A House of Air: Selected Writings. By Penelope Fitzgerald

Fond last words from the well of dry humour. Michÿle Roberts relishes the scintillating insights and opinions of a very practical utopian
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Mourning the death of Penelope Fitzgerald, we mourned the end of books issuing from that fine, compassionate mind. What a joy to be proved wrong: the work continues to appear posthumously. First we had a collection of short stories, The Means of Escape. Now this volume of selected writings demonstrates Fitzgerald's mature genius as a discriminating reader and critic. These collected essays, reviews and pieces of journalism compose a magical lucky dip: every page offers insights to savour, calm, humorous prose to relish.

Fitzgerald told the French newspaper Libération: "I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost. They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don't manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts... When I write it is to give these people a voice." All her novels bear this out. Hermione Lee, in her elegant and penetrating introduction, puts Fitzgerald's declaration into a social context: "At the heart of her intellectual passions is a political commitment to an English tradition of creative socialism, a vision at once utopian and practical, of art as work and of the usefulness of art to its community. Her English heroes are Blake, Ruskin, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Lutyens. She is inspired by Morris's dedication to 'the transformation of human existence throughout the whole social order'."

Fitzgerald's interests and passions displayed here run wide and deep. She contributes fresh insights on canonical works, lifts up for our admiration writers called minor, but is neither over-reverential nor parochial. As Hermione Lee points out, she could relish both Carol Shields and James Joyce, Roddy Doyle and D H Lawrence, Beckett and Charlotte Mew.

Dry humour is her forte. Her comment on Radclyffe Hall's celebrated lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, is characteristically pithy: "At heart, The Well is a nice long solid Great War period romantic novel. The ethos is that of If Winter Comes, or The Forsyte Saga." She is tart about another grande dame, Dorothy Sayers: "When she dined at Somerville High Table, as she quite often did in the late 1930s, we used to look up at Dorothy Sayers as she sat there in black crepe de Chine, austere, remote, almost cubical. She told the dean that the students dressed badly and had no sense of occasion. We resented this because we felt that, although most of us had not much money, we had done the best we could." Sayers was, she acknowledges, an influential public figure: "But there were many strong-minded women, in sensible hats, on call at that time, and it is heartening to remember that Dorothy Sayers's influence was due to an imaginary detective who had 'walked in complete with spats' in 1920 and who was not at first meant to be taken seriously."

Fitzgerald can also sound a note of sorrowful reproach. Reviewing the "superb" second volume of Richard Holmes's biography of Coleridge, Darker Reflections, she balances Coleridge's brilliance against his instability: "In January 1813 a play, which he had written many years earlier and now renamed Remorse, was put on at the Drury Lane theatre. It was an unexpected success, and he received £400 (although in a few months he was penniless.) Meanwhile, news came that the Wordsworths' dearly loved little son Tom had died. Coleridge dithered, delayed, and did not go to Grasmere. Can he be forgiven? On the other hand, during one of his worst periods of opium overdose and suicidal depression he rallied himself, God knows how, to write five articles in praise of the paintings of his old friend Washington Allston. His manic energy and generosity have to be set against his recurrent paralysis of the will, when he could be becalmed like the Mariner on his stagnant sea." Similarly, discussing Anthony Thwaite's edition of the selected letters of Philip Larkin, she reminds us: "Who would want to be answerable for everything they've said, in private letters, to friends they hope to amuse?" So she can swallow Larkin describing women colleagues in Belfast as "old Sowface" and "old Bagface", Blake as an ass, Byron as a bore, Ted Hughes as "a boring old monolith", and so on. But "More distressing by far are his general opinions, forcibly expressed... If they represent what he really or even sometimes felt, immigration... must be made illegal before every household in the land is overrun... How seriously were his correspondents supposed to take all this? I think quite seriously. When I was working in an unimportant capacity for the British Arts Council Literary Panel, Larkin was asked for advice on the funding of ethnic arts centres. He replied that anyone lucky enough to be allowed to settle here had a duty to forget their own culture and try to understand ours." Yet she is clearly charmed by the young Larkin's love letters to Patsy Strang: "You are the sort of person one can't help feeling (in a carping kind of way) ought to come one's way once in one's life." When Patsy decamps to Paris, Larkin tells her she is like "a rocket, leaving a shower of sparks to fall on the old coal shed as you whoosh upwards".

Although Penelope Fitzgerald does not shy away from speaking personally when necessary, leaving us in no doubt about her own aesthetic and moral opinions, she wrote little explicit autobiography. Perhaps the closest we get to that dance of veils comes with the piece entitled "Why I Write", and its accompanying essay, her description of her own work process in The Gate of Angels. The coda to the book is a meditation on ageing and on books written in old age: "An old writer is even less likely than any other old person to be serene, mellow, and so forth." She says of Tolstoy: "The resurrection takes place now and on this earth in the individual soul of every man and woman, as soon as they begin to pity each other." Reading Fitzgerald is to experience that resurrection.