The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.
The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?
Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.
Laura narrates: “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”
Note: Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.
But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?
Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:
Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.
Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.
Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.
The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.
“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”
After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”
Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.
We hear only her side of the conversation:
“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.
I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.
Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.
I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.
Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”
So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!
Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”
I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…