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. …