At last, though, we see what Brookner is up to. Rachel is sent to Venice for the crisis - 'the ultimate nightmare: a city filled with water' - and does indeed find herself sinking. Like Strether in The Ambassadors (late James hangs, somewhat stiflingly, over the whole novel), she goes to fetch Heather back from the life she has chosen, and finds herself at risk. 'Perhaps I was beginning to find a symbolism in her undistinguished adventure and the light it was shedding on my own life.' What we are reading is not a social comedy or novel of sensibility, but an allegorical debate between a false life of repression and a true life of risks and engagements. And it is the 'Brookner heroine' who is defeated.
But how narrow the terms of the debate are, with no alternatives for women other than self-deceiving freedom or sexual dependency! And how faintly the opposition is drawn! And how neurotic and obscure the narrative is! - as troubling as Giorgione's painting 'The Tempest,' which Brookner characteristically provides as an analogue for her allegory. Rachel is 'made for the dark' - 'Who said life wasn't terrible?' she says to Heather, echoing James' Prince in The Golden Bowl: 'Everything's terrible, cara, in the heart of man.' For all Brookner's sly distancing of this narrative voice, it's impossible not to feel that this harsh, dark fable speaks of her own despair; it may be that if she didn't write, she would drown.
Early on in A Friend from England Rachel gets intimations that things may be adrift, when the Colonel rings her up and makes a fairly repellent pass at her. It is one of Brookner's raw, shocking moments. 'If someone as horrible as the Colonel had found me out, then I had to know that something was wrong' (ch. 5).
Gradually Rachel comes to the fore, developing like a photograph in the old analogue world of the novel. Gradually she begins to see herself afresh, has panicky thoughts of flight, fantasies of hanging the closed sign on her shop door. Anna in a later novel, Fraud, will actually enact such a disappearance, and hers will be in a measure successful. But Anna is a more distant figure, compared with Rachel in the later parts of A Friend from England. As Hermione Lee suggests, Rachel may be the fictional spokeswoman for real despair. The outburst in chapter 9 - 'People like you seem to think [life] is a sort of party ... I live in the real world, the world of deceptions. You live in the world of illusions ... Of course, it's terrible' - is one of Brookner's most brilliant manifestos. She goes in for them from time to time, lets her protagonist shout and scream, lets her or him put forward the extreme Brooknerian case.
At the end, in the masterly Venice scenes, Rachel sees her bleak future plainly. Lee is right to criticise the terms of debate - 'Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent' - but Brookner simply hasn't any other answers. And nor have any of us, not even Oscar Livingstone, once so spruce, once such a romantic, now a shabby widower, stumping away in the novel's last lines in a parody of a Hollywood ending into a rapidly sinking sun.