Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life By Hermione Lee Knopf Doubleday 512 pp.

'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life' is a biography that includes a large element of the absurd

Fitzgerald was a late bloomer who turned her stoic middle-class background into the engine of unforgettable fiction.

The British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel when she was 60 and went on to publish eight more, of which four were shortlisted for the Booker/Man Booker Prize: "The Bookshop," "Offshore," "The  Beginning of Spring," and "The Gate of Angels". "Offshore" won the prize in 1979. In 1997, three years before Fitzgerald’s death, her final book, "The Blue Flower," won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, a novel that most people consider her greatest achievement. (I prefer "The Bookshop".) She also wrote three biographies, the first published when she was 58.

If this late and critically acclaimed literary flowering is out of the ordinary, it is in perfect accord with a life that included a large element of the absurd. Fitzgerald’s reticence and cavalier approach to the truth in personal matters ensured that there are mysteries, too. Hermione Lee has done her best to penetrate them in Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, but some remain. On the other hand, the book is an extraordinarily fine portrayal of the relationship between this author’s life and her attraction to her chosen subject, in Lee’s words: “characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Born Penelope Mary Knox in 1916, into the unwealthy upper-middle class, the future Penelope Fitzgerald was the granddaughter of two bishops. Her father, Edmund Knox, became the editor of "Punch", and her uncles (whose lives Fitzgerald chronicled, along with her father’s, in her book "The Knox Brothers") were notable in their own ways. In the order of importance given them by the world, they were Ronald, Roman Catholic convert, priest, biblical scholar and translator, essayist, mystery writer, and assiduous friend to the great; Dillwyn, classics scholar and cryptologist instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code; and Wilfred, Anglo-Catholic priest, servant to the poor, and uncompromising ascetic.

Like her mother, Penelope was a graduate of Oxford, and some sort of brilliant literary career seemed on the way for her as she emerged from university. She worked at the BBC during the war and, for some time after it, wrote radio scripts. In 1942, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, a charming, dashing man with bright prospects as a barrister who went off to serve in the war. When he returned, however, he had become a heavy drinker and at sea in his mind. In 1950 he became editor of the "World Review," a cultural magazine with international breadth that attracted distinguished contributors. Penelope, who did a great deal of the editorial work, was herself a frequent contributor. The magazine was a financial failure, and shortly before it closed down in 1953, Penelope, pregnant and with her young son in tow, made a three-month visit to the United States and, mysteriously, Mexico. She claimed years later to have gone there to convince two ancient and distant relations living, as it turned out, in alcoholic stupor, to make her son their heir.

The Fitzgeralds’ living circumstances became increasingly precarious. They had three children; Desmond was dilatory in his job; Penelope brought in a little money writing the text for a comic strip; and the family moved from house to house, leaving hastily with unpaid rent, once evicted, their possessions heaped outside and sold at auction. In 1960 Penelope finally rented "Grace", a leaky barge permanently moored on the Thames, where she and the children, and sometimes Desmond, lived in squalor for two years. Fitzgerald picked up poorly paid jobs tutoring unmanageable well-born aspirants to university (among them the novelist Edward St Aubyn) and teaching child actors at a stage school.

There she was, with “her brilliant First in English from Oxford, her wartime work experience, her script writing for the BBC Schools programmes, her magazine editing, and her remarkable literary knowledge and high intelligence,” earning around ten shillings an hour and bailing out her house with the tides. She refused to accept help from her family, though she learned with dismay that Desmond had privately appealed to them (and others) for money. Often drunk, rambling, and negligent in his work, Desmond was then discovered to have been stealing from his law colleagues, forging signatures on checks and cashing them at pubs. He was prosecuted, given two years’ probation, and disbarred. "Grace" sank, taking most of what the family still owned with it.

It is almost impossible not to laugh (hollowly) at the dreadfulness of all this – as if Fitzgerald’s own festive pessimism had spawned these disasters. With the demise of "Grace", Penelope and the children spent a year and a half in a series of homeless shelters and temporary accommodations before being granted a council flat.

Fitzgerald never spoke of Desmond’s crime or of his general uselessness. One feels that at the heart of Fitzgerald’s approach to fiction – an approach marked by leaving much unsaid – was this marriage, and more than that, that when death removed her husband from the scene, she was liberated. When pressed, she claimed, against the evidence presented by Lee, that the marriage was a happy one; but it can be no mere coincidence that 1976, the year of Desmond’s death, marked the beginning of Penelope’s career as a novelist. She wrote her first novel, "The Golden Child," to amuse him in his final illness, and it was published the next year. The year after saw "The Bookshop". This brilliant little novel introduces us to what must surely have been Fitzgerald’s own sentiments, here presented through the agency of the widow Florence Green – who “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.”

Fitzgerald was more fortunate in that project than Florence, but like her, faced galling highhandedness. In the novelist’s case it was from members of the British literary establishment – her first publisher, various writers, and media pooh-bahs – who had decided she was simply an old lady writing little books for other old ladies. The most egregious displays of disrespect surrounded the Booker awards, scenes of condescension and arrogance that Lee draws beautifully. When, for instance, "Offshore" — the unexpectedly happy legacy of the dilapidated "Grace" — actually won against heavy betting on V. S. Naipaul’s "A Bend in the River", one newspaperman at the awards dinner didn’t mind telling her that all the reporters had already written their pieces on Naipaul and so felt free to get drunk – which, Fitzgerald said later, “he certainly was.” The next day, at the BBC’s "Book Programme", where she appeared with some of the runners-up, the host, Robert Robinson, “evidently thrown by ... being presented with a winner he had clearly never heard of, or read,” went so far as to suggest that the wrong book had won. Fitzgerald was barely included in the ensuing discussion. Nothing at all was said about "Offshore".

Lee’s biography does not leave us feeling we know Fitzgerald’s innermost thoughts, but it seems that no one really did. And, indeed, the impossibility of mutual understanding between people is one of her themes. Beyond that, the accounts Fitzgerald gave of her doings were as likely to be as fictional as episodes from her novels. She was notoriously evasive, not averse to the lie, and even masqueraded as the dotty old lady people seemed to want her to be. She knew the power of reticence and knew that modesty is not the same as humbleness.

Lee shows that Fitzgerald could be unkind, unjust, and jealous, traits she demonstrated toward her son’s wife. In Lee’s garnering and description of events, and her examination of those facts as they are reflected in Fitzgerald’s writing, we see a woman who possessed an entitled contrariness as well as an insistent appreciation of failure and an understanding that life’s losers are far more interesting than its winners. It is an outlook springing from deep Christian roots – to say nothing of an intimate acquaintance with defeat. Still, it is clear from the various sharp remarks reported by Lee, that Fitzgerald knew exactly who she was, and never allowed the circumstances of her life – the blighted prospects, descent into poverty and homelessness, marital trials, crumby jobs, condescension from literary insiders – to blind her to her own gift and greatness.

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