Book review: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life By Hermione Lee

 

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The Independent Culture

Penelope Fitzgerald could be the patron saint of late starters. A Booker-Prize-winning novelist who didn’t publish a word till she was almost 60, the very idea of her is consoling to would-be authors. As it turns out, Hermione Lee’s new biography shows that not only did her husband, Desmond, manage to have a book published before his wife (a history of the Irish Guards’ war effort, produced before his post-war descent into anguish and alcoholism) but even their 10-year-old daughter made it into prior print (with a children’s novel, victorious in a win-a-pony competition, the prize duly delivered by the newspaper concerned).

She certainly did not begin with such low expectations. Hermione Lee shows us the young Penelope Knox and her educated, ambitious family of codebreakers, theologians, and a father who was editor of Punch. Knox turned up at Oxford primed to be a high-achiever, immediately nicknamed “The Blonde Bombshell” and famed for the brilliance of her exam answers. In the Knox family, success was to be expected; the many possible ways in which a human being can fail to reach their destiny simply went undiscussed. 

And yet for 40 years Fitzgerald did fail to reach her destiny. The total dissolution of Desmond, leaving his wife the reluctant head of the household, meant years of financial hardship. Lee beautifully documents this time of waged drudgework before she gets to the novels themselves, years when Fitzgerald worked in bookshops, did scriptwriting for the BBC, lived on houseboats, taught in stage school, and crammed posh kids for A-level retakes.

In the end it was only on reaching official retirement age that Fitzgerald became a novelist, nowadays recognised as one of world-class significance. Novelists as different as Julian Barnes and Philip Hensher find common ground in Fitzgerald’s books, and she now stands alongside writers such as Alice Munro, acclaimed for a body of quiet, detailed, painful, revealing work. But Fitzgerald is also funny, and consistently kind to the most unlucky of her characters. She knew bad luck, as Lee shows, having suffered a grave series of life blows – from Desmond’s expulsion from the Bar after his arrest for fraud, to the time Penelope arrived at work from the family boat declaring: “Sorry I’m late, but my house sank.” This single line tells you everything about her way of writing – the tragic, muddy, waterlogged ruining of her life turned into a superb, dry line: really, you can only laugh.

The question of why Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t begin publishing until so late is the most central and interesting of the book. Lee has tracked down a tantalising set of fragments suggesting an alternative course: stories scribbled on the backs of envelopes, composed for competitions that Fitzgerald did not win. What would have happened if those judges had possessed more vision? Would she have been saved from a life spent trudging to teach the predominantly  not-totally-impressed?

Lee, a distinguished biographer of Virginia Woolf, makes clear what was Fitzgerald’s most crucially unfulfilled need: a workroom and time of her own. (Fitzgerald might herself have tacked on to the list some other important criteria such as the need not to have to mark the A-level essays of teenagers whose biggest worry is their hair.)

There are moments where you just want to yell at her stuckness, at her failure to find a different way forward. Still, no law says a writer’s life decisions must make sense. And also perhaps, in the end, there was a sense to all that apparent drudgery and waste of a great artist spending 40 years in apprenticeship.

The moment she started to work seriously she published four novels in four years, getting one Booker nomination and one slightly underwhelming win. (She wrote: “The best was when the editor of the Financial Times, who was on my table, looked at the cheque and said to the Booker McC chairman, ‘Hmph, I see you’ve changed your chief cashier.’ Both their faces were alight with interest.”). 

This book will hold insights and treats for any admirer of her fiction, and recruit converts to this reticent, witty, ferocious champion of the utterly downtrodden.  Fans who will hum in resonance with her quickness, her catching of people’s exact quirks, her concision. Yet just occasionally there are details that are so sad and awkward and painful that you almost wish you could un-read them. I felt both sorry and intrusive when reading that Fitzgerald slept for much of her adult life on a folding camp bed in her sitting room, carefully tidied up each morning. Lee’s book, I think, makes clear that the revelation of painful biographical details would have left this proud, private author cringing. The reader winds up concluding that though it might be a terrible experience to have a careless and inaccurate biographer, it might, for a certain kind of person, be even worse to be the subject of a really careful and accurate one.

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