncompromisingly bleak novel, slightly altered, year in, year out. By resolutely ignoring her critics, the author displays the same qualities of quiet persistence and stubborn independence in the practice of her art that are celebrated, in muted fashion, in her fiction. You feel she is writing primarily to please herself, and for a loyal readership that must strongly identify with her famously solitary and self-absorbed heroines. These supposedly middle-class, middle-brow, female readers of a certain age and delicate sensibilities would be dismayed if they did not get their elegantly written annual fix of lonely, disappointed women (and occasionally men) facing the stark realities of ageing and the passage of time, without being cushioned by the usual human comforts of family, friendship, sex, religion, or work.
Themes instantly familiar to Brookner devotees – the relationship between mother and daughter, social isolation, disillusionment with romantic love, protagonists torn between two countries and cultures – are all here. Emma Roberts leaves home (‘the great drama of our lives’) in London, ostensibly to study seventeenth-century garden design in France, but her real motive is escape from her friendless and widowed mother. Once in Paris, she is befriended by the gregarious and strikingly attractive Françoise, whose energy and sexual dynamism provide the predictable foil for her own passivity and asexuality. They are drawn together by their troubled relationships with their widowed mothers: the spirited Françoise is resisting her domineering mother’s attempts to arrange an advantageous marriage for her, and she cynically uses her weaker friend as an unwitting accomplice in her battle against her mother. Emma’s own mother dies suddenly, forcing her to take adult decisions about her own life, but her mother’s death doesn’t free her in the expected way. She has unfortunately inherited her mother’s ‘dangerous characteristics’ of ‘a tendency to melancholy, rumination, an acceptance of solitude’, which upset the ‘perfect symmetry’ of her carefully conceived life plan. Character, it would seem, is fate, and inescapable.
It is difficult to believe in Emma as a young woman in pursuit of love and experience. She settles too readily for fraternal companionship in place of love and she makes her peace too easily with her own solitary nature. There are moments, however, when she is achingly aware of life’s greater possibilities: for example, when she visits Françoise’s family home, the beauty, space and light of the house promise a far more expansive way of living than her own, and when she inadvertently glimpses a beautiful young man sleeping she fleetingly experiences intense desire. But on the whole she is impervious to outside influences, partly because the world she inhabits is so hermetically sealed we can’t even be sure what decade the action (or inaction) takes place in. There are references to, for example, sexually liberated women and the mantra of entitlement which suggest that the setting is contemporary (at least post-1950s), making the spinsterish Emma an unlikely and unsympathetic modern heroine. Nor is Leaving Home convincing as a coming-of-age novel or as a novel of emotions. Emma doesn’t start out with many illusions, and emotions are notably absent from the novel. She manages to achieve her independence and to find satisfaction in her work but these successes are seen to be only small compensations for her emotionally constricted life.
The principles of ‘reticence, sobriety, order’ that inform French classical garden design are also the principles that guide Emma’s behaviour and the narrative throughout. These are the values you feel that Brookner herself subscribes to in life and in art. Perhaps her purpose isn’t didactic at all and she is simply stating her preference for solitude, dullness, and ‘gardens deserted, on misty mornings, at unpopular times of the year, compelling in their silence and secrecy’. It seems unfair to take issue with the limited scope and repetition of Brookner’s work. She writes about what she knows and continues to do it very well.