by Evelyn Somers
Penelope Knox Fitzgerald was born in 1916, into a family of religious and intellectual accomplishment, and educated accordingly, at Somerville College, Oxford. But the unexpected consequence of her marriage to Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1941, was that she spent the bulk of her adulthood in relative poverty. Only in her third age was she able to unite the two halves of her strikingly divided experience and produce a body of fiction that depicts marginalized people with sympathy tempered by irony. In doing so, she was able to beat the substantial odds against a woman not only debuting as a fiction writer at 60, but rising to the status of one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945.”
I became acquainted with Fitzgerald in 1997, when I reviewed her final novel, The Blue Flower. The book won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction the following year and brought Fitzgerald, a previous Booker winner for her third novel, Offshore, modest fame for the first time in the United States. She was 79 when The Blue Flower was published; she had been publishing fiction and biography of note since age 58. I read The Blue Flower out of sheer curiosity: I wanted to know how a writer who has waited that long to publish could be that good. I also wanted to know what kind of internal engine would allow someone to author not a just couple of good books in her waning years but a total of nine acclaimed novels, three biographies, and several collections. Fitzgerald began her literary career at a stage when typical senior citizens are traveling and catching up on what they missed during their working years. But that is the point: what Fitzgerald had missed up until then was deep engagement in creativity and the chance to be prolific.
The Blue Flower is based on the life of German Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, born Friedrich (“Fritz”) Von Hardenberg. But Fritz is not really the protagonist of this compressed and affecting historical novel. Neither is The Blue Flower quite the story of Sophie von Kühn, the barely literate, superficial adolescent girl Fritz falls in love with and becomes engaged to, against the better judgment of his father (the von Hardenbergs are impecunious nobility, and Sophie is of the middle class). Rather, it’s a tragicomedy about joy—the joy of associating with remarkable minds (Goethe, Schlegel, Fichte, Schiller) in the remarkable aesthetic and philosophical moment that was the birth of German Romanticism; and the simple, pure joy of being alive.
The monster lurking in the shadows is Marvel’s “Time’s winged chariot” that truncates brilliant lives and loves. Sophie is gravely ill with tuberculosis, only months away from death by the book’s end; and the reader is aware that Novalis himself lived a brief 29 years: he died leaving incomplete his notes on religion and science, his poetry, and a novel containing the story of the “blue flower” that gives Fitzgerald’s book its title. The threat of mortality is ever-present and becomes increasingly evident in moments of the characters’ heightened awareness that there is no alternative to life’s deficiencies: this is what there is. At an evening meeting in the family garden, for example, Fritz attempts to enlist his mother’s help in convincing his father to sanction his engagement; but then Freifrau Auguste has a sudden “extraordinary notion” that “this moment, which in its half-darkness and fragrance seemed to her almost sacred” is an opportunity to bare her soul to her son. “All that she had to say could be put quite shortly: she was 45, and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life.” The confession is never spoken because Fritz speaks first, and we’re left holding the plea of a woman’s secret heart.
The novel begins in mid-story, with the von Hardenbergs’ annual washing at their estate of Oberwiederstedt. “The great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers” are being pitched from the windows of the second story into the courtyard, “where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets.” Fritz has brought Jacob Dietmahler, an old school friend from Jena, home to visit on this most inconvenient of days. Jacob is embarking on the beginning of a medical career; and Fritz, who is planning to marry a girl his parents don’t yet know about, will have to put aside his interests in law and philosophy to begin a new course of study in geology in preparation for a family-business career as an administrator in the Saxony salt mines.
Within a few chapters, the story leaps back in time to Fritz’s early years at school in Jena and Leipzig, and we follow his progress there, his acquaintance with Schiller in the last years of the poet’s life, and his work, a few years later, as an actuary for August Coelestin (who would become his biographer). Through Coelestin, Fritz first meets 12-year-old Sophie. It is love at first sight. Sophie is his “heart’s heart,” his “Guardian Spirit.” From there we follow the young von Hardenberg’s courtship of Sophie, against the warnings of friends and family who tell him that she is not only too young, but that she is not at all bright.
And then she becomes ill. The novel sees Sophie through the greater part of her fight with the tuberculosis that killed her at age 15 and is followed by Fitzgerald’s afterword, a wrenching summary of the fates and premature deaths of the Hardenberg family and the other principal characters. “Sophie died at half-past ten in the morning on the 19th of March, two days after her fifteenth birthday,” Fitzgerald tells us bluntly. And then, “At the end of the 1790s, the young Hardenbergs, in their turn, began to go down, almost without protest, with pulmonary tuberculosis.” It sounds almost as if Fitzgerald pronounced their terrible death sentence herself.
This month marks the publication of the first biography of Fitzgerald, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Lee is a British biographer and literary critic whose interests range over both sides of the Atlantic: she has also written lives of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, as well as critical works on Philip Roth, Willa Cather, and Elizabeth Bowen. Lee’s 528-page biography begins with Fitzgerald’s (she was called “Mops” by those who knew her) wartime birth in the Bishop’s Palace of Lincoln, where her mother, the bishop’s daughter, had retreated while her father, Eddie Knox, a peacetime journalist and writer for the British weekly magazine of humor, Punch, was fighting in France. If her life began in chaos, it was to continue that way, inexorably affected by the two global conflicts and her mother’s death when Penelope was just 18. But she was also born into a family that valued the life of the mind and the spirit. Her grandfathers on both sides were bishops. Her father Edmund—Eddie—would eventually become editor of Punch during its peak circulation years, before its prolonged decline beginning in the late 1940s. Penelope was sent at age seven, against her wishes, to boarding school and later had a reportedly brilliant career as a student at Oxford. Eddie and his brother Dillwyn, a World War I cryptographer, were religious skeptics, while Fitzgerald’s two other uncles were Anglican clergymen; one would later convert to Catholicism and become a priest. Fitzgerald memorialized her eccentric and exceptional father and uncles in The Knox Brothers (1977), published when she was 60. This is the happier aspect of Fitzgerald’s life—the inheritance of what Richard Eder, reviewing The Knox Brothers for the New York Times in 2000, described as “intellectual ardor, combativeness and a moral energy that propelled them onto the world at eccentric, sometimes painful angles.”
Fitzgerald graduated Oxford with the intent of becoming a writer, but marriage and financial straits intervened. In her twenties she married an Irish Guard officer, Desmond Fitzgerald, and the couple had three children. From then on, her life was increasingly difficult. Desmond worked in the legal profession for a time following his service, but he drank and was a poor provider, and he was eventually disbarred for stealing. It was a life of poverty, sometimes extreme. There was an especially dire period when Fitzgerald and her children lived on the Thames on a dilapidated barge that sank twice. During what might have been very fertile years as a writer, she was instead coping with her husband’s alcoholism and inability to support a family and doing her share to raise her children and contribute to the family finances. She read widely and did some writing and editing, but a large part of her energy was devoted to working. She was employed in a bookshop for a while, and for many years as a teacher at an independent day school. In her late fifties she cared for Desmond while he was dying of cancer. The experience of living without means affected her profoundly, and may be partly why her imagination runs to images of inadequacy and decay: the vacant, poltergeist-haunted Old House that becomes Florence Green’s home and shop in The Bookshop; the assortment of damp and leaky barges in Offshore; the von Hardenbergs’ poorly maintained properties and crumbling homes at Oberwiederstedt and Schlöben in The Blue Flower, and, in that same novel, the fearful images of tubercular illness. In the preface to her biography, Lee writes of Fitzgerald:
She is drawn to failures and lost causes, and her novels deal with people in a muddle, hopeless cases, outsiders; what she called “exterminatees.” These include children, and women, whose lives she wrote about with deep sympathy . . . [S]he is alert to cruelty, tyranny or unfairness. She does not think people get what they deserve in this world, but she thinks this is not the only world there is. Her novels argue, indirectly, over the relation between the soul and the body. Pity is one of the emotions—or qualities—she most values, but she is reticent about her beliefs. . . . She takes aesthetic pleasure in control and restraint, and felt drawn to “whatever is spare, subtle, and economical.” She says of her father that “everything that was of real importance to him he said as an aside,” and she inherited that sidelong manner.
[S]he was evasive and reserved and gave a misleading impression in public of a mild, absent-minded old lady. She wrote in a quiet voice, slipping unpredictably between comedy and darkness. For all these reasons, she did not become a popular writer.
Fitzgerald launched her writing career at age 58, with a biography of pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She followed it with The Knox Brothers, in 1977. She wrote her first novel, The Golden Child (1977), partly as an entertainment for Desmond during his final illness (he died in 1976). A satirical mystery, The Golden Child was inspired by the Treasures of Tutankhamen tour of the mid 1970s. From that point, the novels fall into two groups: The Bookshop (1978), Offshore (1979), Human Voices (1980), and At Freddie’s (1982) spring from Fitzgerald’s life; of the remaining four, Innocence (1986) is set in Italy of the 1950s, The Beginning of Spring (1988) depicts Russia just prior to the Revolution, and The Gate of Angels (1990) is about a physicist in the early 20th century. The Blue Flower (1995) is considered her masterpiece, the finest of Fitzgerald’s four historical novels—books she wrote because, she said, she was finished writing about her life.
All the books are characterized by a highly intelligent wit and shrewd insight into human nature, both bad and good. The Bookshop is the story of widowed Florence Green’s decision to open a bookshop in the late 1950s in the unwelcoming provincial community of Hardborough. Florence opens her shop in the vacant, dilapidated Old House that is widely known to be haunted. But the purchase of the property initiates a battle with a local woman, Mrs. Gamart, who has established herself as the resident patroness of the arts. In the course of her tenure as owner of the Old House Bookshop, Florence has fleeting financial success when she decides to stock Lolita. She is helped by some of the locals but also betrayed, unexpectedly, by others, and even by some who had befriended her. The Bookshop is about the rigidity of a provincial social structure and set of customs, but it’s also about the mix of loyalty and deviousness that comprises human nature and that can turn a friend into an enemy on a dime.
The Bookshop was shortlisted for a Booker prize, but it was Fitzgerald’s third novel, Offshore, that won, in 1979. In Offshore, the author drew on her experience living on the tidal Thames to create a community of characters (they go by the names of their barges), who fiercely embrace the marginality of their landless lifestyle against logic and, often, against the wishes of their families. The protagonist is Nenna, a young mother whose circumstances are similar to Fitzgerald’s during the period she spent living on a barge named (as the barge in her novel) Grace. Nenna is separated from her husband, Edward; the couple has fought over money and over Nenna’s purchase of the barge to provide a “permanent” home for her family. Edward, who is rooming elsewhere, argues that the barge isn’t safe and that his current quarters are closer to his job. When Nenna tries to argue that “anyone can get a job anywhere,” Edward replies that he can’t, and Fitzgerald allows us momentary access to the consciousness of a desperate young wife: “Nenna realised in terror that he was right and that he would never get anywhere. The terror, however, was not for herself or for the children but for Edward, who might realise that what he was saying was true.”
If The Bookshop suceeds by giving a strange and sometimes surreal cast to the familiar British comedy of provincial manners, Offshore is darker and stranger because most of its cast is as desperate as Nenna. She is the glue that holds the story together. On the surface she is fragile, scattered, and unsure: Edward pierces her self-esteem when their attempt at reconciliation disintegrates and he screams at her, “You’re not a woman!” But she is also resourceful—and hopeful—enough to balk at the very reasonable offer of help she receives from her sister in Canada.
In “Assassinations on a Small Scale,” Joan Acocella’s entertaining 2000 New Yorker essay about trying to interview the accommodating but “evasive” Fitzgerald, Acocella asked the writer about the compact nature of her novels (most of them are 200 pages or less; you can read a Fitzgerald novel in an afternoon, though you’ll be thinking about it long afterward). Fitzgerald attributed the brevity of her books to the advice of her editor to cut her first novel by eight chapters, because people didn’t want to read “these long books.” But it’s hard to imagine the books as anything other than the spare, scenic, uneasy things they are. Fitzgerald pares, or simply avoids, the nonessential connective tissue; her novels are, for the most part, constructed of distinct and brilliant scenes. Even The Bookshop, with its straight and more conventional narrative line, is memorable for its surprising scenes: a supernatural attack by the Old House poltergeist; an awkward tea with the town’s most respected recluse, who, toward the book’s end, will emerge from his home for the first time in decades. Early in the novel, when Florence Green is returning from meeting with her banker about a loan to start her shop, she encounters Raven, the “supernumary vet” of Hardborough, who wants to borrow her coat to tie up an old horse while he files its teeth so it can chew its forage again. Oh, and he wants Florence to hold the horse’s tongue while he does the job:
Towering yellow teeth stood exposed. Florence seized with both hands the large slippery dark tongue, smooth above, rough beneath . . . Raven began to rasp away with a large file at the crowns of the side teeth.
“Hang on, Mrs. Green. Don’t you relax your efforts. That’s slippery as sin I know.”
The tongue writhed like a separate being. The horse stamped with one foot after another, as though doubting whether they all still touched the ground.
“He can’t kick forwards, can he, Mr. Raven?”
“He can if he likes.” She remembered that a Suffolk Punch can do anything, except gallop.
“Why do you think a bookshop is unlikely?” she shouted into the wind. “Don’t people want to buy books in Hardborough?”
“They’ve lost the wish for anything of a rarity,” said Raven, rasping away. “There’s many more kippers sold, for example, than bloaters that are half-smoked and have a more delicate flavour. Now you’ll tell me, I dare say, that books oughtn’t to be a rarity.”
So much “oughtn’t to be” that is, The Bookshop tells us. And so does Offshore, and most of Fitzgerald’s work. But confronting that profound irony is a sort of unquashable hope: an old horse can (with some impromptu dental work) eat like it used to; a poet can fall in love, and even though he dies young, his poetry and love can live on; a widow can start a bookshop and shake up a small town. A 60 year-old woman who is 30 years behind can, unlike Fritz’s poor Sophie, outrun time’s winged chariot and publish nine remarkable novels.
Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at@evelynsomers13.
Evelyn Somers’s previous features: Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa, No Apparent Boundaries: Julia Glass’s Intricate Realities