Penelope’s odyssey - Penelope Fitzgerald

In writing the life of Penelope Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee has had to face a number of considerable hurdles. Fitzgerald only began publishing when she was sixty; she left an exiguous body of letters behind; and in The Knox Brothers (1977), her joint biography of her father and uncles, she wrote an account of the men who had the greatest influence on her that no biographer can hope to rival. Still, Lee’s subject also offered blessings. Fitzgerald was a supremely autobiographical writer, all of whose books, even her historical novels, draw heavily from her life. She was not only an author but also a teacher and mother, and these other roles greatly enriched her literary art. And since she has still not received the critical attention she deserves, she is an ideal subject for a full-dress, critical biography. 

Lee turns most of these blessings to account by presenting her biography as a family history, with Fitzgerald as the indomitable heroine whose misfortunes only prove her mettle. She also plots the biography as a kind of odyssey: a homecoming through very rough seas. Apropos this, there is a funny bit in Fitzgerald’s book on the Knox brothers where she recalls how all four brothers were invited to speak at the Oxford Union in response to the proposition that “There’s No Place Like Home,” and yet none of the brothers showed because they were detained in London by an impenetrable fog. In this quintessentially Knoxian anecdote, both droll and poignant, we can see the same note that animates all of Fitzgerald’s work.

Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with home stemmed from an idyllic childhood. Born in 1916, she grew up in a now-vanished Hampstead, where, as she recalled, sheep grazed on Hampstead Heath, “poets, conspicuous in their broad-brimmed hats, roamed the streets,” and “lamplighters walked at dusk from gas lamp to gas lamp.” Her father was Edmund, “Evoe” Knox, the editor of Punch, about whom Malcolm Muggeridge observed, “He was a hard man to get to know, an enigmatic person altogether.” As a girl of seven, Fitzgerald was sent into “exile and imprisonment” to a preparatory boarding school in Eastbourne, before entering Somerville College, where she studied with J. R. R. Tolkien and won a First in English Literature. After university, and throughout the war, she worked at the BBC, where she met her husband, Desmond, a handsome soldier in the Irish Guards who was later called to the Bar as a barrister in the Middle Temple. Although well liked, Desmond drank too much and was disbarred after he was caught stealing from his chambers. Later, he swallowed his pride and took a job as a travel agent, which enabled his wife to visit the foreign countries—especially Italy and Russia—in which she set her historical novels. In 1959, Evoe argued in his Leslie Stephen Lecture that the best approach to the twentieth century was one of “self satire, the ability to see humor in the constant small defeats of life.” Desmond was one of the big defeats in Fitzgerald’s life, in whom she could find little humor, though she never turned against him. In this, the only thing that matched her fortitude was her loyalty.

In 1941, the couple settled in Hampstead and had three children, all of whom, in their different ways, were deeply attached to their exceptional mother. Some of the funniest pages in Lee’s book are descriptions of the tensions between Fitzgerald and her son’s pretty Cordoban wife, of whom Fitzgerald was keenly jealous. From 1950 until 1953, Fitzgerald and her husband co-edited the World Review, a cultural journal which published, among others, Henry Treece, Robert Conquest, Max Beloff, and Walter de la Mare. They also published J. D. Salinger a year before The Catcher in the Rye (1951) appeared. Raleigh Trevelyan, who published Fitzgerald’s first book, recalled the husband and wife team of editors with amused affection: “They seemed very different types—Desmond Etonian, she more housewifey. He did most of the talking, but she was the brains.” In 1957, to flee their creditors, the family moved to Southwold, on the east coast of England, “a flat, sandy, Holland-like coast,” as Fitzgerald remembered it, “with wide skies and bright clouds, beloved of painters and a temptation to those who think they can paint but can’t.” There Fitzgerald worked in a haunted bookshop not unlike the one she describes in her second novel, where “the Unseen . . . could no more mind its business than the Seen.”

One of her projects that never panned out was a history of the Poetry Bookshop, the proprietor of which, Harold Monro, edited the immensely successful Georgian Poetry series before being deserted by the poets whose careers he helped launch. Dying of drink in his early fifties, Monro epitomized the sort of failure that would always appeal to Fitzgerald’s interest in life’s losers, those whom she nicely dubbed “exterminatees.” Indeed, her very first published story, “The Axe” (1974), a brilliantly funny jeu d’esprit, reaffirmed the dignity of castaways.

In the early 1960s, again in financial straits, Fitzgerald and her family moved back to London, where they lived on a barge on Chelsea Reach—a “battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk,” as she later described it, “heaving up with difficulty on every rising tide.” Irresistibly for this novelist of faith, the name of the old wooden barge was Grace. After the barge sank, the family moved into a council estate, where they continued to endure much squalor and penury. To help keep the family from total destitution, Fitzgerald taught at the Italia Conti, a school for child actors. She also managed to get all three of her children into Oxford, no small feat at a time when entrance into her alma mater had become unusually competitive.

In 1975 her first book was published, a biography of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, followed in 1977 by The Knox Brothers. In 1984 her biography of Charlotte Mew appeared. She wrote her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977, at the age of sixty-one, to amuse her dying husband. From 1978 to 1995, she wrote eight more novels: The Bookshop (1977); Offshore (1979), based on her life on Chelsea Reach; Human Voices (1980), based on her BBC experiences; At Freddy’s (1982), one of the few good theater novels in English; and then, in stately succession, Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower (1995), all of which ingeniously renovate the historical novel. A book of short stories, The Means of Escape (2000)—which includes “At Hiruharama,” a marvelous pro-life story—and a posthumous collection of her literary journalism, The Afterlife (2003), rounded off a remarkably prolific career.

Although influenced by aspects of the work of others—the epistemological comedy of Samuel Beckett, the moral intelligence of Mrs. Oliphant and George Eliot, the impassioned didacticism of Ruskin and William Morris—Fitzgerald learned most from her extraordinary family. Her mother, Christina Hicks, was “a gentle, spirited, scholarly, hazel-eyed girl, a lover of poetry and music, a determined, though not a militant, suffragette.” Just months before her daughter entered Somerville—her own college—Christina died. The loss that haunts Fitzgerald’s fiction originated from this first irreplaceable loss.

Fortunately there was a tradition of faith in the family. Her mother’s father, Edward Hicks, fell under the influence of Ruskin at Oxford, became an authority on Greek inscriptions, and worked for years as a rector in grim industrial Salford before being appointed Bishop of Lincoln. Throughout his life, his daughter recalled, his religion remained “the beauty of holiness, quiet worship, and the steady discharge of common duties.” Her paternal grandfather, Bishop Edmund Knox, was equally devout. Apropos his adolescent religious doubts, he recalled: “When the testing came, and when I heard the question put to my soul, ‘Wilt thou also go away?’ I was able to see that unfaith could not satisfy my deepest needs.” Nevertheless, he was baffled by the faith of his two younger sons, confiding in his daughter: “Between ourselves, Winnie, I cannot understand what it is that the dear boys see in the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The “dear boys” were Fitzgerald’s uncle Wilfrid, an Anglo-Catholic priest, who was an authority on the apostle Paul, and her uncle Ronnie, the great Catholic convert. Her father, in his retirement, after decades of indifference, returned to the Anglican Church. Her uncle Dilly, a codebreaker who worked on the Enigma, was the family’s sole atheist. With this background, it is not surprising that Fitzgerald should have made questions of faith the core of her books.

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