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Anita Brookner Biography

(1928– ), Watteau, The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism, Greuze

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English novelist and art historian, born in London, educated at King's College, University of London, and the Courtauld Institute. Brookner has held several distinguished academic posts (Slade Professor, University of Cambridge, 19678; Reader at the Courtauld Institute, 19778; Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge) and has published books on eighteenth-century painting (Watteau, 1968; The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism, 1971; Greuze, 1972; Jacques-Louis David, 1981). Beginning with A Start in Life (1981), she has produced a novel almost every year, including Providence (1982), Look at Me (1983), Hotel du Lac (1984; Booker Prize), Family and Friends (1985), A Misalliance (1986), A Friend from England (1987), Latecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1989), Brief Lives (1990), A Closed Eye (1991), Fraud (1992), A Private View (1994), Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995), and Altered States (1996). The Brookner heroine has become a recognized type. She is solitary, and feels ‘a stranger to the rest of the world’. (This alienation may take clinical form, such as fear of water or agoraphobia.) She is in love with a romantic (and somewhat unfocused) male character who rejects, ignores, or betrays her; in Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope, a writer of escapist romances, has been in love with a married art auctioneer and, like many of Brookner's heroines, has cultivated a ‘meek and complaisant’ personality. When she rejects the chance of marrying a dull companionable man, she is banished by her friends to a Swiss hotel, where she broods on her past, and finally comes to believe in her own romances. A Brookner heroine may also be recently orphaned (Frances in Look At Me) or have sacrificed her life to the demands of self-centred European parents (Ruth in A Start in Life, Mimi in Family and Friends). She is often drawn to a ‘misalliance’ with couples or families living cosy, greedy lives of domestic bliss or sensual excess. In Brookner's fiction, the tortoise loses and the hare wins. To combat the pain of defeat the heroine cultivates a meticulous, even dandyish, self-presentation (Blanche in A Misalliance, Rachel in A Friend from England), which matches the author's dry, witty narrative. The Brookner heroine is usually highly cultured and the novels are often dominated by a cultural reference, such as the Giorgione painting in A Friend from England. Some heroines are more likeable than others (Rachel in A Friend from England is a horrifying character; Frances in Look at Me is painfully sympathetic). In Lewis Percy, the Brookner heroine is a man, a timid Francophile offered one chance of happiness. Though her cool narrative manner is French in style, the emotions are in a tradition of English women writers from Charlotte Brontë to Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann, and she is also a great admirer of Edith Wharton. This, and her reasoned wariness of feminism, gives her writing an old-fashioned air, and has led to accusations of conservatism, sentimentality, and élitism. She is also criticized for lack of dialogue, though this is countered by her close attention to details, her clear eye for human behaviour, and her strong evocation of emotional mood. Within its limited parameters her fiction is powerfully obsessional, disturbing, and severe.

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