JANE MANNING, the narrator of Anita Brookner's latest novel, ``Dolly,'' is a pale, thoughtful, rather reserved young woman who writes children's books. Dolly is her aunt by marriage: an alien and exotic presence who strikes her young niece as ``a generic form of life, rather than ... a member of my family.''
Jane's beloved parents, Henrietta and Paul, are a pair of touchingly romantic innocents. It is through Henrietta's handsome, spoiled older brother Hugo that Dolly first enters the Mannings' peaceful little domain. Swathed in fur coats, silk dresses, and Joy perfume, the European-born Dolly represents a world of smart restaurants, social climbing, gambling, and conspicuous consumption, or - as she calls it - ``singing and dancing.'' ``To be with Dolly,'' Jane reflects, ``was to feel far from home.''
Dolly descends upon her mild, hapless English relations, loudly pitying their ``dullness'' while not so discreetly hitting them up for money, particularly after the sudden death of the improvident Hugo leaves her a less-than-well-off widow. She manages to extract a monthly allowance, first from Hugo's mother, then from Henrietta and Paul, and after their deaths, from Jane, who by this time has come of age. Far from expressing gratitude for their help, Dolly criticizes her benefactors for being dreary sticks-in-the mud who don't know how to have fun.
Dolly is an idle woman in an old-fashioned way. She never considers taking a job, but spends her time on shopping, bridge parties, and teas. As Jane grows up, steadfastly immune to her aunt's admonitions about the necessity of landing a man, Dolly treats her with increasing disdain. ``You'll never get anywhere in a roomful of women,'' she pronounces, on learning that her niece has found a job she enjoys in an all-female office.
But if Dolly feels superior to Jane, Jane has reasons to look down on Dolly. Her family's financial support for Dolly allows Jane to feel she has the moral edge. And when Dolly becomes involved with a slick, middle-aged Lothario, the more that Dolly flaunts her late-life ``romance,'' the more Jane pities her folly. Conversely, in Dolly's eyes, her niece - who shrinks from erotic entanglements - is not a ``real woman.''
When Jane finds her true vocation as a children's book author, her newfound status puts her on the university lecture circuit, where she meets many young feminists. But Jane feels even less sympathy for feminist ``personhood.'' A partnership of mutually supportive equals sharing the household chores sounds like empty propaganda to her. Like her foolish aunt, Jane harbors a ``regressive'' desire ``for fulfillment, for obedience, for a man's protection.'' Yet the prospect of actual intimacy appalls her: ``I prefer the fairy-tale version, and will prefer it until I die, even though I may be destined to die alone,'' she declares at one point.
With the passage of years, aunt and niece pass beyond their mutual antipathy into a kind of mutual appreciation.
One needn't be a feminist - or a Freudian psychologist - to recognize the profoundly regressive drift of this poignant, beautifully told, and disturbing story, the author's 13th novel. Covering some of the same terrain as ``Fraud,'' Brookner's previous book, ``Dolly'' draws the opposite conclusion from similar premises. Anna Durrant, the devoted, self-acting unmarried daughter in ``Fraud,'' strikes out for a wider world at that novel's close.
But Jane Manning seems determined to defeat herself whatever course she pursues. Only a writer of great passion, conviction, and artistry could transform Dolly's petulance, Jane's priggishness, and the emotional parsimony of their lives into a spell-binding portrait of the dreams and frustrations of the human heart.