'Mistress of the sublime' Penelope Fitzgerald dies, 83

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The Independent Culture

Penelope Fitzgerald, the Booker-winning writer who only turned to novels late in life and won an enthusiastic new audience in the United States in her eighties, has died aged 83.

After a couple of well-received biographies, written when her three children had grown up, her first venture into fiction came with The Golden Child in 1977. Offshore, her portrait of a Bohemian community living on houseboats on the Thames, won the Booker Prize in 1979, ahead of a high-powered shortlist that included V S Naipaul and Fay Weldon.

Her last novel, set among the poets of the Romantic era in Germany, was The Blue Flower (1995). It proved an unexpected winner of the American critics' circle award in 1997, and gained her subtle, succinct but intellectually ambitious novels a new transatlantic readership.

Her editor, Stuart Proffitt, now publishing director of Penguin Press, said yesterday: "She had the very rare ability to convey her ideas through the form, as well as through the ostensible matter, of her books. I can only compare the effect, particularly in her later novels, to that of music."

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916 into an energetic family of Edwardian high-achievers. Her father, E V Knox, was the editor of Punch; her mother the "moderate suffragette" Christine Hicks; and her uncle Ronald Knox, the Catholic priest and religious controversialist who exerted a mesmeric influence over Evelyn Waugh's Jazz Age generation. The Knox brothers were the subject of her second biographical work, published in 1977, two years after her life of the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones.

Her novels combined small worlds and spare language with a great, but unobtrusive, depth of ideas.

The Golden Child took the Tutankhamun exhibition of 1971 as its context, while The Beginning of Spring (1988) examined the vagaries of love against the backdrop of Russia on the brink of revolution.

It was one among four of her novels to appear on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Although Fitzgerald only turned from non-fiction to fiction at a relatively late stage of her career, her earlier experiences sometimes found their way into her novels.

A period spent workingin a bookshop was transmuted into her second novel, The Bookshop (1978), in which a typically restricted setting in sleepy Suffolk provides a stage on which turbulent emotions unfold.

Human Voices (1980) drew on her time at the BBC during the Second World War. It was followed by another piece of fictional chamber music that explored the tensions and flash points of a tightly knit but illassorted community - At Freddie's (1982), which is set in a London theatre school.

The collegiate atmosphere of Edwardian Cambridge inspired another exercise in closely focused passion and discussion with The Gate of Angels (1990).

Fitzgerald was a miniaturist who understood that size does not equal achievement and that, in fiction, the most precious things often come in the smallest packages.

Unusually, her work grew richer and more wide-ranging as she aged. The Blue Flower, which secured her belated breakthrough in the United States, is one of a tiny handful of works in English that adequately captures the fervour and excitement of the Romantic age in Germany.