Posy Simmonds is only the fifth woman and the first Briton to win the grand prix at France's prestigious Angouleme comics festival, an honour she is thrilled with -- even if toothache prevented her from collecting it in person.

Cartoons and comics have been "a boys' club for a long time and certainly over the last decades women have infiltrated it. Of course, I am really pleased to be one of them," she told AFP this week.

Simmonds, 78, is best known in Britain for her work in The Guardian newspaper and her gentle satirisation of the English middle classes.

In France, however, she became famous for "Gemma Bovery" (1999), considered an iconoclastic masterpiece, with a complex plot delivered in very dense text, reimagining the bored heroine of Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary".

That work was initially commissioned by The Guardian which asked her for 100 episodes.

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Simmonds is best known for gently satirising the English middle classes / © AFP

But feeling she had a lot more to say, Simmonds decided to accompany her drawings with numerous long texts.

This would become her trademark in the graphic novels that followed, such as "Tamara Drewe" or "Cassandra Darke".

"You can say things in three lines that happened in the past, like, you know, 'he'd been married three times and he hated cats'," she said.

"You don't have to draw it. It also allowed me to have several different voices in my books, so that you saw the story from a different angle. And I think that added depth to it," she added.

- 'Gemma Bovery' -

Simmonds works from a small room in her 12th floor apartment in central London, filled with books, pencils and drawings, far from the countryside where she grew up.

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Simmonds says toothache prevented her from attending in person / © AFP

The Angouleme International Comics Festival in southwestern France is widely seen as the industry's most illustrious event.

Although she couldn't make it to France on Wednesday for the announcement, the long-time Francophile who studied at the Sorbonne, confesses she finds becoming the first Briton to win the prize "quite extraordinary".

"I was astonished first of all, I said 'wow'... and then of course I was very pleased," she told AFP.

Simmonds says Britain lags behind France in its interest in comics or BD ("bandes dessinées") as they are known.

"I always remember going to Paris and being in the FNAC (book store), and there were adults reading BD and children at their feet reading BD. I thought this is just amazing," she said.

A constant in her work is strong female characters, whether it is Gemma, an Englishwoman who cheats on her husband in the Normandy countryside, or Cassandra, a cantankerous old Londoner, who defends herself tooth and nail against adversity.

Simmonds is busy working on a new book in which she looks at the years from 1959-62 "before the pill and before the Beatles", perhaps she says, the last contemporary period to have become "a little old-fashioned".

Her sketches in red ink feature cars from the era and women whose style has not yet been liberated by London's "Swinging Sixties".