The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald

Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong. She’d come to Oxford expecting poets and orgies, and had seen few of the one and none of the other. She said she’d taken part in “the first Spelling Bee against America,” in which Oxford had lost by four points to a team from Radcliffe and Harvard, and that she had spoken in the Union “with the result that there were only two votes for my side of the motion.”
This was the wry self-effacement of a star student. Isis readers knew that Penelope herself had shone in the bee, and that her spelling of “daguerreotype” had been “loudly applauded by both teams”; but she wasn’t going to boast about that. She finished her remarks: “I have been reading steadily for seventeen years; when I go down I want to start writing.”
There would be no biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, of course, if she hadn’t done so, and it’s part of the unusual interest of her story that the promised start was deferred by nearly forty years. She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, when she was fifty-eight; her first novel appeared when she was sixty. She was, as she said, “an old writer who had never been a young one.” How different it would have been if, like her close contemporaries Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, she had started publishing fiction in the 1950s, if she’d moved in the shifting currents of influence and allegiance and left her mark on the literary history of those decades. But as it happened she made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody. In America she achieved fame at the age of eighty with The Blue Flower, her finest and most demanding book, and also her last. She died, aged eighty-three, in 2000.
This triumph of late productivity is unavoidably tied to loss, the paradoxical freedoms of bereavement. Edward Burne-Jones was written immediately after her father died. Dedicated to her children, it reaches back into the cultural world of the generation before her own that she had always found so fascinating: it is a passing on of knowledge. Her first novel, The Golden Child, a “joke” as she called it, was written to amuse her gravely ill husband Desmond Fitzgerald, and is dedicated, posthumously, to him.
Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood. And as a widow, she had at last a room of her own. Hermione Lee describes how from 1960 until her husband’s death in 1976, Fitzgerald always slept on a daybed in the sitting room, which was also where she worked. She went to bed last and got up first, the untiring if sometimes desperate motor of a family of three children and a war hero husband who had fallen to pieces on civvy street. She supported her family by teaching and continued to teach, at a posh crammer’s, until she was seventy. But after Desmond’s death she lodged with the family of one or other of her daughters, Tina and Maria, and for a period of seven years in the attic of a friend in Maida Vale, in the unprecedented liberty, and occasional loneliness, of the writer’s life.
At first there was a torrent of writing. Lee reveals that in 1977 Fitzgerald was writing five books at the same time, though three of them were to be abandoned. She produced a novel a year for four years, each drawing on a period of her early and middle life, so that there was a quick retrospective using up of personal material that in a more conventional career might have been worked through at the time. The Bookshop and Offshore found fictional form for a difficult phase in her married life, when she lived first in Southwold on the East Anglian coast, and then in a leaky barge on the Thames. Human Voices went back to her time at the BBC during the war, and At Freddie’s to the period when she taught at a children’s acting school in the early 1960s. Then came her biography of the vividly subjective poet Charlotte Mew, published in 1984, a further exploration of a world she just remembered, the other Bloomsbury, of shabby lodgings, stifled feelings, and Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, which had been a beacon of Fitzgerald’s own childhood.
Thereafter her novels were set in times and/or places she had not herself known, and sometimes involved real historical figures, as in the unforgettable visit to Antonio Gramsci in prison in Innocence. Her pace of production halved as she moved into her seventies, but is no less astonishing in view of the complex research that went into each of these last four novels: Innocence (set in Florence in the mid-1950s), The Beginning of Spring (pre-Revolutionary Russia), The Gate of Angels (1913 Cambridge), and The Blue Flower (late-eighteenth-century Germany). At the same time she came to prominence as an acute and profoundly knowledgeable reviewer and essayist.
At the age of seventy-eight, suffering from an irregular heartbeat, she tried what was clearly a novel experiment for her, “a day’s absolute laziness…. But the laziness makes me feel guilty for that is how I was brought up.” She was a Knox to the end; and proud to be one. Her second book, The Knox Brothers, is a portrait of her father and her three uncles, written with the keen wit, contained feeling, and cultured insiderliness that were to be features of her later novels. Children of an Evangelical bishop, the brothers formed a remarkable quartet (there were also two sisters, barely seen in their niece’s account).
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