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Anita Brookner Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1928. Education: James Allen's Girls' School; King's College, University of London; Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Ph.D. in art history. Career: Visiting lecturer, University of Reading, Berkshire, 1959-64; lecturer, 1964, and reader, 1977-88, Courtauld Institute of Art; Slade Professor, Cambridge University, 1967-68. Fellow, New Hall, Cambridge; fellow, King's College, 1990. Awards: Booker prize, 1984. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1990.



A Start in Life. London, Cape, 1981; as The Debut, New York, LindenPress, 1981.

Providence. London, Cape, 1982; New York, Pantheon, 1984.

Look at Me. London, Cape, and New York, Pantheon, 1983.

Hotel du Lac. London, Cape, 1984; New York, Pantheon, 1985.

Family and Friends. London, Cape, and New York, Pantheon, 1985.

A Misalliance. London, Cape, 1986; as The Misalliance, New York, Pantheon, 1987.

A Friend from England. London, Cape, 1987; New York, Pantheon, 1988.

Latecomers. London, Cape, 1988; New York, Pantheon, 1989.

Lewis Percy. London, Cape, 1989; New York, Pantheon, 1990.

Brief Lives. London, Cape, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.

A Closed Eye. London, Cape, 1991; New York, Random House, 1991.

Fraud. New York, Vintage Books, 1994.

Dolly. Thorndike, Maine, G.K. Hall, 1994.

A Private View. New York, Random House, 1994.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier. New York, Random House, 1996.

Altered States. New York, Random House, 1996.

Visitors. London, Jonathan Cape, 1997.

Falling Slowly. New York, Random House, 1999.

Undue Influence. New York, Random House, 2000.


Watteau. London, Hamlyn, 1968.

The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism: Diderot, Stendahl, Baudelaire, Zola, the Brothers Goncourt, Huysmans. London, Phaidon Press, 1971; Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1988.

Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon. London, Elek, and Greenwich, Connecticut, New York Graphic Society, 1972.

Jacques-Louis David: A Personal Interpretation (lecture). London, Oxford University Press, 1974.

Jacques-Louis David. London, Chatto and Windus, 1980; New York, Harper, 1981; revised edition, Chatto and Windus, 1986; New York, Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Soundings (essays). London, Harvill Press, 1998.

Romanticism and its Discontents. New York, Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 2000.

Editor, The Stories of Edith Wharton. London, Simon and Schuster, 2 vols., 1988-89.

Translator, Utrillo. London, Oldbourne Press, 1960.

Translator, The Fauves. London, Oldbourne Press, 1962.

Translator, Gauguin. London, Oldbourne Press, 1963.


Critical Studies:

Four British Women Novelists: Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym: An Annotated and Critical Secondary Bibliography by George Soule, Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1998.

* * *

Often compared to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, sometimes simultaneously, Anita Brookner's brief, exquisitely wrought novels portray lonely, ordinary people, usually women, passively enduring somber ordinary lives in a bleak, gray London, skillfully delineated through reference to recognizable street names and shops. In her autobiographical first novel, A Start in Life, Brookner sets a characteristic theme and tone with another characteristic, references to literature and painting: "'About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,' said Auden. But they were. Frequently. Death was usually heroic, old age serene and wise. And of course, the element of time, that was what was missing." In Brookner's novels, the present stretches on and on into an uncharted future, days need filling up, while the past only informs when it is too late. With little choice, Brookner's characters must bravely "soldier on."

Brookner's characters are immediately recognizable. As Brookner notes, she begins with an "idea of the main character and how the story ends. Then, I work toward that end." Her typical protagonists, female or male, allow cultural and familial attitudes and pressures to shape their lives, like Dr. Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life, whose life has been "ruined by literature." Brookner protagonists wear well-tailored clothes, live in well-furnished apartments, usually inherited from a parent dutifully nursed through a final illness, and vacation in France. Left to "ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary" but "emulate" Little Dorrit, the women view life as offering limited choices, one being between marriage and spinsterhood. The unfulfilled young women of the early novels, crave the affection and love denied by their families, whose portraits are presented through the protagonists' memories and self-reflection. Yearning for the stuff of romantic novels, such as those written by Edith of the award-winning Hotel du Lac, the young women suffer in demeaning relationships, but although intelligent, lack the inner resources to take control of their lives. In sharp contrast, in Lewis Percy, the eponymous protagonist of Brookner's ninth novel and a student of 19th-century French fiction, escapes his dependency on his mother as well as a loveless marriage when he runs off to America with his best friend's eccentric sister.

The women in Hotel du Lac and A Friend from England also shed impossible relationships, from married men, but are not "rewarded" with happy endings. Edith analyzes the history of her predicament through letters never sent to her lover David; Rachel comes to understand that she will gamely "plough on" through middle age, her interior monologues never vocalized or shared.

Brookner's middle novels, A Misalliance and Brief Lives compound the meaninglessness of women's existence by exploring the present predicaments of older women through a retrospective on their past. This technique proves an excellent vehicle for Brookner's preoccupation with self-betrayal, the duplicity of others, and the betrayals of time. The defeats of time and the painful survival of destroyed illusions are portrayed in two novels best described as family chronicles: Family and Friends and Latecomers. The former brilliantly traces the contrasting stories of the members of the Dorn family by reading and projecting from a series of wedding photographs. Latecomers, a study of survivor-guilt, reviews the lives of the families of two Jewish friends—the melancholy Fibich and the epicurean Hartmann—through an emotional crisis in which Fibich comes to terms with his own history. These melancholy novels portray characters who barely survive, but with a modicum honor.

In both A Closed Eye and Fraud, however, Brookner suggests that people do not have to settle for a solitary, lonely life. In novels developed through similar structural techniques, dutiful daughters break the Brookner pattern. In A Closed Eye, although timid Harriet submits to an arranged marriage with well-to-do, divorced Freddie Lytton, she is partially fulfilled in motherhood, a new theme for Brookner, by the birth of her beautiful daughter Imogen, who, however, soon grows into an unspeakably selfish girl. Only when Harriet meets Jack, philanderer husband of Tessa, her best friend, does Harriet experience something of a sexual awakening, which, being a Brookner woman, she cannot act upon, despite their single shared kiss and her erotic dreams. Developed through retrospect, when the novel opens, Imogen is dead in an improbable car crash, Tessa is dead from cancer, and Harriet has dutifully accompanied Freddie to Swiss health spas. Liberated by his death, 53-year-old Harriet does not return home as would most defeated Brookner heroines. Instead she writes the letter which opens the novel and invites Lizzie, Tessa's daughter whom she partially raised, to her European villa to join her and her new male friend, thus opening the way to self understanding.

Brookner relies on the same circular technique in Fraud, which also develops the theme of mothers and daughters, but here from the daughter's point of view. Like a detective story, the novel opens with the report that 50-year-old Anna Durrant has gone missing; cleverly, the police inquiries spark the narrative. The reflections of Anna's few acquaintances introduce this obedient spinster daughter, who knows she lived in "a pleasant collaboration of unrealities," dominated by her mother. Thus, we are prepared to learn of Anna's self-rescue after her mother's death; planning her disappearance, she "refashions" herself rather than allowing others to and begins a career designing clothing for "women like myself." At novel's end, a chance encounter in Paris solves her mysterious disappearance and reveals a stronger Anna capable of inspiring another woman to resolutely follow an independent path and break from a married man.

Dolly, Brookner's thirteenth novel, brings the European to London in a vivacious aunt "singing and dancing" her way through life. Dolly collides with and, then, is eventually dependent upon, narrator Jane Manning, her young niece, whose keen observations delineate her parents' close, yet delicate, marriage and deaths, and, more importantly, reveal widowed Dolly's fraudulent gaiety. The power shifts when Jane reluctantly inherits the family money, but so does Jane's now benevolent understanding of her aunt's life. Young Jane finds contentment and success as a children's author while she installs her defeated, aging aunt in a much desired flat.

Despite these less melancholy endings, these new Brookner women still take long walks on melancholy Sunday evenings, drink bottomless cups of tea, and manage their days with little tricks of empty activity. Maud Gonthier in Incidents in the Rue Langier reads, sighs, and retires early; like Dolly, she too is a displaced French woman. Her daughter creates an unreliable, perhaps wishful, biography for her mother after she discovers a mysterious coded diary and silk kimono in Maud's belongings. The daughter's narrative spins a passionate romance-novel affair with the dashing, wealthy David Tyler in Paris. Almost in penance, Maud accepts marriage with Tyler's acquaintance, the staid, British used bookseller, Edward; thus an explanation for the marriage of the narrator's parents. Maud's male counterpart is Alan Sherwood, narrator of Altered States who also yearns for a former lover in Paris, sensual, heartless Sarah, while married to sexless Angela. Both novels examine the consequences of inopportune marriages from male and female points of view. Brookner also explores male-female relationships exacerbated this time by generational and cultural differences in her next paired novels which present the usual finely crafted portraits of the effects of loneliness.

Youth and age collide when young strangers interrupt the patterned, solitary well-to-do lives of retired bachelor George Bland in A Private View and widowed, 70-year-old Dorothea May in Visitors. Aware of their age, both meticulously prepare themselves for the day in front of the mirror and by novel's end both are forced to a new understanding of their futures. Bland, aptly named, succumbs to Katy Gibb (named for the American secretarial school?), a twenty-something intruder who sweet-talks her way into the neighboring apartment and eventually cons Bland into donating a large sum to help her set up a business based on New Age stress workshops; Katy talks about "being in the moment" or feeling "a lot of negativity." Enthralled, George contemplates marriage seeing Katy as a chance to escape a life not lived; rejected and exhausted, after an ongoing interior monologue of self scrutiny, he settles for a shift in his years' long companionship with Louise. Over the telephone, he invites Louise on a vacation trip.

Coping with ill health and increasing anxiety attacks, Dorothea May's civilized world also shifts under self-scrutiny when she reluctantly responds to family duty by opening the room where her husband Henry died for Steven Best, who has accompanied her sister-in-law's granddaughter Ann, a homeopathic therapist, and David, a crusading evangelical sports teacher, to London for their sudden wedding. The novel becomes a comedy of contrasts—old, proper British versus young, brash American and family secrets keep tumbling out. Astonished at herself, Dorothea offers crucial assistance in dealing with the recalcitrant bride and succumbs to Steven's presence. She shops and busies herself with his comfort. Although Steven disappoints her with his thoughtlessness, she misses him when the trio leaves for Paris. Her revelation is that the unknown future must be "an enterprise in which help must be solicited and offered." Like George, she cautiously reaches out over the telephone to her over-wrought sister-in-law.

Small items and techniques reappear in subsequent Brookner novels, each time usually more complete. In Hotel du Lac, Edith does not mail her letters; in A Closed Eye, Harriet's mailed letter leads to self-knowledge. A vague New Age business in A Private View is actually the bride Anna's occupation in Visitors. George Bland switches off the incomplete radio shipping forecast to take Louise's phone call, but Falling Slowly takes its title from the shipping bulletin's last words; Edith's romance novels also reappear or are inverted by Brookner's novels themselves. Brookner's eighteenth novel explores the now familiar marginalized lives of two sisters: Miriam, a translator of French, who spends half her day in the London library and the other half fretting over life's minutia and her evaporating love life; and Beatrice, an accompanist forced into retirement, who flutters about and reads romance novels. A typical Brookner figure, Miriam, once married for five years, slides into an affair with a married man for whom she yearns after he simply disappears. Unable to commit to the suitable Tom, Miriam retreats to care for her ailing sister Beatrice; at their deaths, Miriam, left alone in a self-inflicted, circumscribed emotionless life, tells her former husband when he accuses her of reading too much, "I'm better off alone … there were no happy endings." Seeking early morning reassurance, she listens to the shipping forecast sipping a cup of tea knowing that the high moments of life she and Beatrice anticipated will never come.

Spinster sisters reappear in Undue Influence as Muriel and Harriet St. John, elderly owners of a secondhand bookshop inherited from their father. Dutifully devoted to his memory, they employ attractive, well-dressed, 29-year-old Claire Pitt to edit his numbingly dull writings. Claire, alone after caring for her mother, who, in turn, had tended Claire's ailing father, still spins elaborate fantasies and now fantasizes an unattainable marriage with handsome, shallow Martin Gibson, a bookstore patron. Her one friend, Wiggy, sits by the phone waiting for a phone call from her married lover. Although far more modern than the octogenarian St. John spinsters, Claire and Wiggy are destined to become them, for with this nineteenth novel, nothing has changed in Brookner territory. In an effort to occupy her time, Claire endlessly cleans her inherited apartment, takes long walks in London parks, reads, fantasizes, and has anonymous sexual encounters during vacations in France. Without any lasting relationships, Claire's future holds the same glum promise of a drab, controlled life. She will courageously slip into middle age as Brookner slowly closes yet another analysis of unfulfilled longing.

—Lyn Pykett

, updated by

Judith C. Kohl

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - Personal