Misreading Anita Brookner: In Conversation with Peta Mayer

Anita Brookner was known for writing boring books about lonely, single women. Misreading Anita Brookner unlocks the mysteries of the Brookner heroine by creating entirely new ways to read six Brookner novels. Drawing on diverse intertextual sources, Peta Mayer illustrates how Brookner’s solitary twentieth-century women can also be seen as variations of queer nineteenth-century male artist archetypes. We spoke to Mayer to learn more.

Could you tell us a bit about Anita Brookner and what drew you to her?

Anita Brookner was ahead of her time in so many ways. Yet Brookner’s observant, conscientious heroines are often considered old-fashioned and outdated failures and fools. But in Brookner’s novels, anachronism is a celebrated form of transgression; it signals resistance to being coerced into thinking or acting a certain way just because it’s popular. Brookner writes in codes: you can read her anachronism as an aesthetic pose; a decadent throwback to a past era untainted by the depravities of commercialism; a figuration of lesbianism – take your pick!

In her first career as an historian of French Romantic art, Brookner was also a trailblazer. She completed her PhD in 1953, after Anthony Blunt (later found to be a Russian spy) helped her obtain a scholarship to the École du Louvre. Her parents objected to her leaving home and cut her off financially. She began reviewing for The Burlington Magazine to help support herself and ended up reviewing for over sixty years. In Paris, she wrote her thesis on Jean-Baptiste Greuze, later published as a book.

Brookner was an early proponent of the New Art Criticism and pioneered a biographical methodology to emphasise how Romanticism was lived by the artists of the time. She became the first female Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge in 1967. When asked what it was like to be a woman at Cambridge at the time she said, ‘Nobody looked all that male and I didn’t look all that female’. She often seemed reluctant to accept simple binaries. 

I was attracted to Brookner’s novels because I think they’re hilarious, emotionally sophisticated and so stylish. She was like a teacher to me. As Brookner herself said, great writers are saints for the godless. I was reading Brookner for pleasure as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne when I took a couple of courses that shed light on the nineteenth century. One was called ‘Reading Sexuality’ where I encountered Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s queering of Henry James. I knew Brookner was a Jamesian, so I started to wonder what would happen if I read twentieth-century Brookner the way Sedgwick read nineteenth-century James. The other subject was Professor Clara Tuite’s ‘Decadent Literature’ which is very radical – it pulls back the curtains on the world and inspires you to see it anew. I started making connections between Brookner’s studies on French art criticism and the French Romantics, Decadents and aesthetes. 

There are also some great photographic portraits of Brookner smoking which are characteristically subversive and further link Brookner to aestheticism. The above image is one of my favourites. It’s taken by Lucy Anne Dickens in 2001 when Brookner was 73. It refers to the portrait of the great aesthete and dandy, Oscar Wilde, who famously said, ‘A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.’

In Romanticism and its Discontents, (one of Brookner’s books on the French Romantic art critics) Brookner discusses Romanticism as a longing for something lost and an attempt to supply what is missing. Expressing dissatisfaction and longing might not make you popular (although with COVID-19, it’s something we’re all familiar with now) but it is part of the human experience and something Brookner heroines tend not to shy away from.

The book is a new reading of Anita Brookner’s novels – do you think her work has been misread in academic scholarship?

There’s actually some fabulous scholarship on Brookner. In 1997, Patricia Juliana Smith included one of my favourite novels – Brookner’s A Friend from England (1987) – in her book, Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women’s Fiction. Although I don’t entirely agree with Smith’s reading, she was extremely forward-thinking in placing Brookner in queer contexts, and she’s a fantastic writer.

Laurence Petit has done very insightful work on imagery in Brookner’s novels. I love Kate Fullbrook’s essay on Brookner as a Romantic. Louise Sylvester has contributed great work on Brookner as a Jewish women’s writer. And the 2008 Modern Language Association convention, which celebrated Brookner’s eightieth birthday, prompted some exceptional scholarship by Phyllis Lassner, Ann V. Norton and Margaret D. Stetz.

It’s also important to note that ‘misreading’ has a couple of meanings. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom posits that misreading is the creation of great art. According to Bloom, a new poet imaginatively misreads a former poet to produce a new piece of work, or even aesthetic genre, so strong it retrospectively changes the meaning of what has gone before. For Bloom, misreading is a powerful act of imagination. Bloom states there are ‘no interpretations but only misinterpretations’ and that there are ‘only more or less creative or interesting mis-readings’.

You could say there were some ‘less creative misreadings’ of Brookner in her original reception, not only in academic scholarship, but in the very influential genre (or paratext) of book reviews. The early 1980s exalted certain types of women: you could be either a domestic goddess or a liberated go-getter but Brookner’s heroines were misfits according to either of the dominant paradigms.

One of the really interesting things about a lot of earlier Brookner criticism is that, insofar as Brookner novels were found to be lacking, critics projected their own ideologies onto the Brookner text. So a lot of Brookner criticism is not so much about the novels but about the critics themselves, and a lot of it is heterocentric and patriarchal, which perhaps also appropriately describes the historical context of the time.  

Could you introduce us to one of the Romantic personae in your study?

Bonjour! I would like you to meet the flâneur: the poet of the city, the thespian of the streets, the mysterious shadow of laneways and brainwaves.

In The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Charles Baudelaire described a flourishing scene of metropolitan Paris. The military man, the artist, the dandy, and the flâneur were just a few of the new figures inhabiting the boulevards and avenues. Baudelaire characterised the flâneur as a ‘solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across this great human desert’. In his essay, Baudelaire deploys the painter Constantin Guys, whom he nicknames ‘MG’, as the poster child of the contemporary flâneur. 

The flâneur zigzags through the back streets, making composition from decomposition. Sometimes the peripatetic figure is forced along a different route, spinning verse from reverse. These reversals, or peripetia, assist in the creative process. The flâneur’s imagination is a misreading of reality, a swerve or reversal accomplished by the great artist.

In Brookner’s brilliant nineteenth novel, Undue Influence (1999), the protagonist Claire Pitt is also a ‘solitary walker’ possessing an active ‘imagination’. Claire walks to work at a Gower Street bookshop where she is also editing a manuscript entitled ‘Walks with Myself: A companion for the solitary walker’.Claire’s speculating means that she always gets things wrong: she is forced into constant reversals as she misreads the behaviour of those around her. When she meets Martin Gibson, a customer at the bookshop who identifies himself as ‘MG’, Claire’s misreadings lead her into uncharted territory.  

In Misreading Anita Brookner, I cast the figure of the flâneur in Undue Influence across the behaviours of imagination, walking, misreading and reversal, drawing on texts by Baudelaire, Michel de Certeau, and Harold Bloom. I use the rhetoric of peripetia and the narrative of influence from Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence to move the flâneur through the text by recalibrating significance around specific plot points in Brookner’s novel. It turns the focus of the text away from the heterosexual romance and towards the female artist. I even include a real map of inner London detailing Claire and Martin’s walks throughout Undue Influence! The romantic personae in my study are present as subtexts in Brookner’s novels and really surge to life through the intertextual matrix of her oeuvre.

Can you tell us a bit about the cover of Misreading Anita Brookner?

I love the cover so much! The painting, by Australian artist Yvette Coppersmith, is entitled ‘Self-portrait in Cacharel Scarf’ (2017).

I’ve followed Yvette’s work for many years and was thrilled when she won the Archibald Prize in 2018 for ‘Self-Portrait, After George Lambert’. I’ve been lucky enough to interview her on a few occasions and now call her a friend. I’m very grateful to her for letting me use her work on the cover of Misreading.

For me, the image conjures up the essential Brooknerine, the Brookner heroine. You see the solitary heroine, but so much more – the artist and the woman of fashion are brought into play, as they are in Brookner’s novels. After choosing the painting, I asked Yvette about it and she said, ‘This is an image with romantic spirit and optimism – painted from life in the studio, where solitude, longing and reverie commingle.’ While optimism is not something normally associated with Brookner, I actually think it a sentiment very evocative of her oeuvre.

Reading Brookner alongside French aestheticism, as I do in Misreading, illuminates the figure of the artist in Brookner’s work. And I think there’s something about the realism and beauty of Brookner’s writing that is optimistic anyway. Because she’s not afraid to confront uncomfortable truths, at the same time as which she shows how good things can be. I love having this stunning self-portrait of the artist as the cover because it speaks of reading Brookner’s novels as figurations of the woman artist.

There’s also a sense of exoticism, adventure and time-travel in both the portrait and the novels. Cacharel, a prêt-à-porter brand, was created by Jean Bousquet in 1958; Brookner lived in France in the 1950s and became a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading in 1959. In 1968, Jean Bousquet was joined at Cacharel by Sarah Moon – a French Jewish exile who helped revolutionise the brand, and this period coincides with Brookner’s prime years as an art historian,  as well as recalling Brookner’s identification with the Jewish exile. The Cacharel psychedelia summons that backwards turn to the historical, as exemplified in Brookner’s novels. 

The cover layout of Misreading pays homage to Brookner’s early hardcovers, which also showcased beautiful works of art.

What will you be working on next?

I think a biography of Brookner is overdue and I’m hungry to get started on it. I have research to complete on Melissa Lucashenko and Lore Segal as well as some fiction of my own to finish. And I have two little boys to keep alive!

For more information on Misreading Anita Brookner visit our website and

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