Michael Dirda reviews ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,’ by Hermione Lee
Michael Dirda reviews ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,’ by Hermione Lee
By Michael Dirda
December 31, 2014
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.
The Fitzgeralds and the three children next found themselves living in a council flat — government-subsidized housing. Although Desmond had been lucky to avoid prison time, his occupation was gone. As a result, the family largely depended on Penelope’s low-paying jobs teaching English at three schools, one for child actors. Desmond finally found a position as a clerk in a travel agency, where he remained for the next 30 years. Penelope taught until she was 70.
Hermione Lee, the acclaimed biographer of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, chronicles all this with even-handed sympathy and understanding. Fitzgerald’s marriage was in many ways a disaster, but she stood by her feckless husband and staunchly refused to ask for charity from her father or friends. Her clothes often looked as if she made them out of curtains. Yet beneath the dowdy, almost bag-lady image, she possessed a piercing, Jane Marpleish intelligence. Moreover, this devoted mother strove hard to give her children solid educations through her own example of constant reading and by taking them to museums, plays and concerts. Because of Desmond’s travel-agency job, they were even able to take discounted package tours to Europe.
Only when her children had finally left home for university (on scholarships) did Penelope Fitzgerald — now in her 50s— start the writing career she had dreamed of before her marriage. Her intellectual hero had long been the progressive thinker, poet, novelist and artist William Morris, whose best friend was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. After five years of intense research and writing, Fitzgerald published the biography “Edward Burne-Jones” (1975). This was followed by “The Knox Brothers” (1977), a group portrait of her father and uncles and one of the most delightful books of its kind. Finally, to keep up her spirits and to amuse Desmond as he lay slowly dying from cancer, she turned out her first novel, “The Golden Child” (1977), a mystery set in the museum world.
But these were just warm-ups for Fitzgerald’s serious fiction. In her early 60s, she pillaged her own life for settings and background: “The Bookshop” (1978) was based on the sojourn in Southwold, “Offshore” (1979) evoked the family’s life on the Thames, “Human Voices” (1980) drew on her time at the BBC, and “At Freddie’s” (1982) had its origins in that school for young actors. Each of these novels received respectful reviews; “Offshore” even won the 1979 Booker Prize, to the amazement of almost everyone. Deciding on a temporary break from fiction, the seemingly tireless author next brought out “Charlotte Mew and Her Friends” (1984), a biography of a minor Edwardian poet much admired by Thomas Hardy. (I have never forgotten Mew’s line, “The spirit afterwards, but first the touch.”)
All these are wonderful books, but Fitzgerald got even better with her historical novels. As she entered her 70s, she published “Innocence” (1986), which takes place in post-World War II Italy, followed by “The Beginning of Spring” (1988), set in Moscow just before the Russian Revolution. They were succeeded by “The Gate of Angels” (1990), which evoked Edwardian life in Cambridge (and includes a superb ghost story told by a don modeled after M.R. James), and, to cap them all, “The Blue Flower” (1995), which focuses on Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, one of the greatest poets of 19th-century German literature.
I can’t praise Hermione Lee’s elegant work enough, whether for its clear prose, clever organization (she discusses Fitzgerald’s early novels when relating the events that inspired them), insightful criticism or amusing and horrifying anecdotes. Half the names in contemporary English literature briefly appear, including such killer Bs as Julian Barnes, Anita Brookner, Beryl Bainbridge and A.S. Byatt. But then, England is a tight little country, and unexpected connections abound. Mary Shepard, Fitzgerald’s stepmother, drew the pictures for P.L. Travers’s “Mary Poppins” and was the daughter of Ernest Shepard, illustrator of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
Any admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work — or, for that matter, any passionate reader — will enjoy this capacious, masterly biography. Like its subject’s own late flowering, it is a triumph.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.