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Anita Brookner, 87, author called ‘mistress of gloom’

Prize-winning author and art historian Anita Brookner. PA/File via AP

LONDON — Anita Brookner, a British author of lean, elegiac, and stylistically polished novels who was once labeled the “mistress of gloom” for her depiction of bleak and disappointed lives, usually of women, died March 10. She was 87.

Her death was reported Tuesday in The Times of London, which said she had led “a life of solitude in the middle of London.” It gave no other details.

The daughter of well-off Jewish immigrants from Poland, Ms. Brookner grew up in London surrounded by relatives and acquaintances whom she called “transplanted and fragile people, an unhappy brood.”

That sense of an unfulfilled world carried over into her career as novelist, which she started in her 50s, when she had already distinguished herself as an accomplished art historian. Her fiction soon found acclaim, leading to a Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, for her fourth novel, “Hotel du Lac,” published in 1984.

That triumph was seen by some literary figures as a surprise; J.G. Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” had been widely expected to win the prize. But Ms. Brookner fulfilled her promise, writing a book a year for much of the rest of the 20th century.


“It is the women who dominate her landscape,” English critic Miranda Seymour wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 2001, “and they tend to be women of a type: forlorn figures who seem always to be looking for Henry James’s bench of desolation on which to deposit their meekly skirted behinds for an afternoon of fruitless anticipation.”

Ms. Brookner’s first novel, “A Start in Life,” published in 1981 when she was 53, was the story of Ruth Weiss, a young academic who seeks contentment in Paris before returning to London — a mirror of a chapter in Ms. Brookner’s own life.

The novel, published in the United States as “The Debut,” took its title from the Balzac novel “Un Début Dans la Vie,” from the mid-19th century. It introduced readers to the acerbic wit that suffused Ms. Brookner’s later work.


“To suggest that Ms. Brookner is a comic writer might seem perverse,” Seymour wrote. “She is, after all, celebrated as the mistress of gloom.”

But Seymour also pointed to Ms. Brookner’s pithy asides — “a fast, lethal swipe with claws extended” — like a line in “Hotel du Lac” in which the main character, Edith Hope, describing a friend, says, “She was a handsome woman of 45 and would remain so for many years.”

Ms. Brookner, the author Laura Thompson wrote in 2014, “is more honest about her own sex than any other novelist.”

By the time she started writing fiction, Ms. Brookner had been a prominent art historian specializing in French artists, notably Jean-Baptiste Greuze. She retired as an academic in 1988.

Her final work of fiction, “At the Hairdressers,” was a novella published as an e-book in 2011. It tells the story of an 80-year-old woman who leaves her basement apartment in London only to go shopping and have her hair done.