Anita Brookner 1928-
English novelist, critic, art historian, biographer, editor, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Brookner's career through 1998. For further information on Brookner's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32, 34, and 51.
A popular and prolific novelist, Anita Brookner is admired for her lucid, finely crafted prose and realistic portrayals of lonely, sensitive women who are often betrayed by unrealistic notions of love and marriage. Brookner's studies of everyday life and desperation commonly feature children dominated by selfish parents, isolated women who search in vain for love and social integration, and English characters who feel out of place in their native country. Though Brookner insists that she is not a feminist, her work is consistently praised for its penetrating psychological portraits of intelligent women whose self-fulfillment is undermined by personal insecurities, undeserved malice, and demands imposed by careers, marriage, and motherhood.
Brookner was the only child of Maude Schiska, a former singer, and Newson Brookner, a Polish immigrant who worked in the Schiska family's tobacco factory after immigrating to England. Born near London, Brookner lived with her parents, grandmother, and uncle in a suburban home where her family frequently took in Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Despite her English birth and middle-class upbringing, Brookner's Jewish, Eastern European background set her apart. She was a lonely child who early in life assumed the role of caretaker for her eccentric, careless parents. Brookner studied history at King's College in London, then earned a doctorate in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1953. In 1959 she began teaching art history at the University of Reading, returning to teach at the Courtauld in 1964. The following year she published her first book, J. A. Dominique Ingres （1965）. Brookner became the first female Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University, a position she held from 1967-1968. Brookner carried on her role as surrogate parent to her mother and father as they grew older, nursing them for several years before they died. Her personal history and relationship with her parents led her to write her first work of fiction, A Start in Life （1981; published in the United States as The Debut）, written during her summer vacation and published when she was fifty-three. The following year Brookner wrote Providence （1982） and since then she has continued to produce a novel each year. She won the Booker McConnell Prize for Hotel du Lac in 1984 and was named Commander of the British Empire in 1990. Brookner retired from academia in 1988 to concentrate on writing fiction.
The trademark heroine of Brookner's early fiction is a middle-aged intellectual who has sacrificed her youthful happiness to a controlling parent. The protagonist is characteristically contrasted with another non-intellectual, voluptuary, selfish figure who is rewarded in the end for his or her egotism. Often Brookner's central character unknowingly competes with this figure for love and a traditional role in society and loses. In Brookner's world the righteous and honorable invariably get short shrift in human relationships as reward for their goodness. In her early novels she frequently uses a work of literature or art as an analogue to her story. The character Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life parallels Honore de Balzac's heroine Eugenie Grandet. Weiss, a doctor of literature who has subordinated her personal life to her demanding parents, attempts to find romantic happiness but is thwarted by her friends and lovers. In the end she abandons any attempt to seek love and returns to live out her lonely life taking care of her ailing parents. In Providence, Brookner uses Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, which literature professor Kitty Maule is teaching to her literature students, as a counterpoint to Kitty's restrained but passionate affair with a colleague, Maurice, who does not return her love. Kitty eventually loses Maurice to one of her students, a pretty and vapid young woman, and resigns herself to disappointment in life and love. Similarly, in Look at Me （1983） Frances Hinton is introduced to James by her new friends, Nick and Alix, and believes she has a chance at having a real relationship. But Alix proves to be selfish and manipulative and James becomes involved with another woman. Hotel du Lac begins on the same note as Brookner's earlier work but ends with a slight variation. Edith Hope, a writer of romance novels, has retired to a deserted Swiss resort hotel after undescribed misfortune in London. As the story unfolds Brookner reveals that Edith is passionately in love with a married man but was about to marry Geoffrey, whom she did not love. She left Geoffrey at the altar and fled to the resort to consider her choices. Edith denies the existence of the romantic stories she writes about but seeks such romance in her own life anyway. She rejects another offer of a loveless marriage from a fellow guest at the hotel and decides to return to her married lover, choosing a one-sided love over the social status conferred by marriage. Brookner widened her reach in Family and Friends （1985）, a generational story centered upon a family of German immigrants in England over several decades. She returned to more familiar ground with A Friend from England （1987）, in which Rachel Kennedy becomes involved with a married couple and Heather, their twenty-seven-year-old daughter. Rachel sees herself as a mentor and role model to Heather, but when she advises Heather against leaving her husband for her Italian lover, Heather tells Rachel what she really thinks of her loveless, husbandless life—and Rachel is left alone once again. In Latecomers （1988）, Brookner focuses on two men, Thomas Fibich and Thomas Hartmann, both of whom were sent to England as children during the Second World War and lost their families to the Holocaust. After meeting in school they become business partners and live near each other in England. Brookner explores the two men's lives and their attempts to deal with the tragic losses of their past. In Lewis Percy （1989）, Brookner again uses a male character to explore themes of innocence, love, and loneliness. Lewis is a naïve librarian who is bereft after his mother's death. He searches for a substitute mother and enters into a disastrous marriage with Tissy, who becomes pregnant and leaves him. Brookner continued a subtle departure from her earlier work by allowing Lewis some measure of growth; he takes a new lover and reevaluates his view of women solely as caregivers and mother figures. Fraud （1992） opens with the disappearance of Anna Durrant, a middle-aged woman who cared for her mother until her death and has vanished without a trace. Anna is found at the end of the book in Paris, where she has decided to cast off the vestiges of her unhappy life and open her own business. Brookner once again contrasted a restrained personality leading a quiet life with a flamboyant, sensual figure in A Family Romance （1993）, published in the United States as Dolly. Jane Manning's life brings her back into contact with her uncle's widow, Dolly, a poor French-Jewish relation who keeps in touch with Jane's family for money. Dolly is Jane's antithesis in every way, but by the end of the novel they make a connection and familial bonds of their own. A Private View （1994） concerns the attempts of George Bland to find a purpose in life after his retirement and the death of Putnam, his closest friend. He casts about for something to live for, flirting with a much younger American staying in a neighboring apartment, before embracing human connections by becoming involved again with his lost love, Louise. Altered States （1997） explores sexual obsession, describing fifty-five-year-old Alan Sherwood's one-sided passion for Sarah, a relative by marriage. The more Sarah mistreats Alan, the more he desires her, though he eventually tries to console himself by marrying Sarah's friend Angela. Angela dies and the novel ends darkly, with Alan once again leading a solitary life devoid of passion. In Visitors （1998） and Falling Slowly （1999）, Brookner once again chronicles the solitary life of characters who consider breaking away from the constraints of their stifled lives, but in the end seem predetermined to continue their stoic acceptance of a dull, empty existence. The elderly widow Dorothea May in Visitors and the middle-aged translator Miriam Sharpe in Falling Slowly are tempted to choose human connection over seeming passivity and isolation. Dorothea's life is disrupted by a visit from a young relative and her friends, while Miriam has a love affair. But neither can break away from the established pattern of their lives and both accept their lot impassively.
Brookner's fluid, descriptive writing and striking ability to render delicately wrought portraits of ordinary, lonely people struggling to reconcile themselves to their failures in life has led critics to compare her to Henry James, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. She is widely respected for her convincing characterizations and talent for visual description. Critics praise her ability to portray complex psychological motivations in simple, eloquent language. Brookner's affinity for depicting socially repressed women in her works has also prompted commentators to compare her novels to the fiction of Margaret Drabble, Barbara Pym, and Virginia Woolf. Though criticized by some feminists for her female characters' desire to fit into patriarchal social roles, others commend Brookner for examining the difficulties faced by educated women who attempt to assimilate such conventions. Reviewers frequently note the narrow range of Brookner's oeuvre. While some praise her distinctly circumscribed exploration of loneliness, sexuality, human isolation, and depression, others accuse her of hiding a lack of originality by rewriting a thinly veiled autobiographical story over and over. In addition, some reviewers consider her characters depressing and humorless and object to her disheartening view of human nature and inverted moral code—the meek do not inherit the earth in Brookner's world, but are punished for their meekness by the selfish and demanding. Critics consistently acknowledge Brookner's talent for description; however, some find fault in her tendency to “tell, not show” by writing her story in expository prose with little dialogue instead of letting her characters and events tell the story themselves. Despite such criticisms, Brookner is widely regarded as a talented stylist whose shrewd depiction of certain middle-class, middle-aged women represents a significant contribution to contemporary literature.