The Independent Archive: Englishwoman wins Prix Goncourt

30 September 1989 For 86 years the Academie Goncourt has ignored English writers - until now. Robert Winder interviews Joanna Richardson

IT WAS raining when Joanna Richardson travelled to Nancy to collect her Prix Goncourt for biography. God had arranged, as they say, un ciel britannique, a thoughtful provision on the day when the Prix Goncourt was given, for the first time in its 86-year history, to an English author. The winning book, Judith Gautier: a Biography, was published in Britain by Quartet in 1986 but has only this year been translated into French.

The book itself, the fruits of an exhaustive trawl for new material, enjoyed mixed reviews. Anita Brookner, in the Times Literary Supplement, thought that Joanna Richardson had done "full justice" to her subject. The reviewer in The Canberra Times called it the second worst life of anyone he had ever read. But it was undeniably the first biography of Judith Gautier and, as the newsletter produced by the Chamber of Commerce in Nancy proclaimed, "Justice est faite!"

Joanna Richardson admits that, until the day the telegram arrived requesting that she phone Paris immediately, she did not know that the Prix Goncourt was even open to British authors. But she seized the chance to refer, in her acceptance speech, to the fact that the brothers Goncourt liked neither Britain nor women.

The presentation was followed by a signing session and a grand dinner for 380 people at the Hotel de Ville in Nancy. Even as the Gourmandise froide d'homard breton and the Feuille de chene aux raisins secs et frais were being served, the beginnings of a petite scandale were brewing. "The seating plan had gone wrong," Joanna Richardson said. "Someone pointed out that it was impossible that the laureate should not be at the table d'honneur. But it all worked out in the end."

Back in London, surrounded by flowers (a gift from the Mayor of Nancy) Joanna Richardson was only just registering the significance of the accolade awarded her. "I did feel terribly aware," she said, "that I was the first British winner, and I did feel to a certain extent an ambassador. I know they didn't find it easy to give it to me. Someone at the dinner told me: `Of course, you know it wasn't unanimous.' "

She is aware that the prize, though primarily a response to her biography of Judith Gautier, is also a recognition of her previous work in the field. Her contact with the Gautier family goes back 30 years: her life of Theophile Gautier was published in 1958. She has also published books on, among others, Verlaine, Stendhal and Colette, written introductions to Victor Hugo's novels and translated Baudelaire's poems. In all, the books she has written fill nearly three shelves in her Hampstead house. Her Desert Island Book, she confides, would be Keats's letters; but when one of the members of the Academie Goncourt asked her for her favourite book she diplomatically mentioned Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. The academicien was honoured. "Madame, the entire French nation would be with you," he said.

She has proved herself to be a resourceful historian as well as a literary critic. Her first book, a biography of Fanny Brawne, was inspired by the discovery of a cache of family photographs. Years later, she tracked down a trunk in Paris which turned out to be stuffed with letters from Flaubert, Mallarme, Zola and, as it happens, the brothers Goncourt.

If she has to summarise the purpose of biography, she calls it "a search for truth - you ought to know what sort of marmalade the subject eats for breakfast". In the case of Judith Gautier the truth was extraordinary. Her father was a famous poet, her mother a ballerina and poet's mistress. As a young girl she came to know such frequent visitors to the family home as Delacroix, Flaubert and Baudelaire. She was a noted Orientalist and a flamboyant writer, was painted by John Singer Sargent and loved by, to name only the most celebrated, Victor Hugo and Richard Wagner.

Judith's novels earned her, by a satisfying coincidence, the distinction of being the first woman ever elected to the Academie Goncourt. One wonders what she would have written in her journal had she known.

From the Books pages of `The Independent', Saturday 30 September 1989. The Law Report returns tomorrow

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