'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,' by Hermione Lee / Review by Meganne Fabrega
Penelope Fitzgerald in 1999
Photo by Ellen Warner
Review: 'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,' by Hermione Lee
A biography of the late-blooming but brilliant writer Penelope Fitzgerald.
By Meganne Fabrega
December 11, 2014
"Her life is basically a short story about lateness," writes acclaimed biographer Hermione Lee of Penelope Fitzgerald, the British novelist, biographer, teacher, mother and wife who did not find commercial success until she was well into middle age. With "Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life," Lee's exhaustive research and immense storytelling talent result in a captivating read about a woman who lived most of her life on the sidelines.
It's no surprise that Fitzgerald came from a literary background that included a mother and father who were "dipped in ink." Fitzgerald herself started writing and drawing, from an early age, establishing herself as the "Blonde Bombshell" at Oxford. After writing and editing for Oxford's student papers, she graduated and contributed film reviews for Punch and scripts for the BBC during World War II.
"Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life," by Hermione Lee
After her marriage to lawyer (and aspiring writer) Desmond Fitzgerald in 1942, the young couple took over the editorship of the literary magazine World Review in 1950, an endeavor that was short-lived and financially untenable. The demise of World Review in 1953 corresponded with their own declining bank account and began a period of great hardship, financially, physically and emotionally, for the Fitzgeralds and their growing family, which included three young children.
Fitzgerald took on work as a teacher and was the sole support for their family of five. They were destitute and constantly scrambling for housing, food, clothing and other basics. There was no time for her own work, for as she wryly observed, "A woman is a sitting target for interruption." Fitzgerald was essentially on her own. Desmond was unable for various reasons to contribute to the family's needs, so it's no wonder that it wasn't until her 60s that she could make the time to put on paper what had been swimming in her head for so many years.
With her children grown, she began a period of intense productivity, recognition and, by the very end, some semblance of financial success (although Lee points out that Fitzgerald continued to be hopeless when it came to money). Lee takes ample time to discuss in depth Fitzgerald's work in biography and fiction, her struggles with her publishers, her circle of friends and her role as outsider in a sea of younger, better dressed literary wunderkinds.
Fitzgerald describes her own books this way: "In my novels you have to settle for not very much in the end, for making do, for the possibility that two people might just be happy together. What else can you do but that?"
With great respect, and an innate sense of the underappreciated, Lee shines a brilliant light on Fitzgerald's long life of making do, and making art in the process.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.