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...
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