14 November 2013, The Tablet

Penelope Fitzgerald: a life

by Hermione Lee

Beady eye and a sharp wit

In 1939 Joseph Goebbels issued an edict banning “intellectual wit” in Germany. An anonymous writer in The Times Literary Supplement responded that this would deal another blow to “those minor arts already on their deathbed – epigram and repartee”, adding, “one cannot help pitying the Germans … if Dr Goebbels is successful, pity will become despair.”

The author of this article was Penelope Knox, known by her family as “Mops”. At 22, she was starting on the career she confidently intended to follow. “Having been reading for 17 years,” she had written at Oxford, “when I go down I want to start writing.” By the end of her long life, she had become one of the finest writers of the last century. Epigram, repartee and, most of all, intellectual wit were to characterise everything she wrote.

But it took a long time. She was almost 60 before she published a book, and 80 before she achieved real, international fame. But nothing from those early years was wasted. As one of her nieces was to remark: “Never tell Mops anything: she always turns it into a story and elaborates it.”

Hermione Lee follows her subject’s lead. Her book is in the very best tradition of critical literary biography. As her subject progresses through experiences that would later be translated into fiction, each resultant novel is considered and analysed. To give just one example, when Fitzgerald is working for the BBC during the war, Lee departs from strict chronology to look at Human Voices, not ­published until 1980. This novel looks, writes Lee, “like a light, funny, brilliantly accurate recreation of the BBC in wartime. But ­inseparable from the comedy, there is danger and anguish, a strong idea about truth, and a sad, affectionate remembering of her younger self.”

That younger self was to undergo very hard times. At first it seemed unlikely. The granddaughter of two remarkable bishops, she came from an illustrious and high-achieving family. The Knoxes, said her sister-in-law, “all had to compete and perform brilliantly … they would never talk about the many things that went wrong”. Religion was very significant. The family included Quakers, Ulster Protestants, Wesleyan Methodists, Evangelicals, Anglicans, Anglo-Catholics and one famous Catholic priest, Mgr Ronald Knox. Fond of all (or most) of them, Fitzgerald decided that schisms were pointless and that all religions were really one, but also that faith was essential for life.

In 1942 she was married, by her uncle Ronnie, to Desmond Fitzgerald, an Irish guardsman of tremendous charm. They had three children, but Desmond’s heroic military career had left him sadly damaged. He worked at the criminal Bar, but was not a success and, when he began stealing from his chambers, he was disbarred and humiliated. The Fitzgeralds stayed together, in affectionate, forbearing companionship, and Desmond became an ill-paid travel agent. When he died, she wrote sadly to an old friend: “with all our ups and downs, Desmond always thought everything I did was right”. However, his fall from grace meant that it fell to her to save the family from ruin.

And ruin was never far away. From elegant Hampstead, they fled to Suffolk, until debts forced another moonlight flit, to London, to an ancient leaky houseboat on Chelsea Reach that eventually sank; next, to a homeless hostel in Hackney; and then to a grim council flat in Clapham, where they stayed for 11 years. Fitzgerald, refusing to ask for help, took to teaching, in three schools, and was ­permanently exhausted, though her many illustrious pupils remember her with affectionate gratitude (except for Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who claims not to remember her at all). She was droll and laconic, they said, but never intolerant or sarcastic, “a little beady-eyed hedgehog, with sharp spikes”.

She continued teaching until she was 70, by which time her biographies and novels were beginning to make money and she could at last slow down. She wrote about the painter Edward Burne-Jones, about her father and her three uncles, the remarkable Knox ­brothers, and about the then little-known poet, Charlotte Mew. She was drawn to failures and lost causes, to people “who have a habit of not making too much of things”, and her style left much unsaid. “She likes to exercise her wit,” says Lee, “and she likes her readers to have their wits about them.” Her first novels were autobiographical, but later she turned to historical subjects: they are extraordinarily powerful. “Because life is sad,” Fitzgerald wrote, “the writer’s task is sympathy and understanding.”

Unglamorous and self-effacing, she was often treated with disdain and condescension at home, but abroad her genius was recognised. Her last, magnificent novel The Blue Flower – loftily ignored by the Booker judges – was awarded the American National Book Critics Circle prize for the best novel of 1997 (against Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, among others). Her reaction was typical: “I was so unprepared to win that I hadn’t even planned a celebration. I certainly shan’t do any ironing today.”

Phenomenally well researched and elegantly written, with a fine, dynamic fluency and lucid understanding, this is a very good biography indeed.

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Comment by: Andrew Foster
Posted: 25/10/2015 06:30:47

This document has given me such hope for the Church that I have been moved to tears

England's gift to the Church

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