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January 5, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald and the Holiday Read

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_LifeAfter we’d gone book-shopping on our recent trip to England, I sat down to read that weekend’s Guardian Books with its books of the year round-up, and found reader after reader citing Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee. Now, my relationship with Penelope Fitzgerald is complicated. She’s an English author called Penelope, which is usually all it takes, but I find her books difficult, inexplicable. There is something there but it’s just beyond my range as a reader. In short, I’m not one of those who “gets” Penelope Fitzgerald. But in my failure to grasp her work, she fascinates me. (If more difficult writers wrote short books, this might be something I experienced more often.) I also love a good biography, and so after reading so many recommendations for the book, I was awfully sorry to find myself stranded on the Fylde Coast with nary a bookshop for miles and miles.

The airport bookshop, I decided, would be my salvation, so I was awfully sorry to discover that the WH Smith in Manchester Airport  Terminal 3 barely had books at all, let alone this one. (My expectations were high: it was at the Manchester Airport WH Smith that I bought my first Elizabeth Bowen novel in 2009. I don’t know if this was a different terminal, or if all the airport bookshops have been economic downturned.) We returned home to Canada without the book, and I requested it for Christmas, then was informed that it would be for sale in Canada until after the holidays. So ever it was not to be.

Until just before Christmas, a friend who knew none of this managed to get her hands on a copy and wrapped it up just for me. Penelope Fitzgerald was mine! I started to read it on Christmas Eve, and this fantastic book became the centre of my holiday.

What a life! Daughter of a prominent family, from a  world that is never to return after WW2. Her father edited Punch, her stepmother was Mary Shepherd, who illustrated Mary Poppins, who was the daughter of the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. Her mother was at Oxford with Dorothy Sayers and Rose Macaulay. Even the incidental intersections: the house her parents were meant to rent when Fitzgerald was 2 was inhabited by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray.

Fitzgerald finishes at Oxford and writes book and theatre reviews for Punch, scripts for the BBC. She marries Desmond Fitzgerald, her “Irish soldier”–one of many men in the book who are also shattered by their experiences of war. The embark on a career as literary bohemians, editing a literary magazine together and having three children who add to the disarray of their household. (In the background: miscarriages, at least one stillbirth. Fitzgerald becomes a larger than life character by her biographer’s hand, but still remains elusive.)

Several rented houses are fled from suddenly. The literary magazine folds. Desmond Fitzgerald gets into trouble. Penelope begins supporting her family by teaching, after a stint working part-time in a Suffolk bookshop. She moves them all back to London, where they really cannot afford to live, so she secures them lodgings on a leaky barge which becomes their home from 2 years. (The Penelope Fitzgerald books I’ve read are Offshore [which won the Booker Prize in 1979], The Bookshop and Human Voices, all of which are illuminated by these insights into her biography.)

The barge sinks… Which is a major challenge to Fitzgerald as a biographical subject, so much of her archive winding up at the bottom of the Thames. There is much hardship as she struggles to secure housing for her family, eventually ending up in a council flat in South London where she is happy enough to be settled. And here begins her literary career, publishing her first book at age 60. She writes a biography of her father and his brothers and poet Charlotte Mew before turning to fiction. And it is from this point on that she’s an overnight success. Etc. etc.

What a book! It makes me want to go back and reread the Fitzgerald novels I’ve encountered, to see if finally I can grasp them with such knowledge of their context. It makes me want to read everything she ever wrote, in particular her penultimate novel The Blue Flower, said by many to be a masterpiece. To understand her as un-English makes it all so much clearer, to think of her work in the context of Beckett’s. Her complexity as a person, as a character–impossible and infinitely loveable. Unabashed and brilliant. When she died, I cried. I have to get my hands on her collected letters, because I just want more more more of her.

2 thoughts on “Penelope Fitzgerald and the Holiday Read”

  1. Lynn Blin says:

    Thanks for this. I too, ‘do not get Penelope Fitzerald’. I read “The Bookshop” (I can’t seem to do italics, so I’ll have to go with inverted commas) twice, and the second reading, and a subsequent study for a course I was teaching did indeed give me great pleasure. But I’ve been struggling with “The Blue Flower” for years. It just seems sooooo elliptic, with so many blanks to be be filled in by the reader, that I can’t get past page 57. But since I abandon it at each reading, I have to start over again. So I’ve read the first 40 pages about 4 times.Julian Barnes thinks she’s the greatest writer ever. And when you read the rave reviews(4 pages in the Flamingo paperback edition), it makes me feel like such a lazy reader, that I vow to give it another concentrated try. I’d read the review in “The London Review of Books” of Lee’s biography, and it had already whetted my appetite. Your critique simply confirmed this.

  2. Sarah says:

    Hi Kerry. This was under my Christmas tree too! I’m still near the start but enjoying it very much, & understanding far more about PF and the context of her illustrious family (bishops for grandfathers on both sides! all those Knoxes!) than I had before.

    I would definitely recommend “The Blue Flower” – it was the first book by PF I read & I loved it so much that one of my sons is named after a character. “The Beginning of Spring” is also brilliant. Both are, to me at least, mysterious and inexplicable, but that’s somehow their joy!

    Her collected letters bring her voice magically alive, especially the letters to her daughters. I can remember getting to the end and being so heartbroken at her death that I had to go straight back to the beginning.

    Good luck with whatever you try next!

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