Anita Brookner, a late-blooming novelist whose elegant tales of self-aware but emotionally constricted characters, primarily women, brought her Britain’s most prestigious literary award and a reputation as something of a modern-day Jane Austen, died March 10. She was 87.
Her death was first announced in the London Times, but no further details were available.
Ms. Brookner had a distinguished career as an art history scholar and professor before she published her first novel at 53. She took up fiction almost as a summertime lark, and with her fourth novel, “Hotel du Lac,” reached new heights of popularity when she unexpectedly won the 1984 Booker Prize.
In more than 20 novels, Ms. Brookner explored an austere yet fertile territory in which her reserved characters were often romantically thwarted, wary of engagement of any kind, yet deeply aware of their unfulfilled yearnings. For books so intensely mature and private, they contained little overt passion or sex.
“I felt at one with all those people on the sidelines of life,” the protagonist of Ms. Brookner’s 2004 novel, “The Rules of Engagement,” notes, “forced to contemplate the successful manoeuvres in which others were engaged, obliged to listen politely and to refrain from comment.”
The central character of “Hotel du Lac,” Edith Hope, is a romance novelist who jilts her bridegroom on their wedding day. Her friends send her to a Swiss hotel to recover her senses, but she spends her time looking inward, reflecting on the question, “What behavior most becomes a woman?”
When “Hotel du Lac” upset J.G. Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” to win the 1984 Booker Prize (now the Man Booker), critics praised the ruminative quality of Ms. Brookner’s writing, the cut-glass precision of her prose and her dry-eyed sense of self-examination.
“Anita Brookner’s novels are miniatures,” Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in 1987, “containing within their brief space worlds of feeling, wisdom and compassion, not to mention quiet, understated wit and seamless prose.”
For a self-described “spinster” who ignored social invitations, Ms. Brookner was suddenly propelled into a new realm of literary renown with which she was never entirely comfortable. She resigned herself to being perceived as a “poor unfortunate creature who writes about poor unfortunate creatures.”
Like many of her characters, she had a refined aesthetic sensibility and often pondered what she called “the unlived life.” Even when her protagonists were men, as in the 1996 novel “Altered States,” they seemed to hide behind an emotional screen.
“There is no one who expects me, no one to whom I might telephone,” said the central figure, Alan Sherwood, “but I have always been reasonably content with my own company. My mother always commended me for this, taking it to be a sign of character.”
Anita Brookner was born July 16, 1928, in London. Her Polish-born Jewish father, who changed the family name from Bruckner, worked in a family tobacco business. Her mother gave up a promising career as a classical singer when she married.
Ms. Brookner was an only child, but she grew up surrounded by several generations of relatives and by Jewish refugees from Europe who shared the family home. Only a few of her novels were about explicitly Jewish characters.
She graduated in 1949 from King’s College London and received a doctorate in art history from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in 1954. She spent much of the 1950s studying in Paris.
She began teaching in 1959 at England’s University of Reading and in 1964 joined the faculty of the Courtauld Institute, where her mentor was Anthony Blunt — a distinguished art historian later implicated in a British spy scandal.
Ms. Brookner was an authority on French art and published books on the painters Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. She said she was happiest in the classroom, and her students described her as a captivating lecturer and adviser. She continued to teach until 1989, years after she became a successful novelist.
In 1980, Ms. Brookner began writing fiction “as an experiment,” and in three months completed her first novel, “A Start in Life” (called “The Debut” in the United States). For nearly two decades, she published one novel a year, each ringing subtly different changes on familiar themes.
By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.
“They are delicate, gloved, malevolent and watchful,” James Wood wrote in the New Republic in 1995, “but they are also dead, or perhaps posthumous.”
Yet many of Ms. Brookner’s readers considered her fiction to be a direct descendant of the novels of Austen, Henry James and Barbara Pym. Much of the pleasure of her writing, they said, came from her wry, delicately crafted prose.
“All she does is tell her stories,” novelist Brian Morton wrote in the New York Times in 2003. “With her unfashionable restraint, with the glow of unshowy intelligence on every page she writes, with the brevity and directness of her novels, and with her self-effacing willingness to put her imagination entirely at the service of the story she’s telling, Brookner is an artist of an exceptional purity.”
Her final works of fiction were a 2009 novel, “Strangers,” and a 2011 novella, “At the Hairdresser’s.”
Ms. Brookner was sometimes asked about the shadowy autumnal quality of her fiction — and whether she was too much in love with melancholy.
“I don’t think it’s melancholy,” she said in 1989. “I think it’s seriousness. I think there’s a difference. I think people are frightened of seriousness.”