Anita Brookner (born 1928), a British art historian specializing in 18th-and 19th-century painting, was the first woman to hold the rank of Slade Professor at Cambridge University (1967-68). Brookner is also a successful author, publishing several scholarly works, as well as seventeen novels. Her novel, Hotel du Lac (1984) won the Booker Prize, England's highest award for fiction.
Anita Brookner was born on July 16, 1928, in London, England. Her mother was a former professional singer and her father was a Polish emigré businessman. Brookner once admitted that her family's Jewish roots often made her feel like an outsider in her native land, that she could not be English no matter how she tried. "I have never learned the custom of the country. We were aliens … tribal. I doubt that you ever get away from the people before you."
After earning her B.A. from King's College, University of London, and her Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Brookner went on to develop a successful career as lecturer and teacher of eighteenth and nineteenth century French art and culture. She was an instructor at the University of Reading (1959-64), Lecturer in Art History at Courtauld, and the first woman to achieve the prestigious title of Slade Professor at Cambridge University (1967-68).
Brookner wrote several scholarly books including Watteau (1968), The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism (1971), Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth Century Phenomenon (1972), and Jacques-Louis David (1980). Although Brookner's works were generally well-received by academia, not all scholars agreed on the academic merits of her 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). "Some very poor history in this [Jacques-Louis David] but it's an accessible biography and if treated with caution does have some useful material on the Revolution's pageant master. Take no notice of anything she says on the Revolution as a whole."
A general malaise of spirit coupled with the boredom of a summer vacation prompted Brookner to write her first novel, A Start in Life (1981). During an interview for The Paris Review (Fall, 1987), Shusha Guppy quoted Brookner as saying, "My life seemed to be drifting in predictable channels and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate. I thought if I could write about it I would be able to impose some structure on my experience."
Throughout her books, several parallels clearly exist between Brookner and her protagonists, who are almost always highly intellectual, emotionally reserved women alienated from the mainstream of life. Brookner herself made the comment, "If my novels contain a certain amount of grief, it is to do with my not being what I would wish to be … more popular … socially more graceful …. " This struggle to find a balance between inner acceptance and social acceptance is reflected in the strongly female themes that dominate Brookner's novels.
Brookner's second novel, The Debut (1981), received praise for perceptive character development and the clever intermingling of narrative and literary background. The protagonist, Ruth Weiss, a specialist in French literature, struggles to break free from the moral obligations that restrict her life. Weiss, hoping to emulate Balzac's female protagonist, Eugenie Grandet, goes to Paris to study. But Weiss' dream of being rescued by a hero fails. Weiss resigns herself to fate and returns to London to care for her querulous, aging parents.
Kitty Maule, protagonist in Providence (1984), is another intelligent woman disillusioned by the discrepancies between literature and reality. When Maule's affair with a colleague fails to earn his love, her yearnings for love and social acceptance into the British social milieu which he represents remain unfulfilled.
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 emotional predators. The novel won England's prestigious Booker Prize, the highest honor bestowed on books of fiction.
The main character of Hotel du Lac is middle-aged Edith Hope, best-selling author of romance novels. She is an industrious woman with literary sensibilities, trapped in doomed romantic yearnings. Single and financially independent, Hope leads a wellordered life that includes a socially desirable but boring fiance, whom she mocks; monthly trysts with her married love; and regular lunches with her best friend. Hope's deliberate avoidance of her own wedding transgresses the firm but unwritten conventions of her society. She becomes a social and emotional outcast, exiled to the secluded Hotel du Lac.
Hope views the other women residing at the hotel as social misfits. When the only male guest at the hotel, Mr. Neville, accuses Hope of living a wretched life because she is single, her sense of self-worth 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 towards life causes Hope to reevaluate her own understanding of femininity, sex, and motherhood. By the end of the novel, Hope has come to a new acceptance of what she wants from life and returns to London and her married lover.
In Family and Friends (1985), the focus is not on a solitary woman but on a large Jewish-European family. Brookner explores the familial bonds of dependence that create a network of enduring and complex emotional relationships. Her prose style is tightly controlled and intelligent.
A Misalliance (1986) returns to familiar Brookner territory, the world of a professionally acclaimed woman who views herself as a failure. In Brookner's earlier novels, literature provided the novel's witty counterpoint. In A Misalliance Brookner calls upon her own world of art history to enrich the narrative.
Other Brookner novels include Look At Me (1983), A Friend From England (1987), Latecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1989), Brief Lives (1990), A Closed Eye (1991), Fraud (1992), Dolly (1993), A Family Romance (1994), A Private View (1994), and Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1996).
Brookner's observant stories about British society have been compared to the works of Henry James and Jane Austen, while the wry isolation and secretive passions of her heroines are reminiscent of stories written by the Emily and Charlotte Brontë.
Further Reading on 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 critiques of several Brookner's novels. John Updike reviews of 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).