The Price of Virtue

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Hotel du Lac was Anita Brookner’s fourth novel, published in 1984. To the consternation of many and the incredulity of the author, it won the Booker Prize that year. The photograph taken after the announcement shows an author wide-eyed with disbelief. And not just Ms Brookner. One of the judges, the late great Sir Malcolm Bradbury, consoled Julian Barnes, also shortlisted, with the words: ‘Bad luck, Julian – the wrong book won.’ With the greatest respect, Sir Malcolm, there are those of us who disagree. Hotel du Lac is the work of a supremely gifted novelist at the top of her game. Not just elegant, insightful and thought-provoking, but still, after many readings, laugh-out-loud funny. So it is pleasing to know from a work colleague that, for the whole of the next day, Anita was completely elated.

Bear in mind that writing novels was her second brilliant career. She was born in Herne Hill in 1928 to Polish Jewish parents whose original name was Bruckner. Her upbringing, though comfortable, was not happy. A First in Art History led to a doctorate at the Courtauld, then ten years in Paris – ‘the happiest time of my life’. Later, in 1987, she became the first female Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge. She loved teaching and was a revered and respected tutor.

But by the time she was 50, some reassessment was being made. She was on her own. There had been proposals but none had seemed right. In her most laconic style she commented: ‘Men have their own agenda. They think you can be made to fit in with their lives if they lop off certain parts of yours. You can see them coming a mile off.’ Immensely private, she had a wonderful way of deflecting enquiries about her personal life by uttering oracular statements so bald as to silence the enquirer – ‘I could probably go into the Guinness Book of Records

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About the contributor

Frances Donnelly still lives happily in Suffolk. One of her goals during lockdown was to rehome a dog from a rescue centre, but she discovered that too many other people had had the same idea. She is currently thinking of rehoming a cat.

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