Hermione Lee’s biography of the writer Penelope Fitzgerald.
By James Wood
November 24, 2014
James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007.
“A very definite place.” So Penelope Fitzgerald described the English town of Southwold, on the Suffolk coast—a place of wet winds, speeding clouds, and withdrawn beauty where she and her family moved in 1957, when she was forty-one. It is a characteristic phrase, from a writer of a very definite prose, with sharp outlines and a distinctly high-handed economy. Modern literature is mostly written not by aristocrats but by the middle classes. A certain class confidence, not to say imperiousness, can be heard in well-born writers like Nabokov and Henry Green; Tolstoy’s famous line about Ivan Ilyich—“Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore most terrible”—represents surely a count’s hauteur as much as a religious moralist’s lament. Fitzgerald was not exactly an aristocrat (her forebears were scholars and intellectuals), or exactly gentry (they were religiously wary of money and possessions), but she came from a brilliant and eminent family, with long connections to both the Church of England and Oxford University, and the tone of command is everywhere in her writing.
Authority is part of the obscure magic of her achievement as a novelist. If one of the commonest critical responses to her work seems to be laudatory bafflement—“How does she do it?”—the beginning of an answer is that she proceeds with utmost confidence that she will be heard and that we will listen, even to her reticence. Her fictions sit on the page with the well-rubbed assurance of fact, as if their details were calmly agreed upon, and long established. And though you might expect work of irritating certitude, Fitzgerald’s confidence in her material is oddly disarming; she seems somehow to take life as it comes, as if we were always entering her novels in the middle of how things just are. This is the opening of “The Bookshop” (1978):
In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not. This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore, and to open the only bookshop in Hardborough. The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much. Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all—and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind—she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.
“The Bookshop,” published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene, and the qualities of her immense vitality are all present at the beginning of her late-blooming career. The passage is lively in part because its music is jagged: each sentence is a little different from its predecessor; nothing is quite allowed to settle into the familiar. Precision seems important (“1959”; “a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters”), but the novelist’s certainty does not preclude a tactful hesitancy about her characters (“The uncertainty probably kept her awake”). At the very moment the reader might expect pathos or sentiment, there is a quizzical resistance to it (heron and eel are pitiable only in their “indecision”). The writing quietly hovers around the thoughts of its protagonist (heron and eel “had taken on too much,” like Florence Green) but has room for authorial impatience (“and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind”).
At first, it all sounds recognizably English: peppery, proprietorial, curiously angled, like Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark (both influences, to an extent). Fitzgerald is frequently funny, never more so than in her first novel. A young Member of Parliament is paradoxically compacted into “a brilliant, successful, and stupid young man.” A ten-year-old girl, Christine Gipping, who comes to help out in Florence Green’s doomed bookshop, is described as using her “best” (i.e., most educated-sounding) voice, “the one urged by her class teacher on those who had to play Florence Nightingale, or the Virgin Mary.” Piles of neglected novels have the air, “in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.” An entire community is summarized thus: “Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became water-colourists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well.” Yet this witty passage continues into a different, larger atmosphere, and we sense that Fitzgerald will not be content to move merely in Waugh’s wake: “All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms, while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.”
For every sentence of exacting satire in her work, there is another of lyrical enigma or amplitude. Details that seem expertly factual quickly become dreamily resonant. In “The Beginning of Spring” (1988), a meticulous, finely practical description of a Russian dacha and its storerooms (“In front of the dacha, running across its whole length, was a veranda of shaky wooden planks, with a roof supported by fretwork columns”) suddenly glints with hidden treasure. Underneath that veranda, Fitzgerald writes, if you lifted one of the loose planks, there was a good deal of rustling animal and vegetable life. And also this: “Some previous tenant (the whole estate, the forest, the village and the dacha, was owned by a Prince Demidov, who preferred to live in Le Touquet) had left his knives and forks there for safety during the winter, and had forgotten them, or perhaps had never returned.” In “The Gate of Angels” (1990), Fred Fairly returns to the village of Blow, where his parents and siblings live. It is 1907, and all is English pastoral. The flowers that throng the village are catalogued (“early roses red and white, pot marigolds, feverfew which was grown here as a garden plant, ferocious poppies and cornflowers,” and so on), and we are told that even at the train station people are growing roses and beans, “and large marrows striped like a tom-cat.” And then Fitzgerald pauses to notice, at the station, a “very young porter,” who is “lining up the milk-churns,” and the information begins to sing: “A certain amount of milk always got spilled on the platform, giving it a faint smell of a nursery sink, drowned at the moment by the bean-flowers and the meadowsweet.”
In the same way, a prose that wryly announces comedy can, in the next sentence, wryly announce tragedy. The passage that opens “The Bookshop”—tart but cozy, we think, something we can deliciously settle into—gives way, in the succeeding paragraph, to something much less easy: “For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” The novel, like most of Fitzgerald’s stories, is about tragicomic failure: the book ends with Florence Green leaving the town by train, thwarted by a vengeful and parochial community, the dream of her shop in disarray, bowing her head in shame, “because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”
Like her prose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s life has front rooms and back rooms: public places where appearances are maintained and a comic, insouciant hospitality holds sway; and obscurer realms, where the cutlery is rusting and milk has been spilled, heads are bowed in shame, and everything is breaking apart. Fitzgerald’s public, literary life looks much like patience on a monument: having brought up three children almost single-handedly, against difficult odds, the author finds her voice late in life, and starts publishing when she is nearly sixty. Although she mock-modestly referred to her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones she published in 1975, as nothing more than “My Little Bit of Writing,” we know better, because we know that she will go on to publish nine novels in the last twenty years of her life, that one of them, “Offshore” (1979), will win the Booker Prize, and that her final novel, “The Blue Flower” (1995), is indisputably great. We know that after her death, in 2000, she will often be described as one of Britain’s finest postwar writers.
She learned how to wait: success as a late distillation of talent. The private story is much stranger and sadder and more haphazard, as Hermione Lee’s remarkable biography “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life” (Knopf) reveals. The story that Lee’s book tells (or tries to tell, because much evidence has been obscured or lost) is not about patience on a monument but about talent buried under a heavy plinth, and discovered only just in time—the late achievement less a measured distillation than a lifesaving decoction.
Penelope Fitzgerald was bound for success. She was born in 1916 into what Lee calls “a brilliantly clever English family distinguished by alarming honesty, caustic wit, shyness, moral rigour, willpower, oddness, and powerful banked-down feelings, erupting in moments of sentiment or in violent bursts of temper and gloom.” Academic and institutional achievement was taken for granted, so much so that it could be interestingly squandered or subverted. Fitzgerald, in her biography of the most prominent members of this family, “The Knox Brothers” (1977), described her father and his three brothers, each of them novels-in-waiting. One uncle, Dillwyn Knox, was a mathematical genius, a classicist and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, who became a cryptographer, and whose work at Bletchley Park, in the Second World War, was instrumental in cracking the Enigma code. But his wartime work was secretive. Outwardly, he seemed to live in shabby eccentricity and with aimless brilliance, in a damp and drafty house not far from Oxford, where he busied himself in studying Greek poetry and inventing verse forms. He was fiercely agnostic: to him, Christ was “that deluded individual, J.C.”
The lives of the two other uncles, Wilfred and Ronald Knox, bore the impress of the family’s religious imperatives—Penelope’s grandfather had been the Bishop of Manchester. Wilfred, shy and awkward, eventually joined a celibate religious order, and wrote a book, “Meditation and Mental Prayer,” treasured by his niece. Ronald, who learned Latin and Greek at four, and was remembered as “the cleverest boy in Eton’s living memory,” became famous as his generation’s most prominent Anglican convert to Catholicism. He wrote detective stories, did a new translation of the Bible, and became the Catholic chaplain of Oxford University. Evelyn Waugh wrote his biography. Ronald’s niece noticed—in a detail enjoyed by Lee, who is also a talented noticer—that at his home in Oxford a picture hanging upside down in a passage stayed that way for twelve years.
Perhaps the least interesting of the Knox brothers was the one most lightly touched by religious or anti-religious fervor—Penelope Knox’s father, Edmund, who would say that church did not seem to “rub off properly” on him. He left Oxford without a degree, and had a successful career as a satirical journalist, first, as a columnist for the magazine Punch and, later, as its editor. But he seems also to have been the Knox most marked by the early death of his mother, when he was eleven, and by the isolation of his schooling. Some thought him cold. Lee writes that “his emotions went underground when she died.” Like his brothers, and like his daughter, he had a talent for what Fitzgerald called “the Edwardian habit of understatement.” The phrase is itself an understatement. Certainly, it is easy to enjoy the glamorous modesty whereby Penelope Fitzgerald referred to “The Blue Flower” as “a novel of sorts.” And it is difficult not to laugh when, after losing the houseboat she had been living on for three years between 1960 and 1963 (it started to sink into the Thames, and was towed away), Fitzgerald, only a little harried, arrives at the school where she was teaching, Westminster Tutors, and announces to her students, “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.” This is of a piece with a wartime story Lee tells of Fitzgerald’s father. As Edmund Knox was opening a bottle of wine, a German bomb fell nearby, and the impact forced the cork out of the neck. “If one could rely on its happening regularly” was Edmund’s suavely murmured response.
But this fine calm is merely the idealized official version of a helpless silence, one that deeply marked the Knox family, and Fitzgerald’s life. Penelope’s brother, Rawle, spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. His family, who had not known if he was dead or alive, first heard from him when the Red Cross arranged for liberated prisoners to send postcards home. According to Lee, Rawle “mailed the Knoxes a crossword clue,” but “no one could work out the answer.” A Knoxian gesture, daring in its high discretion. But another kind of discretion was also Knoxian: “Just before his return, he sent a letter to [his father], saying that if ever he wanted to ask him about what had happened in the camp, Rawle would tell him. He came back, and no one in the family ever asked him anything.” Repeatedly, this superbly intelligent biography falls upon empty archives, archives one wants to believe were shrewdly emptied by Fitzgerald or by her three children (who wants biographers spelunking in family darknesses?), but which one fears, rather, were never full to begin with, because little was ever said, let alone recorded. Penelope’s husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, also suffered through a dreadful war (he was an officer in the Irish Guards and saw heavy fighting in Italy), and returned “a different person from the dashing young officer Penelope had married in 1942.” Desmond “didn’t talk about it,” one of Penelope’s friends said. Trauma is unspeakable. But so is love, apparently. After informing us of her wedding, Lee adds, “There are no clues to Penelope’s feelings or motives—no love letters, no diaries, no reminiscences. Friends, looking back, made their guesses.” And so it goes, through the decades. Fitzgerald, for instance, maintained a strong Christian faith, and was a lifelong churchgoer. But you will find no revealing personal statement, either in this biography or in her writing, about the status of that faith. She preferred not to talk about the most important events in her life, or has left sparse and evasive records of what she felt. Lee’s book is crossed with wounds; but they cannot speak.
Lee stays close to the evidence, and is wary of speculation. But it’s hard not to see the story of Fitzgerald’s life—at least, until its improbable late renaissance—as painfully symptomatic of its period and nation, a self half-maimed by familial emotional reticence, unhappy boarding schools (Fitzgerald was sent away at the age of eight, and hated her schools), male privilege, the religious self-mortification of leftover Victorian evangelicalism, the devastations of two world wars, and a distinctively English postwar parsimoniousness.
At Oxford, in the mid-nineteen-thirties, Penelope Knox was spotlit for greatness. The Knox name had been celebrated in Oxford for generations, Lee reminds us, and its owner’s brain was formidable (she had won a scholarship, “for the best candidate in her year”). She was in a smart set known as Les Girls. But her mother had died at the age of fifty, only a few months before Penelope arrived at university, and the Knox achievement was, for her, both banner and burden. One of her Oxford friends shrewdly thought that “though she started life so brilliantly and was so well connected, she was not as fortunate as those of us with a more ordinary and supportive background.” Four years after graduating, she married Desmond, with whom she had overlapped at Oxford. During the war, Penelope wrote for Punch, and worked for the BBC. Though she wasn’t writing any fiction (she had firmly informed the university newspaper that she intended to “start writing” when she graduated), she was making her way in journalistic and literary London. In the early nineteen-fifties, she and Desmond effectively co-edited World Review, an internationally minded cultural journal that sounds like a precursor to Encounter. Lee’s pages on the long, serious essays that Fitzgerald wrote for that magazine are a revelation: she wrote on Alberto Moravia, on Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” on Italian sculpture and Spanish painting.
And then it all fell apart. The journal failed. Desmond, who had trained as a lawyer, seems to have been doing more drinking than lawyering. By 1953, there were three children to look after—Valpy, a son; and two daughters, Tina and Maria—and not enough income. Penelope had to cut down her clothes to make dungarees for Valpy. In 1957, the Fitzgeralds fled their comfortable rented home in Hampstead to more modest accommodations in Southwold—that “very definite place.” But even then the family was overextending itself. In 1959, as in some hideous English version of Emma Bovary’s punishments, auctioneers were called in, and the family’s belongings were put onto the sidewalk. The Fitzgeralds returned to London but could afford to do so, it appears, only by renting that Thames houseboat. The conditions, as reported by Lee, were bleak: frequent power cuts, permanent damp, no oven, scant and basic food. Penelope slept in the living room, on a daybed. (She and Desmond never slept together again.) “For the rest of her life, she would not have a bedroom of her own, but would sleep in a bed that turned into a sofa in a sitting room,” Lee writes. For some time, between 1961 and 1962, Tina and Maria did not go to school.
In “Offshore,” the novel she wrote about the years she lived on the river, Fitzgerald drew a caustic yet tender group portrait of her fellow-houseboaters, watery drifters who “aspired towards the Chelsea shore,” but who sank back, condemned by “a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people.” Further failure awaited. Desmond, by now alcoholic, was convicted in 1962 of stealing money from his law offices. He was given two years’ probation, and disbarred. He eventually found clerical work in a travel agency, a job he held for the rest of his life. (He died in 1976, at the age of fifty-nine.) Characteristically, the court case “was never discussed” in the family; indeed, Lee tells us, Fitzgerald’s “silence on the subject of Desmond’s failure was almost impenetrable.”
She began teaching in 1960, first at a performing-arts school and later at Westminster Tutors, a “crammer” for those in the last two years of their secondary school. (One of her most appreciative pupils was the future novelist Edward St. Aubyn.) She taught for twenty-six years, until she could afford to give it up. The income was essential but insufficient. In June, 1963, when the family lost the boat to the river, a phase began that, even by Fitzgerald’s standards, defies explanation. Fitzgerald would not ask for help from her father, who lived comfortably in a large house in Hampstead. Instead the family spent four months in one of the City of London’s homeless shelters, in Hackney. (One room with bunk beds, communal canteen.) Eventually, the Fitzgeralds received public housing, near Clapham Common, where they stayed for eleven years, until the children left home for university.
It is hard not to admire Fitzgerald, who, amid material chaos, impoverishment, a failed marriage, and what seems to be severe depression, held her family together, and became its breadwinner. Some of the strain of this period can be felt in “Offshore,” which centers on a rift between Nenna James and her useless husband, Eddie. Despite winning the Booker Prize, it is one of her weaker novels—in part, because the stakes never quite come into focus, and because the marital estrangement remains opaque. At one moment, Nenna and Eddie have an enormous argument. Out of nowhere, it seems, Eddie yells at his wife that she is “not a woman!” Thanks to Lee’s biography, I now start to see why I was puzzled. The accusation should have been the other way around (“You are not a man!”), but perhaps Fitzgerald could not bring herself to utter those words.
At the end of her biography, Lee writes about the “gaps and silences” left between the pages of her book. There are many things, she says, that Fitzgerald “did not want anyone to know about her, and which no one will ever know. I find this frustrating, amusing, seductive, and admirable.” Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s children are still alive, and because this biography was written with their blessing, Lee is notably less searching here than she was about one of her former subjects, Virginia Woolf. She tends to judge Fitzgerald’s reticence as the subject’s wise avoidance of biographical or journalistic scrutiny. The issue, though, is not what Fitzgerald kept from us—a reasonable right—but what she kept from those closest to her, and from herself. Perhaps because I grew up in an austere evangelical household, full of secrets and omissions, I find the silences, even the stoicism, less appealing than Lee does. Shouldn’t stoicism be less admirable when it isn’t stoically necessary? Wasn’t some of Fitzgerald’s behavior a transferred form of evangelical puritanism, the kind of wanton self-harm—itself a parody of Christian mortification—that the atheist Knut Hamsun writes up comically in his novel “Hunger”? And though there was nothing easy about Fitzgerald’s form of mortification, her snobbery about money and material possession was in part premised on that most English of possessions: the invisible superiority of her class. Like shabby Dillwyn and Wilfred before her, she seemed down-at-heel until she opened her mouth.
Lee is oddly incurious about the question that must occur to every reader: why did Fitzgerald wait so long to start writing? The obvious answer is that she had three children, a wayward husband, and was earning a living—and yet you feel that, during the nineteen-sixties, had she started also writing, things could hardly have gone worse for the family. (The painter Alice Neel, for instance, lived amid domestic impoverishment in large part because she was furiously painting.) Certainly it seems relevant that Fitzgerald started to write after her children were old enough to leave home and take care of themselves. Was it also significant that she started writing shortly after the death of her father? Did some Knoxian combination of insecurity and confidence hold her back until she could be sure of avoiding public failure? “Decision is torment for anyone with imagination,” a character says in “Offshore.” “When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can. If there’s even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you should never make it. They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.” Potential remains potent if unused.
What frustrates the biographer delights and fortifies the reader. The work that Fitzgerald produced between 1977 and 1995 is full of indirection, enigma, sidelong mystery, omissions of all kinds. “The Blue Flower” is one of the strangest and freest books ever written; Fitzgerald seems to be almost making up the form’s rules as she proceeds. The novel is historical, set in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, and narrates the short life of the Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis (whose real name was Friedrich von Hardenberg, and who is known as Fritz). It rests, like most of Fitzgerald’s work, on a great deal of research. But the large amount of historical fact is subtly muffled, and the novel floats away from its factual underpinnings; it is as mystical as it is meticulous. (Fitzgerald both mocks and admires Fritz’s youthful Romanticism.) The intelligent, high-spirited Hardenberg family—Teutonic Knoxes, really—are brought alive in astonishingly brief, elusive vignettes, fleeting chapters closer to the eloquent insufficiency of poems than to the reflexive garrulousness of fictional prose. Narrative threads seem to be snipped off at obscure junctions; nothing is baldly stated. Yet the form contradictorily holds—dreamy, precise, magical, but always “very definite.”
Though Fitzgerald did not risk failure at thirty, she wasn’t complete and unassailable at sixty-two, either. You can see her becoming a better writer as she aged—more serious and expansive, more confident and supple. “The Blue Flower” has beauties on every page, but one of the most moving involves the novel’s hero and his mother, the Freifrau Auguste. Fritz wants to marry the very unsuitable Sophie von Kühn, and has written to his father to ask for his blessing. Fritz arranges to meet his mother in the garden, in the evening, to discuss his fortunes. He is young and egotistical, and cares only about his love affair. But his mother is thinking of all sorts of painful things, none of which can be expressed:
An extraordinary notion came to the Freifrau Auguste, that she might take advantage of this moment, which in its half-darkness and fragrance seemed to her almost sacred, to talk to her eldest son about herself. All that she had to say could be put quite shortly: she was forty-five, and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life.
But Fritz leans forward, breaks the spell, and insistently demands, “You know that I have only one thing to ask. Has he read my letter?” Reticence is overcome, to no avail. But the wound has spoken, in the novelist’s voice. ♦