No one reads George Meredith any more. His novels are thought to be brainy and obscure, his difficulty is seen as suspect. In the four weeks ending 22 February, according to Nielsen BookScan, 1359 people in Britain bought a copy of Middlemarch; of the noteworthy novels published in the same decade, Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes sold 182 copies; Meredith’s The Egoist sold nine. He has had his champions – Wilde, Gissing, Stevenson – but his reputation was perishable. ‘The Home Counties posing as the Universe’ was E.M. Forster’s first impression on reading Meredith, and for many this slight became the last word.
Janet Davey’s poised novel of domestic love, with a company man from Berkshire as a central character, has a calculated smallness of scope. Jerry Dorney’s job, never specified, underwrites a life of ‘getting and spending’; there is the house ‘with its feet in some tributary of the Thames’, the flat in London and a place in the Vosges. On the long drive back to England from this holiday home after a week away from his wife – his marriage has begun to harden – Jerry notices the sign for Paul and Sylvie’s hotel. He expects the stop-off will be a let-down – ‘these places could be dire, unless you had a taste for noting minute degrees of deadness’ – but he pulls over, done in by the mountain roads, running on fumes and far too tired to look for another turnoff. Jerry sits down to dinner with a copy of The Egoist for company.
He does not intend to read the book, however: ‘He wasn’t much of a fiction reader, not of that kind of thing, anyway.’ Jerry is a slyboots who uses the novel to avoid conversation with other guests. He assumes that the common run in this unpromising hotel in the Meuse are likely to be tourists visiting the nearby First World War battlefields and cemeteries; one or two would no doubt long to tell him ‘what a waste’ it all was: ‘He agreed. And if the other person said that he couldn’t help thinking the best had perished, he agreed with that too. You only had to look around you.’ The Egoist had been a birthday present from his daughter, a running joke on her back-slapping father. She thought the title would be a clarion comment on his remoteness and bluster, but Jerry’s mind is on other things. The book is left behind and Sylvie, the hotel owner, spots it when she changes the tablecloth.
Sylvie Delacour has had enough of the hotel business. She had never been all that keen, bounced into it soon after her wedding by French parents-in-law with money-making ambitions. Her own mother was French, but her father, George, grew up in England; always someone prepared to live by a private idea, George made an unexpected return to London soon after his wife’s death. A correspondence began between father and daughter. Sylvie imagined herself to be the dutiful daughter and obedient pen-pal, her letters ‘a kind of lifeline’ for George, holed up in his small, unaired flat. But after his death – Davey’s novel opens as Sylvie arrives back from the bleak journey to bury her father – she comes to realise how much she had been cosseted by his replies: ‘George had doggedly read what she’d written and written back, as if her life had substance. He’d sent it back thicker.’
In a cool narrative voice, Davey details Sylvie’s difficulty in trying to reconstruct the lost shape of her past life. Her marriage has come to grief: Paul, her husband, has been conducting an affair with a member of the hotel staff. Sylvie hates her part as the deceived wife, with its occasional unpleasant observations: ‘Maude was standing by the corner table . . . she had a perfect row of buttons down the back of her dress, at least one of which would have been impossible for her to do up herself.’ Sylvie had never taken much interest in the running of the place – the morning bustle of fresh sheets and bleach in the basins – or in her husband’s skill as a chef. Maude, on the other hand, seems wonderstruck by Paul’s efforts in the kitchen: ‘How did Paul know that rice vinegar and unsmoked bacon were the ideal accompaniment for sea bass?’ She savours his cooking, as Davey neatly puts it, in a manner that has ‘more of the bed than the stove about it’. There is little hope that the situation can be reversed. Paul’s mother knows that the marriage has come under a cloud and tries to intervene, but she is too indulgent to be an honest broker.
There is a long season of heartache ahead of Sylvie, and the chance encounter with the reserved Jerry Dorney makes it harder to put up with her husband. Guests come and go, but Jerry’s leave-taking is different: ‘She felt the cold damp air come in, as the Englishman opened the front door and went out. The telephone rang. She was glad. She didn’t want to hear the sound of his car starting up, going away. She had, for half a second, wondered how she was going to shut it out.’ Trapped in her loneliness, Sylvie is delighted to find that Jerry left a book behind: it gives her reason to make contact with the outside world. She opens his copy of The Egoist at the page he had reached – an envelope with his name and address on it in blue-black ink serves as a bookmark – and begins to read:
Our poor couple are staring wide awake. All their dreaming’s done. They’ve emptied their bottle of elixir, or broken it; and yet she has a thirst for the use of the tongue, and he to yawn with a crony; and they may converse, they’re not aware of it, more than the desert that has drunk a shower. So as soon as possible she’s away to the ladies and he puts on his Club.
The resemblances between Meredith’s portrayal of wall-to-wall boredom and Davey’s chapters on Sylvie’s hollow marriage are not casual. (Earlier in The Egoist, married life is dismissed as ‘monotony multiplied by two’, a description that fits Paul and Sylvie.) Sylvie’s small discovery is made to yield a large effect: she has a ‘spellbound feeling’ after reading the passage and sends a letter to Jerry’s home in England, initiating their slow-onset love affair. Davey’s answer for Sylvie’s isolation – that bookmark – relies on the conventions of magazine romance. In Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope, a romantic novelist criticised for writing potboilers, outlines the preferred myth shared by her readers: ‘They want to believe that they are going to be discovered, looking their best, behind closed doors, just when they thought that all was lost, by a man who has battled across continents, abandoning whatever he may have had in his in-tray, to reclaim them. Ah! If only it were true.’ For Sylvie, this fantasy takes form in the first half of English Correspondence. But as her relationship with Jerry struggles in the novel’s home-stretch, Davey shows that the destinations of romantic fiction are misleading.
Brookner’s novel, which turns on Edith’s breaking off her engagement, comes to a similar conclusion. The hotel of the title has a sluggish, out of season feeling; three-quarters empty, its corridors are filled with the sounds of vacuum cleaners and baths running. Edith is in hiding, after last-minute doubts made her abandon her wedding; from her room, she writes letters to David, the married lover she left back in England. Their affair is undone by his self-indulgence, the egoism that allows him to whisk Edith into the wings when she threatens his comfortable life at home: ‘She knew that he was a man who could not deny himself anything.’ Edith reveals nothing about the split. In the ‘enclosed world of the hotel’, staff and guests conspire ‘to behave agreeably and as if nothing untoward could ever happen’; Edith knows that it would be a mistake for her inner life to reveal itself.
Self-absorption is general among the men in Davey’s novel. Paul had wanted a photo to be taken of the hotel’s staff, the group arranged in a line ‘with him in the middle, like God the Father’. Sylvie felt threatened by the idea, and it was binned after an argument. There are no solutions to many of the couple’s differences; over time the arguments dry up. When Paul tries to convince her of his fidelity, Sylvie proves her indifference by reading a bit of Meredith to him: ‘She fancied once that she detected the agreeable stirring of the brood of jealousy, and found it neither in her heart nor in her mind.’ The line belongs to Clara Middleton, the wised-up heroine of The Egoist, whose apathy towards her husband-to-be, Sir Willoughby Patterne, can be summed up in a single sentence. Patterne – the name is unimprovable – gives Meredith’s novel its title; his predictable obsessions, endless snobbery and unremitting self-love make him the chief victim of the novel’s comedy. Meredith ensures that he gets his comeuppance. Clara’s status is unclear until late on in the novel, when she finally cuts loose; she breaks off her engagement, a reversal that leaves the awful Patterne out in the cold.
Sylvie sees no need to end her affair in its early stages, or to make a show of maidenly anxiety: she ends up sleeping with Jerry on a trip to London. Davey notes what goes on in the bedroom with light irony. On an early date, Sylvie’s worry that Jerry will make his excuses at the end of the evening is made worse when she sees ‘momentary dismay in his eyes’. ‘He’s going to say he has sexual difficulties,’ is her initial, flickering thought; a first fear followed by a series of questions. Do men ever admit to problems in bed? And, if not, just how long did Jerry think he could keep his difficulties to himself?
Davey’s characters work hard at appearances, and often set out decoys, but little by little the finely calculated prose fathoms their thinking. Patient, meticulous sentences undo the domestic make-believe; few characters remain unblemished. Davey is a writer of hints and distinctions, and for the most part the novel’s underlying disquiet is approached through nuances of voice. There are times when understanding comes through comedy, however. In one of the best comic moments, Jerry goes for a walk with his wife, Gillian; they make plans to spend the following Christmas at their house in the Vosges and discuss places to stay on the drive down. Gillian asks about Paul and Sylvie’s hotel; Jerry, desperate not to give the game away, founders on the contradictions in his account:
‘Was the food any good?’
‘Not bad. Not amazing, as in, amazing, but not bad. He’ll never be a star. The chef, that is. He was a bit of a time waster. However, it was incredibly well run. Up there with the best. The woman who did it – ran it – was one of those invisible types. You didn’t notice her. I mean I couldn’t describe her to you now. But she made everything kind of glide. You weren’t aware particularly what she was doing but she gave you exactly what you needed before you knew you needed it.’
Gillian’s suspicions are confirmed as the story sprawls:
‘Have you seen her since?’
‘Gillian, she lives in some obscure part of France. She’ll be there now leaning over the Christmas diners, draining the last drops of lunchtime wine into their glasses. They’ll be too pissed to appreciate her.’
‘I thought you’d stopped all that sort of thing, Jerry.’
Whether Jerry has stopped the affair remains moot. It is a telling complication that this shapely, fastidious novel should have a messy ending: Sylvie is about to drive to England with her son, leaving her husband on his own turf. What’s ahead of her can be seen only dimly. Improvisation is certainly important to her: ‘Sylvie wasn’t a strategist. Although reserved she acted on impulse.’ But she also acts like the heroine of a romantic novel, with the capacity for accommodation and compromise the role demands. Davey leaves open the possibility that Sylvie has passed up the immediate windfall offered by Jerry for the sake of a longer-term good.