- 1923-2004 (Creation)
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Bernice Ruth Rubens (1923-2004) was a novelist, best known as the winner of the 1970 Booker Prize for Fiction (the first woman to win the prize) for The Elected Member, and as the winner of the 1976 Welsh Arts Council Prize for I sent a letter to my love, but she also published many other novels, short stories and articles, and worked as a teacher, a writer and director of documentary films, and a literary prize judge.
Born in Cardiff in 1923, the third child of an Orthodox Jewish father from Lithuania, she was brought up in a musical family. Her three siblings all became professional musicians, but Bernice Rubens was drawn towards literature, and married the novelist Rudolf (Rudi) Nassauer in 1947. She left Cardiff for Birmingham in 1948, but soon became disillusioned with her post as a teacher of English and French. Resolving to pursue a career in film, Rubens moved with her husband to London in 1950, where they cultivated the friendship of writers and intellectuals. Over the next two decades she worked on a number of films for organisations such as the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, the Society for the Blind, and the United Nations. The films dealt mainly with the vulnerable and disadvantaged, particularly children, the disabled and the developing world.
After the birth of her two daughters, Sharon (b. 1952) and Rebecca (b. 1954), Rubens devoted much of her time to them, and turned to novel writing as a convenient and rewarding use of her spare time. Her first novel, Set on Edge, was published in 1960, and its success encouraged her to continue writing. Popular and critical recognition of her talent was consolidated and increased as more of her work was published, but this created tension between Rubens and Nassauer, and the marriage was dissolved in 1970.
More than twenty of Bernice Rubens's novels have been published since 1960, and a number of them have been adapted for stage and screen. Although her first four novels dealt with Jewish family life, Rubens's work as a whole is difficult to categorise, as she was drawn towards exploring and experimenting with new and often unusual ideas. Her writing is firmly rooted in her sense of Jewishness, Welshness and womanhood, but fundamentally she was concerned with the universal human problems of love, communication, identity and survival. Her principal characters are often isolated socially or emotionally, facing the consequences of loneliness, guilt, selfishness and persecution. Rubens's style has been characterised as dark tragicomedy, witty yet sombre and unadorned, with the emphasis on character rather than description, revealing a down-to-earth interest in the quirky, the ironic, the contradictory and the unpredictable.
Critical reaction to Bernice Rubens's work has sometimes been mixed, but her novels have been published all over the world and her contribution to twentieth-century English literature is widely recognised. She died in 2004.
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
Bloomsbury Book Auctions (acting on behalf of Bernice Rubens); London; Purchase; B2000/5
Ms Sharon Nassauer (daughter of Bernice Rubens); London; Donation; October 2010
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