“A Nonentity”: Anita Brookner, Providence

I must grow up, she thought. I must stop being so humble. I can make decisions and initiate actions like anyone else. I am not stupid. I am not poor. If I want to do something I do not have to wait for permission. I am old enough to make up my own mind. . . . But I must act, she thought. I am a total bore as I am. A nonentity. Not even a pawn in the game.

I found Anita Brookner’s Providence both claustrophobic and irritating. It is deliberately so, I think, if I am right to read it as recreating (though on somewhat different terms) Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, which Brookner’s protagonist Kitty Maule is teaching over the course of the novel. I had never heard of Adolphe before beginning Providence, but based on the discussions in Kitty’s tutorial and what I found when I looked it up online, it is (basically) the story of a young man emotionally debilitated by his love for an older woman, told with minute attention to his erratic feelings. Kitty, in her turn, is unable to live her own life with real confidence or commitment because of her preoccupation with her dashing older colleague Maurice.

Kitty thinks about Maurice incessantly when they are apart and watches him constantly when he is nearby. She longs for clarity in their relationship, for proof that her adoration is reciprocated. Her pain can be poignant, but her hero-worship is where things get annoying, especially because we aren’t left in any doubt that Maurice doesn’t really deserve it, or her. “His brilliance and ease,” as Kitty sees him,

his seeming physical invulnerability, the elevated character of his decisions, the distances he covered, his power of choice and strength of resolve, cast him in the guise of the unfettered man, the mythic hero, the deliverer. For the woman whom Maurice would deliver would be saved for ever from the fate of that grim daughter, whose bare white legs and dull shoes, designed perhaps from some antediluvian hike or ramble, continued to register in Kitty’s mind’s eye. Maurice’s choice would be spared the humiliations that lie in wait for the unclaimed woman. She would have a life of splendour, raising sons. Ah! thought Kitty with anguish, the white wedding, the flowers. How can it be me? How could it be me?

Maurice is indeed a kind of mythic creature, though more in an anti-heroic vein hinted at through Kitty’s work on the “Romantic Tradition”: in wrestling with her yearning for him, I think Kitty is also  struggling with ideas about heroism and romance and love and arrogant egotism, in keeping with the metatextual interplay with Adolphe–though because I don’t know Adolphe at all, I can’t really go further in figuring that out. On those grounds, however, I am prepared to be more tolerant of Kitty than I would be if the novel were just a character study.

Even so, I found Kitty’s difficulty declaring herself, or just being herself, frustrating. I also struggled to figure out how Brookner means to position us in relation to Kitty. Sometimes I thought Kitty was sympathetic: Brookner is very good at evoking the pangs of uncertain longing, the hypersensitivity to every nuance of speech or body language that comes with wondering how someone else feels. Kitty’s loneliness is also very poignant, and makes her dreams of happiness with Maurice something more than just a sentimental crush.

But why must it be marriage, much less marriage to Maurice, that she dreams of? Over and over we –and Kitty–get signs that she has strengths of her own, including her academic work, her teaching, her friendships. In that context her fixation on Maurice as her savior seems like a failing (especially, again, because Maurice is not really worth much). Is she the victim of the fairy tale story of female success, unable to accept her life on terms beside “the white wedding, the flowers”? Or is the novel perhaps the story of her gradually growing out of that delusion, taking control of her life rather than hoping, watching, and waiting? That is certainly what Kitty keeps telling herself: that now she is going to take charge, make a change, turn things around. Right up to the last page, though, she’s still more acted upon than acting, letting life be fitted against her like the dresses her seamstress grandmother makes for her that are never quite what Kitty really wants or feels comfortable in.

The novel’s title hints at a thematic reason for Kitty’s irresolution, though I’m not sure how to work out the pattern. Maurice is religious, while Kitty is not; at least in theory, she believes herself mistress of her own fate, but she has difficulty committing herself to the lack of extrinsic purpose or design. In her anxiety about her future, for instance, she visits a clairvoyant, hoping to know the future that (again, in theory) she is responsible for shaping. She believes that “the key to Maurice was his belief in the divine will”–but “in her own soul she found nothing.” She does not, in the end, win Maurice: does this failure reflect on her faithlessness, or is it a lesson for her and for us about not trusting to Providence if we hope not to be nonentities?

1 Comment to “A Nonentity”: Anita Brookner, Providence

  1. July 7, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Now I feel bad I did not write up Adolphe last year. I meant to – it was the book’s bicentennial.

    Constant’s novel is very, very, very French, but also, I now see, as the result of your post, proto-Jamesian – that “minute attention” to feelings that you describe. So, logically, appealing and useful to Brookner.

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