Peta Mayer: Misreading Anita Brookner

About the Book

Anita Brookner was known for writing boring books about lonely, single women. Misreading Anita Brookner unlocks the mysteries of the famously depressed Brookner heroine by creating entirely new ways to read six Brookner novels.

Drawing on Brookner’s legacy as a renowned historian of French Romantic art and on diverse intertextual sources from Charles Baudelaire to Henry James, Renée Vivien and Freud, this book argues that Brookner’s solitary twentieth-century women can also be seen as variations of queer nineteenth-century male artist archetypes. Conjuring a cast of Romantic personae including the flâneur, the dandy, the aesthete, the military man, the queer, the analysand, the degenerate and the storyteller, it illuminates clusters of nineteenth-century behaviours which help decode the lives of Brookner’s twentieth-century women. This exploration of Brookner’s performative Romanticism exposes new depths within her outsider introverts, who are revealed as a subversive blend of the historical, the contemporary, the masculine and the feminine.

What is 'Misreading'?

In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom avers that no reading of a text will have a singular authority over meaning-making when he states that there are no interpretations but only misinterpretations and that there are only more or less creative or interesting mis-readings. Bloom’s distinction between more or less creative misreadings is founded on the notion that a strong misreading will effect a paradigm shift, or swerve, away from an established epistemology, whereas a weaker misreading will maintain or reinforce the prior dominant reading.

In the 1980s, Julia Kristeva’s coining of the term intertextuality complements Bloom’s concept of misreading. Building on Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism to underline how all texts are connected, Kristeva’s intertextualiy demonstrates that all texts are the product of culturally embedded reading formations. Intertextuality therefore reinforces Bloom’s formulation of misreading insofar as all texts engage with established reading conventions, for better or worse.

In Misreading Anita Brookner an attempt is made to swerve Brookner’s misreading to the intertextual world of French aestheticism and away from the heteronormative conventions of her early reception.


‘Anita Brookner deserves this detailed, sophisticated, brilliant reading that appreciates Brookner’s peculiar genius and uncovers the ways in which she does indeed write a different kind of novel. Given the intertextual, allusive nature of Brookner’s work and her extraordinary expertise on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and literature, Dr Mayer’s misreading of Brookner’s performative romanticism is entirely appropriate.'

Ann Holbrook, Professor of English at Saint Anselm College

Anita Brookner wrote twenty-five works of fiction in barely more years, including 1984’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac. An eminent art historian of French Romanticism, Brookner authored respected monographs, including Jacques-Louis David (1980) and Romanticism and its Discontents (2000). She was the first female Slade Chair of Fine Art at Cambridge University. Nevertheless, her novels have not shaken their reputation as middle-class, middle-brow explorations of the domestic lives of women defeated in love and marriage. Understood as “women’s fiction,” her work is characterized as compulsive yet lacking.

Peta Mayer steps resolutely into this contradictory territory with the first full- length study of Brookner’s fiction for almost twenty years and arguably the first to consider it on its own terms. Mayer has previously demonstrated the strictures that the paratext of book review and author interview imposed on Brookner’s work, constructing it as autobiographical, contemporary realist, and derivative. In Misreading Anita Brookner, Mayer’s starting point is the pleasure Brookner felt at a reader’s insight that her novels were “French books” (1). Mayer asks what this pleasure may entail given Brookner’s art historical expertise and the formidable array of references in her novels to artists and authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Baudelaire, Stendhal, Freud, Colette, Balzac, and Henry James.

Mayer argues that rather than replicating failed versions of the heterosexual romance narrative endemic to domestic fiction, Brookner’s heroines find heterosexual romance “in varying degrees to be aesthetically repellent, inauthentic, comedic, unsatisfactory, and unappealing” (6). If Brookner heroines are in some senses conformists, they are also subversives: investigation of the novels’ intertextuality reveals them as performative revisions of such masculine literary figures as the flâneur and the degenerate. In their solitariness and strangeness, desires, and wanderings, Brookner’s heroines enact “contestatory or queer behaviours” (4), which trouble the norms they have been taken to replicate.

Mayer examines six Brookner novels in light of six such literary figures, six associated narrative structures or motifs, and as many rhetorical strategies, which together illuminate the aspects of Brookner’s novels that have previously been underread. For instance, Rachel in A Friend from England (1988) is a version of the Baudelairean military man, bold and independent, whose quest to guide the younger Heather remodels the adventure narrative as a “queer misadventure” (47). The novel’s deployment of the rhetorical strategy hendiadys, or the linking of two incidences of a word or idea, reveals it as a circular, Stendhalian story of frustration. As in Scarlet and Black (1830), the novel idealizes not romantic couplings but passionate experiments and “failure in the moment” (48). Similarly, the preoccupations of Fay and her departed friend Julia in Brookner’s Brief Lives (1991) are not those of bourgeois obsessives about “feminine” concerns such as food, interior décor, and clothing but, combined with Fay’s asexual desire for Julia, constitute the self-aware practice of the dandy, for whom detail is the organizing rhetorical device, expressed in ways of walking, talking, eating, and dressing.

If the masculine literary figure is refashioned by Brookner’s novels, so too is the notion of “misreading” in Mayer’s analyses. Here, the term refers to previous misjudgments of Brookner’s work and Mayer’s desire to demonstrate its availability to other readings. Most persuasively, Mayer’s “misreading” appropriates Harold Bloom’s term for the new literary forms forged by writers from the anxiety of influence by their predecessors. Mayer’s meticulous textual investigation – such as her likening the narrative ellipses, scandalous details, and extempore qualities of John Aubrey’s seventeenth-century Brief Lives (1898) to Brookner’s novel of the same title – convinces us of Brookner’s inspirations and that, recast, they comprise portraits of transgressive, intellectual women who refute the restrictive categories afforded them. The compulsiveness of Brookner’s novels is revealed to relate to their contradictoriness and explosive potential more than their lesser containments.

By tracing the ways in which Brookner’s intellectual achievements as an art historian informed her fiction, Mayer contributes to the problematization of the limiting discourses that proscribe readings of “domestic fiction,” celebrates the subversive potential of Brookner’s performative Romanticism, and offers an important reevaluation of this author’s too long underrated body of work.

Kathryn Pallant, Lancaster University, UK
in Contemporary Women's Writing