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

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week