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Novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald in 2000

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25, 490 pages

Penelope Fitzgerald believed “you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken”. So she wrote lives of Victorian idealists Edward Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and the Knox Brothers, who included her father, but she called her fictional characters “exterminatees”, and saw herself as one too.

Hermione Lee recalls that Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, “repeatedly spoke of failure as a theme both of her work and her life”. Yet suddenly, in her seventies, she crafted portrayals of worn-down, well-intentioned lives – the ill-matched, devoted lovers of “innocence”; Moscow businessman Frank, abandoned by his wife, in The Beginning of Spring (1988); decent, earnest physicist Fred Fairly, hero of The Gate of Angels (1990); the romantic poet and his insouciant, dying teenage fiancée in The Blue Flower (1995) – into novels of human engagement and metaphysical power unmatched in late 20th-century British fiction.

Lee elucidates the depth of that achievement, and ties it enthrallingly to a life and personality more complex and difficult than anyone imagined. Julian Barnes once pinpointed Fitzgerald’s courteous, elusive self-presentation as “a jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world”. In a perfect literary biography, Lee plumbs the creative mind beneath that persona, tracing the metamorphosis of messy experience into crystalline art.

Penelope Knox was born in 1916 into the remnants of a world of high Victorian intelligentsia and repression. Her devout mother, Christina, was a bishop’s daughter; on the paternal side were the eccentric Knox brothers: her writer father Edmund, and uncles Dillwyn, a cryptographer, Bible scholar Wilfred, and Ronald, Catholic priest to the aristocracy. The family was comfortable but a Knox insistence on spiritual over material concerns lies at the heart of everything Fitzgerald went on to do.

“Our Penelope from Heaven” dazzled at Oxford but was miserable. Her mother died months before she went up; her father allowed no further mention of Christina, ever. In late 1930s London, Miss Knox, typical of girls of her background, dipped into literary journalism, worked at the BBC and flirted with boys departing for war. In 1942 she married handsome Irish officer and trainee barrister Desmond Fitzgerald.

They had three children – Penelope would have loved more – and lived in Hampstead in the style in which they had grown up, unaware that they could no longer afford it. Lee suggests this was not uncommon among upper-middle-class couples thrown by postwar social change. For the Fitzgeralds the results were calamitous. Unable to pay the rent, they fled northwest London overnight for Suffolk, where Penelope worked in a bookshop. When bailiffs came to Southwold and the family’s possessions were turned out on the street they relocated again, to a houseboat in Battersea – damp, cold, £1 a week. It sank, and their entire fortune went down with it. Desmond, now alcoholic, was nowhere to be found. Valpy, their son, received a free education at Downside, but Fitzgerald and her daughters moved into a homeless centre in Hackney that reeked of stewed cabbage.

What novelist would dare invent such a riches-to-rags tale? I could not put down Lee’s comic-tragic account of Fitzgerald slowly rescuing the family, negotiating council accommodation, teaching at a crammer, helping her daughters with Hamlet and Latin composition while dying her hair with tea bags and cooking Welsh rarebit. From 185 Poynders Garden, London SW4 – Fitzgerald often headed her letters “Squalid Council Flat” – Valpy won a place at Trinity College, Oxford. Desmond, back on board, returned to his chambers before being sacked for stealing. While he sold encyclopedias door-to-door, Fitzgerald and her daughters would enter a restaurant, devour the bread and olive oil, walk out in apparent disgust, then repeat the procedure at subsequent eateries – this constituted supper.

Fitzgerald did not begin writing until nearly 60, so part of this book is inevitably the story of domesticity gone awry. The bonus is brilliant social history, and more: Lee catches not only the tempo of each decade, but how values from Fitzgerald’s past constantly inform her present. “When I was young I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn’t like them. Later on, I found that this was a mistake, but I’ve never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I still think they were right, and insofar as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world.”

This is classic Fitzgerald: confession of weakness masks refusal to compromise. Her self-belief was always there. In 1976, she wrote a comedy to amuse Desmond, who was ill with cancer. Heartbreakingly, Lee suggests, it was not until she was “given permission by Desmond’s death” that she recycled trauma as fiction: Southwold in The Bookshop (1978), the houseboat in Offshore (1979), which won the Booker Prize. Increasingly lauded, she still wore no make-up, carried plastic bags and maintained a style so unworldly that when she visited grandee novelist Anthony Powell, the taxi driver mistook her for a servant.

“She does not think people get what they deserve in this world, but she thinks this is not the only world there is,” says Lee. Was innocence, leitmotif of the late quartet of historical novels, the core of Fitzgerald’s being, or another canny persona? Like many near-mystics, she was fascinated by childhood – philosophising Bernhard in The Blue Flower is among many entrancing, individualised child characters. She was wrapped up in her own children, yet did not kiss or cuddle them, and was so competitive that she cheated while playing the board game Lotto with a three-year-old grandson. Many pupils remember her kindness but others called her a hedgehog – sweet-looking but spiky. AS Byatt, one-time fellow tutor, says she was “not a nice person. Geniuses are not nice people.”

Lee’s nuanced portrait lets us see all these aspects, and the paradox by which Fitzgerald’s steely Victorian seriousness, honed by life’s disappointments, fuelled ambivalent, spare, fragmented, modernist novels. From them, Fitzgerald speaks of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstanding and missed opportunities” – which, she adds, “I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

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