July 16 was the anniversary of the birth of the art historian and Booker Prize winning novelist Anita Brookner, who died in March this year at the age of 87.
Anita Brookner joined the Library in August 1968 giving her occupation on her joining form as “Art Historian.” She was 40 and a highly respected academic specialising in 18th and 19th century art. She started her academic career as visiting lecturer at the University of Reading 1959-1964, followed by a post as Lecturer (then Reader) at the Courtauld Institute of Art 1964-1988. She was the first female Slade Professor at the University of Cambridge 1967-68 and published her first book Watteau in the year she joined the Library. Her membership of the Library pre-dates her subsequent books in the field of art history: The Genius of the Future (1971); Greuze: the Rise and Fall of an 18th Century Phenomenon (1972); Jacques-Louis David (1980); Soundings (1997) and Romanticism and its Discontents (2000). It also pre-dates, by 13 years, the launch of her second and very successful career as a novelist which began with the publication of A Start in Life in 1981, when Brookner was 53. She went on to write 24 novels winning the Booker Prize for her fourth novel, Hotel du Lac, in 1985. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 2010.
Almost 20 years after joining the Library Brookner served on its Committee (1987-91). She was in good company. I don’t know if she knew that she had followed in the footsteps of one of her great literary heroes, Charles Dickens, who had been on the Commitee 140 years before her. Brookner’s fellow Committee members included the historian Cecily Veronica Wedgwood; the writer, journalist and biographer, Claire Tomalin and the historian, biographer and Professor of Modern History, Jane Ridley. Wedgwood’s obituary in The Independent in 1997 noted that “Being a woman did not help in a discipline dominated by men” but she was not the first female historian on the Library Committee. That accolade goes to the historian and Irish nationalist, Alice Stopford Green in 1898.
In an interview in The Paris Review in 1987 Brookner talked about her literary influences. She credited Isaiah Berlin (Vice President of the Library at the time Brookner joined the Committee) for igniting her interest in 19th century Romanticism: “It was hearing him lecture on the subject that impressed me and made me decide to take it up and teach it myself.” She praised the works of the novelists Zola, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Henry James and Tolstoy. Alongside these European, Russian and American influences, Brookner also pointed to three women novelists in the English tradition: Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Storm Jameson. Between 1932 and 1953 Rosamond Lehmann wrote four novels which secured her literary reputation: Invitation to the Waltz (1932), The Weather in the Streets (1936), The Ballad and the Source (1944), and The Echoing Grove (1953). Created CBE in 1982, she was President of the English Centre of International PEN 1961-1966. The first novel of Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs Lippincote’s, was published in 1945. Her last Dangerous Calm, appeared fifty years later. Philip Hensher has described Taylor as “one of the hidden treasures of the English novel”.Storm Jameson, author of forty-five novels and numerous essays was an active President of the English section of PEN during the Second World War, who worked tirelessly on behalf of exiled European writers.
The works of Lehmann, Taylor and Jameson were reprinted by Virago Press in the 1980s and the fiction stacks at the London Library played a part in their rediscovery. Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, wrote in The Guardian in 2008 that: “Those days spent in the London Library were some of the happiest of my life. One author led to another … forgotten novels and neglected writers bloomed like a watered desert.”
In her last interview in 2009 Brookner, with trademark candour, said praise was irrelevant. I finish however with a fitting line written by Virginia Woolf about George Eliot in 1919: “we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.”
Anita Brookner. 1928-2016. Art Historian. Novelist. London Library Member.
Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian