” All my life, it seemed, I had longed for direct engagement, for total intimacy, and had encountered only once, in the least poetic of settings, in a rented flat of no great amenity, which nevertheless held the secret which had at least been revealed to me. However shabby, however second-rate, however deplorable in the eyes of the world those encounters could, with hindsight, be seen to have been, they had answered my most profound need, and in themselves had proved sustaining enough to remain the standard by which all other attachments had to be measured. ” (14,210)
No one is more keen on the interior revelations of the human heart than Anita Brookner, who has a knack for exposing an introspective mind with unrelenting eloquence. Seen through the eyes of fifty-something-year-old Elizabeth, a widow who lives comfortably off her husband’s legacy but is “still processing the past” (16,240) that has not left her, The Rules of Engagement chronicles the often devastating choices two women make as they age.
Elizabeth and Betsy had been school friends in 1950 London. They were drawn together by fluke since their mismatched childhoods do not warrant a close friendship. Elizabeth is prudent and introspective, values social propriety; Betsy, raised by a spinster aunt, is open, trusting, and desperate for affection. They reconnect late in life—Elizabeth a married woman whose husband is 27 years her senior and Betsy, single and searching, sporting a Parisian allure and living like a Bohemian life coveted by her friend.
Now it seemed to me that such endings were fanciful, that in fact there were no endings to human affairs, particularly not to affairs of the heart. One’s sad longings might be, and usually were, unsatisfied, so that if one were lucky they merely receded, but remained subject to conjecture. (8,118)
Elizabeth has married Digby for avuncular affection because her parents did not get on when she was a teenager. Digby, mature and loyal, becomes an extension of parenthood and guardianship that her father relinquished without regret. Sobriety and mutual fidelity of the marriage do not perpetuate, at least not on her part, as she becomes discontent with her unresolved, unfulfilled life. Although she’s never deluded as to believe that Edmund, a friend of her husband, is in love with her, because what emotion this sort of liaison could contain has to be rigorously controlled for the affair to be pleasurable, she does long for emotional attachment that is unrequited.
Only the satisfaction of desire, the confidence of shared pleasure, can mitigate the inevitable suspicions and dissatisfactions that come to the surface between opportunities for meeting. (7,94)
When Betsy follows her friend’s footsteps to be a mistress, plummeting into a dangerous territory that will doom her (for she is ready to place her entire life at a married man’s disposal), Elizabeth realizes a breach has opened in their friendship. They can no longer claim to the friendship which has survived earlier vicissitudes. Gone is the mutual candidness on which their friendship was based, which is now tainted by imprudence and artifice, as reluctance blossoms into calculated silence, weighing how much shall be disclosed. The Rules of Engagement requires a punctilio in reading to appreciate its delicacy and tedium. It conveys not much of a story but an essence of two lives that, over the years, honed by circumstances, converge at a curious intersection (which I would not reveal). This further entails a withholding, for there are secrets not to be broached. The introspective narrative follows all manner of rules: loneliness, pursuit for love, adultery, and isolation. There is strange beauty of the women’s abandonment, their dissolved conscience sparkling sympathy for a life unfulfilled. The best part is how Brookner captures the dynamics of adulterous affair, pinpointing the moral confusion and hypocrisy that even physical infidelity doesn’t constitute infidelity so long as there is no exchange of feeling. Ironically, this pursuit of love is exactly what women do at the expense of falling deep.
273 pp. Vintage Contemporaries softcover. [Read/
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