Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens

Booker prize winning novelist Bernice Rubens was born in Splott, Cardiff in 1928, the third of four children into an Eastern European family of practising Orthodox and Zionist Jews.

Last updated: 11 November 2008

Rubens' close-knit family life and the Judaism that dominated it were inherent themes interwoven into all of her major works. She wrote a total of 25 novels during her career.

Rubens was educated at Tredegarville and Roath Park infants' schools, moving onto Cardiff High School for Girls. She read English at University College, Cardiff, where she was president of both the Socialist and the Music societies. Rubens' family was particularly musical; her siblings all became professional musicians, the author herself taking up the piano, and moreover the cello as a serious amateur.

Rubens graduated in 1944 and having taught at Handsworth Grammar School for Boys briefly, moved to London. Three years later she married Rudolf Nassaeur, and their two children Sharon and Rachel followed shortly afterwards.

Rubens gave up teaching after her children were born and began writing in the early 1960s. Her initial novel, Set on Edge (1960), was written in one longhand draft and found a publisher immediately. This was quickly followed by Madame Sousatza in 1962, which was turned into a film in 1988 starring Shirley MacLaine in the lead role.

Rubens penned The Elected Member in 1969 and became the first female recipient of the Booker Prize for the work in 1970, beating the likes of Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth Bowen to the honour. The author was prolific in her novel writing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, notably: I Sent a Letter To My Love (1975), turned into a film starring Simone Signoret and Jean Rochefort in 1981; A Five-Year Sentence (1978) which was nominated for the Booker Prize; Brothers (1983) the novel that Rubens claimed was her best work, and Mr Wakefield's Crusade (1985), later turned into a BBC television mini-series.

Rubens also successfully turned her hand to documentary film making, specialising in humanitarian subjects. She won a contract with Granada and later with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Due to this Rubens travelled to Asia and Africa, and filmed an acclaimed Man Alive documentary about the plight of parents of the mentally handicapped. She won the American Blue Ribbon award for the film Stress in 1968.

More acclaim for her writing followed as she won the 1988 Welsh Arts Council Award for Our Father (1987) and the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Kingdom Come (1990). Rubens was also an honorary vice-president of International PEN and served as a Booker judge in 1986.

She was made a fellow of her former university, now Cardiff University, in 1982 and received an honorary DLitt from the University of Wales in 1992.

Rubens died in 2004 at the age of 76, of a stroke combined with chronic bronchitis, having just completed a first draft of her autobiography.

Selected bibliography:

  • Madame Sousatzka (1962)
  • The Elected Member (1969)
  • I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975)
  • Brothers (1983)
  • A Solitary Grief (1991)

BBC Radio 4

Pages from an open book

Open Book

The best new books, interviews and lost masterpieces.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.