‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,’ by Hermione Lee

On New Year’s Day we all think about fresh starts and new directions. But few of us will ever manage such dramatic rebirths as did Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who never published a book until she was just shy of 60 — yet became one of Britain’s most admired novelists. Her tragicomic masterpieces, such as “The Beginning of Spring” and “The Blue Flower,” are concise, beautifully composed accounts of ordinary people stoically facing up to life’s confusions and defeats. In several ways, the contemporary American writer Fitzgerald most resembles is Marilynne Robinson. She’s that good, that distinctive, albeit with a far livelier sense of the human comedy.
Fitzgerald was born into a remarkable family. Her father, E.V. Knox, edited “Punch,” the English humor magazine. Her uncles included the saintly Wilfred Knox, who worked as an Anglican priest among the poorest of the poor; ­Dillwyn Knox, atheist, classicist and Britain’s chief code breaker; and Ronald Knox, who at Eton was regarded as that school’s most brilliant student in living memory. While an Oxford undergraduate, Ronald produced the pioneering “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (1912) and went on to publish his own detective novels. He became a distinctly worldly Catholic priest, translated the Bible into modern English and had his biography written by no less than Evelyn Waugh.
The four brothers were quick-witted, competitive, loyal to their family and emotionally reticent. Penelope Knox exhibited these same traits, winning the top scholarship to Oxford’s Somerville College, contributing humorous pieces to Isis and to other university magazines, earning a “first” in English. But she also was dubbed “the blonde bombshell” and regarded as one of the most beautiful girls at the university. With the outbreak of World War II, the young Oxford star took a clerical position with the BBC, then in 1942 married a “gallant” Irish soldier named Desmond Fitzgerald. The Libyan campaign and the bloodshed at Monte Cassino irrevocably damaged Desmond’s fun-loving spirit. In later years he could never bear to hear fireworks, and at night would often wake up screaming.
Nonetheless, the young Fitzgeralds appeared to be a golden couple and before long were the parents of a son and two daughters. But the battle-scarred Desmond — although qualified as a barrister — proved neither ambitious nor especially hard-working. With Penelope’s help, he edited a fine literary magazine called World Review during the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the couple made hardly any money, Desmond began to drink too much, and gradually — then more quickly — their lives slid downhill. The family eventually fled London (with rent in arrears) and took up residence in Southwold, a small Suffolk town by the sea. Penelope worked in a bookshop. When the Fitzgeralds finally returned to London, they found the cheapest possible lodgings on a decrepit boat permanently moored in the River Thames. It was often ankle deep in dirty water. During these years there was never enough to eat, and what little money Desmond made as a barrister he spent at pubs. Desperate, he furtively stole checks from other lawyers, forged their signatures and eventually was caught and disbarred. One day, the family’s dilapidated home sank and most of their few possessions were lost.


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