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« Brookner on Brookner | Main | A Follow-Up To Trollope's THE WARDEN »

Edith Hope's Room

As I told you, these next five books all deal with women and space in some way: spatial arrangements, rooms, houses, homes, prisons, open spaces, closed spaces, open doors, closed doors. (Those latter two are things Edith Hope doesn't recognize until much too late in Brookner's small, powerful novel.)

There are several overt references to Virginia Woolf in HOTEL DU LAC--and many discreet ones. Of course, Edith herself thinks she resembles the great Bloomsbury writer--although we may doubt Edith's thoughts about herself since Mrs. Pusey thinks she looks more like Princess Anne. (To doubt Edith or not to doubt her--that is one of the novel's great questions.)

Woolf began her own thoughts for A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN after being invited in October, 1928, to offer two lectures on "women and fiction" at Newnham and Girton Colleges, both women's constituent colleges of Cambridge. (Girton became co-ed in 1977.) Over the next year, the lectures morphed into six chapters of a book on women and writing.

Although Woolf was certainly concerned with space, with that famed "room" in her essays, she was equally concerned about the economics of writing. Within the first paragraph of the first essay in the book, she writes, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (emphasis added).

In truth, the first essay in Woolf's book is about two meals, a luncheon served at Oxbridge, a fictional stand-in for Cambridge, and a dinner at Fernham, clearly a made-up women's college along the lines of Newnham or Girton.

Here's how it happens: Woolf begins by inventing a fictional protagonist--"Mary Barton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or any name you please"--who wanders through the colleges, her mind at work on the problem of women and fiction. Lazing by a riverbank, this protagonist hooks a thought on her mind's line, "the sort of fish that a food fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating."

She refuses to tell her reader the thought. She also refuses to toss it back and instead gets up to stroll the lawns--where she is instantly shooed off the grass by a wildly gesticulating "man's figure," by an old Beadle who insists that the dons and professors are free to walk on the turf but that women must stick to the paths.

Her caught thought summarily disappears. She wanders on, thinking about Milton, wondering about his writing process, the thoughts he lost and found along the way. She thinks she'll check out the Milton manuscripts in the library--and is waved off at the door by another man. This one informs her that ladies may only visit "if accompanied by a Fellow of the College."

Dispirited, she walks past the church and hears the great organ lurching into a hymn. This time, she doesn't even try to gain admittance.

But all is not lost. She finally makes her way to a sumptuous luncheon at the college, a many-coursed affair, glorious and old-fashioned, including "flanks of a doe" and "partridges . . . with all their retinue of sauces and salads," white and red wine flowing so freely that they lit a "subtle and subterranean glow" down her spine. As Woolf puts it, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." (Indeed!)

At this luncheon, the protagonist imagines the kings and princes of past days, pouring gold on the land, founding colleges like this one--and still able to give meals like this one. "And when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same flow of gold and silver went on. . . . Hence, the libraries and laboratories, the observatories, the splendid equipment of costly and delicate instruments which now stands on glass shelves where centuries ago the grasses waved and the swine rootled."

After lunch and after seeing the curious sight of a cat without a tail, the protagonist wanders on to the women's college, meets her friend, and together they are treated later in the day to an unsatisfactory, mundane dinner at the women's college, the beef "suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market." Things go from bad to worse. "Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed around."

The protagonist cannot help but ponder history and its effect on the present: "What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?"

Of course not. And here comes what Woolf calls "the snag." The women of old may not have had money to bequeath their daughters and granddaughters (and thus did not leave them rooms of their own), but those older women did have the children in the first place. The space they created in some sense was their modern daughters. Had they been making money in the past, the protagonist and her friend might not exist today. As Woolf writes, "Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it."

In the end, the protagonist (and perhaps by default Woolf--although perhaps not) cannot undo the snag but can only ponder "how unpleasant it is to be locked out . . . and how it is worse to be locked in."

Which brings us to Edith Hope, our novel's protagonist: "locked out" and "locked in." That seems to be her fate. Or is it?

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