Bernice Rubens, 1928-2004

Bernice Rubens, writer, born July 26 1928; died October 13 2004


Bernice Rubens was a highly accomplished writer and film director. A much-valued member of English PEN for more than twenty years, she served on a number of committees including the Writers in Prison Committee and the Executive Committee. She was also a Vice Chair of the Executive Committee and later a Vice President of English PEN.

Her first novel was written in 1960, entitled Set On Edge. During her career, she wrote twenty five novels, and had just completed a draft of her memoirs at the time of her death. She drew upon the experiences of her life and the relationships therein to create her characters; Madame Sousatzka, which was made into a film in 1988 starring Shirley Maclaine, was a story about a gifted musical prodigy very similar to her brother Harold, and The Elected Member, winner of the 1970 Booker Prize ahead of work by Iris Murdoch, William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, addressed the issues of overwhelming expectations and mental illness, referring to the theories of RD Laing. Another novel, I Sent a Letter to My Love, was made into a film in 1981, starring Simone Signoret and Jean Rochefort. In 1986 she was invited to be a judge on the Booker Prize Panel of judges. She won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Kingdom Come (1990), and she won the Arts Council of Wales Literature Award three times.

In her later books, Rubens began to transfer her focus to some broader historical subjects. Though she commonly denied any religious feeling, as she described it, she felt more and more Jewish as her life went on. This is most clearly seen in her 1983 novel Brothers, a 500-page novel that follows the path of a Jewish family describing their experiences with persecution across Europe over several generations. She felt proudest of this work, citing it as her best “because … what it’s about matters”.

For The Guardian’s complete obituary, please click here.

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