Anita Brookner (born 1928), British art historian specialising in 18th and 19th century painting, was the first woman to hold the position of Slade Professor at Cambridge University (1967-68). Brookner is also a successful author, who has published several scientific works and seventeen novels. Her novel, Hotel du Lac (1984) won the Booker Prize, the highest English prize for fiction.
Anita Brookner was born on 16 July 1928 in London, England. Her mother was a former professional singer and her father was a Polish immigrant entrepreneur. Brookner once admitted that the Jewish roots of her family often made her feel like a stranger in her native land, that she could not be English, no matter how hard she tried. I never learned the custom of the country”. We were aliens … tribal. I doubt that she ever strayed from the people before her.”
After graduating from King’s College at the University of London and completing a PhD in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Brookner continued to develop a successful career as a lecturer and teacher of 18th and 19th century French art and culture. She was an instructor at the University of Reading (1959-64), Professor of Art History at Courtauld and the first woman to earn the prestigious title of Slade Professor at the University of Cambridge (1967-68).
Brookner has written several scientific books including Watteau (1968), The Genius of the Future: French Art Criticism Studies (1971), Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an 18th Century Phenomenon (1972), and Jacques-Louis David (1980). Although Brookner’s works were generally well received by the academic world, not all scholars agreed on the academic merits of his research. Dr. Graham Smith, retired professor and vice principal of Wulfrun College (Wolver-hampton, England), wrote the following for Wulfrun’s American Studies Resource Guide (1996). “The history of this [Jacques-Louis David] is very poor, but it is an accessible biography and, if treated with caution, has some useful material on the master of the Revolution contest. Pay no attention to everything he says about the Revolution as a whole”.
A general malaise of spirit combined with the boredom of the summer holidays led Brookner to write her first novel, A Start in Life (1981). During an interview for The Paris Review (Autumn, 1987), Shusha Guppy quoted Brookner saying, “My life seemed to drift in predictable channels and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate. I thought that if I could write about it, I would be able to impose a certain structure on my experience.
In all his books, there are clearly several parallels between Brookner and his protagonists, who are almost always highly intellectual, emotionally reserved women, alienated from the mainstream of life. Brookner herself commented: “If my novels contain a certain amount of pain, it has to do with the fact that I am not what I would like to be; more popular; more socially graceful; more graceful. “This struggle to find a balance between inner acceptance and social acceptance is reflected in the strongly feminine themes that dominate Brookner’s novels.
Brookner’s second novel, The debut (1981), received praise for the perceptive development of the character and the intelligent blend of narrative and literary background. The protagonist, Ruth Weiss, a French literature specialist, struggles to free herself from the moral obligations that limit her life. Weiss, hoping to emulate Balzac’s female protagonist Eugenie Grandet, goes to Paris to study. But Weiss’s dream of being saved by a hero fails. Weiss resigns himself to fate and returns to London to take care of his plaintiffs and old parents.
Kitty Maule, protagonist in Providence (1984), is another intelligent woman disillusioned by the discrepancies between literature and reality. When Maule’s relationship with a colleague fails to earn her love, her lust for love and social acceptance in the British social environment he represents remains unsatisfied.
In Hotel du Lac (1984) Brookner uses melancholy wit, sharp observations and ironically misdirected passions to relate another quiet victory of a lonely woman over an emotional one
predators. The novel won the prestigious English Booker Prize, the highest award given to fiction books.
The protagonist of Hotel du Lac is middle-aged Edith Hope, author of best-selling love novels. She is an industrious woman with a literary sensibility, trapped in a doomed desire for romance. Single and financially independent, Hope leads a well-ordered life that includes a socially desirable but boring boyfriend whom she mocks; monthly sadness with her married love; and regular lunches with her best friend. The fact that Hope has deliberately avoided her marriage transgresses the firm but unwritten conventions of her society. She becomes a social and emotional outcast, exiled to the secluded Hotel du Lac.
Hope sees the other women in the hotel as social misfits. When the hotel’s only male guest, Mr Neville, accuses Hope of living a miserable life because she is single, her sense of self-esteem is further diminished. She is tempted by the thought that if she accepts a marriage of convenience with Neville she will regain her position in society.
Although Hope rejects his proposal, Neville’s philosophy of life causes Hope to reassess her understanding of femininity, sex and motherhood. At the end of the novel, Hope has come to a new acceptance of what she wants out of life and returns to London and her married lover.
In Family and friends (1985), the focus is not on a lonely woman, but on a large Jewish-European family. Brookner explores family ties of dependency that create a network of long-lasting and complex emotional relationships. His prose style is strictly controlled and intelligent.
A Misalliance (1986) returns to the family territory of Brookner, the world of a professionally acclaimed woman who considers herself a failure. In Brookner’s early novels, literature was a counterpoint to the novel’s wit. In A Misalliance Brookner appeals to his world of art history to enrich the narrative.
Brookner’s novels include Look At Me (1983), A Friend From England (1987), Latecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1989), Brief Lives (1990), A Closed Eye (1991), Frode (1992), Dolly (1993), A Family Romance (1994), A Private View (1994), and Incidents in Rue Laugier (1996).
Brookner’s observant stories about British society have been compared to the works of Henry James and Jane Austen, while the ironic isolation and secret passions of his heroines are reminiscent of the stories written by Emily and Charlotte Brontë.
More about Anita Brookner
Reviews by Adam Mans-Jones (January 31, 1985), D.J. Enright (December 5, 1985), and Rosemary Dinnage (June 1, 1989) in New York Review of Books provide detailed criticism of several Brookner novels. John Updike reviews Latecomers in The New Yorker (May 1, 1989). Interviews with Brookner have appeared in Publishers Weekly (September 6, 1985), Saturday Review (“Self-Reflecting”, May/June 1985), and The Paris Review (Fall, 1987).