Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
Anita Brookner, the only child of Newsom and Maude Schiska Brookner, attended James Allen’s Girls’ School, received a B.A. from King’s College, University of London, and completed a Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She began her teaching career as a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading, where she taught from 1959 to 1964. In 1964 she became a lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, where from 1977 to 1987 she was a reader in art history with the rank of professor. She was Slade Professor at the University of Cambridge from 1967 to 1968, the first woman ever to hold the position. In 1984 Brookner won the Booker Prize for her novel Hotel du Lac, and four years later she gave up teaching to concentrate on her writing career. She was named a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.
Brookner’s writing initially grew out of her academic field of expertise, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century French painting. Her first book was Watteau, a brief introductory study of the French painter. She followed this book with a volume of six essays of comparative criticism, The Genius of the Future, Studies in French Art Criticism, in which she examined the personalities and accomplishments of Denis Diderot, Stendhal, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, and Joris-Karl Huysmans; this volume was a product of Brookner’s Slade lectures at Cambridge. She followed this work with Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth Century Phenomenon, in which she presented Jean-Baptiste Greuze as a painter who attempted to reestablish nostalgia as a part of the abstract intellectual milieu of the mid-eighteenth century art world. In Jacques-Louis David Brookner portrayed David as an artist whose life and work embodied and reflected much of the fundamental thought, belief, and behavior of the eighteenth century.
During a long summer vacation Brookner wrote her first novel, The Debut, which reflects her awareness of the impact of art on life and her involvement in the academic world. The main character, Ruth Weiss, is a professor of literature at a London university who, like Brookner, grew up reading English novels, especially those of Charles Dickens, in which patience and virtue were ultimately rewarded; because of the stifling life she lives under the eye of her strong-willed mother she is led to study Honoré de Balzac. Through a scholarship she escapes to Paris to read Balzac and to live her own life, but her adventure is cut short when she is called back to London to tend to her aging parents.
Brookner continued her examination of the thinking single woman in Providence, Look at Me, and Hotel du Lac. In the last, her fourth novel, Edith Hope is a successful writer of romantic fiction, and the book turns on the contrast between the lives of the characters in her fiction and her own life. Hotel du Lac is about loneliness, but there is wit and humor in the work. Edith is disappointed in love and seems unable to fit the conventional mold; yet unlike Brookner’s earlier heroines, Edith comes to accept this situation and find value in what she does possess.
In Family and Friends Brookner expands her cast of characters to include all the members of the London-based Dorn family: Sofka, a Jewish-European matriarch, and her three children. In a departure from the 1980’s settings of previous novels, Family and Friends begins in the 1930’s. In this novel Brookner also expands her examination of love, exploring not only romantic relationships but also the love between parents and children, sisters and brothers. Her examination of the Dorn family reveals the breakdown of traditional social codes that had allowed family life to operate smoothly.
The Misalliance, Brookner’s sixth novel, returns to the 1980’s and the exploration of one woman’s attempts to come to terms with loneliness. Middle-aged Blanche Vernon is separated from her husband of twenty years, who has left her for a younger woman. Blanche is attractive, intelligent, and financially well-off, but the departure of her husband has left her without a defined social position. With no activity to occupy her, Blanche involves herself in the lives of others, particularly those of an irresponsible young woman and her small daughter, in whom Blanche senses a loneliness similar to her own. A surprising turn at the end of The Misalliance leaves the reader wondering what life holds for Blanche Vernon.
In Brookner’s next novel, A Friend from England, the emancipated heroine and narrator has protected herself from emotional pain by refusing to allow herself intimacy with others. Her friendship with the Livingstones, a thoroughly conventional and innocent family who cannot fully understand Rachel’s stripped-down, modern life, leads to her gaining understanding when, in an attempt to protect the Livingstones, she learns the depth of their innocence. Despite all of her worldliness, this encounter leaves Rachel feeling ignorant and incomplete.
In Latecomers Brookner tells the story of two men who came to England from Germany before World War II. A sense of displacement, seen before in Providence, pervades this book. In Lewis Percy Brookner again uses a male protagonist, continuing her exploration of loss and the “unlived life.” She returns to a woman’s world in Brief Lives; in A Closed Eye, which concerns that blindness of a mother’s love for a selfish daughter; and in Fraud, in which an overlooked middle-aged woman successfully changes her life. In A Family Romance the author investigates an older generation of traditional women while maintaining reservations about their liberated daughters. A Private View brings back a lonely male hero who is tempted by a charming young sociopath, and Incidents in the Rue Laugier points up the connection to France often seen in her other novels.
Altered States continues Brookner’s standard themes as a stuffy barrister becomes infatuated with a beautiful yet heartless woman yet marries her clinging, childlike friend, with tragic results. In Visitors, the arrival of American relatives for a family wedding jolts a solitary widow out of her drab, routine life. Falling Slowly contrasts the approaches to life of two bright but equally isolated aging sisters, one an overly romantic pianist and the other a more cynical translator. In Undue Influence, a seemingly nondescript woman with an extraordinary capacity for fantasy and speculation about the lives of others becomes entangled in the lives of a man and his ailing wife.
The Bay of Angels provides a somewhat happier ending than most of Brookner’s novels; Brookner’s typically passive heroine must deal with her mother’s nervous breakdown and realizes the limitations of her “independent” life, ending up in a long-distance relationship that allows her both connection and freedom. In The Next Big Thing, published in the United States as Making Things Better, Brookner returns to a male protagonist, exploring the efforts of a seventy-three-year-old Jewish man to find the meaning of his life, which has been spent caring for others.
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