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Book review: Penelope Fitzgerald: a life, By Hermione Lee

An author's journey from privilege to penury and finally to quiet triumph

Penelope Fitzgerald certainly paid her dues to the Muses. This elegant, richly researched biography tells a tale of misfortunes borne with dignity, humour and courage, and finally of quiet triumphs.

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Fitzgerald was born in 1916 into a world of upper-middle-class privilege and privation. Children, sent away to public school, learned to stiffen their lips. Women were expected to devote themselves to their husbands. Before she could get going properly as a novelist, Fitzgerald had to write her way out from under a dark cloud of famous men, her Knox father and uncles, buzzing as loudly as hornets.

Since one of Fitzgerald's earliest-begun works was a life of the beloved, brilliant Knox clan, Hermione Lee accordingly opens her own biography with a chapter describing their "alarming honesty, caustic wit, shyness, moral rigour, willpower, oddness, and powerful banked-down feelings, erupting in moments of sentiment or in violent bursts of temper and gloom".

Fitzgerald's niece thought "the Knoxes were just bad at failure… If you didn't shine… it was bad". Fitzgerald took that brutal word "failure" and tenderly, comically, compassionately made it one of her chief subjects. Her luminous novels are full of broken and damaged people, stumbling among the ruins, trying to survive.

The glow of her early childhood happiness, first in idyllic rural surroundings in West Sussex and then in Hampstead (still a village), rapidly diminished when Penelope was sent, aged eight, to boarding school. She called this "exile and imprisonment", discovering that "homesickness is a real illness and… reason has no power against it". Her education polished her up for taking the Oxford Entrance examination.

Women were discriminated against, only five colleges catering for them, so they had to be extra clever to get in. Fitzgerald, awarded a Senior Scholarship by Somerville, went up just as her beloved mother Christina died of cancer. Fitzgerald coped by adopting Knoxian reserve, acting witty, flirtatious and frivolous, and making a splash in student journalism. Nicknamed the Blonde Bombshell, she got a First, after a congratulatory viva (in which the candidate is applauded rather than questioned) and returned to live in London, sharing a flat with her brother. Privilege continued: her father Evoe, the editor of Punch, still made her an allowance, and also gave her a job reviewing films.

When war broke out, Fitzgerald worked first for the Ministry of Food and then for the BBC, an experience she would use in her fourth novel Human Voices (1980). In 1942 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom Lee characterises as "darkly handsome, attractive, athletic, bright, charming and a little bit wild". Having begun to train at the Bar, Desmond then enlisted, and served as an officer in the Irish Guards. He fought in Libya, and subsequently at the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy. Lee sums up: "he… came back a different person from the dashing young officer Penelope had married… He would wake up in the night, screaming."

No psychiatric help was available. To try and cope with trauma, he began drinking heavily. Penelope had her own tragedies to bear: miscarriages; a child who died soon after birth. For a while they remained a glamorous couple, living and entertaining above their means in a large, chaotic, rented house in Hampstead. Penelope wrote BBC scripts and brought up their three children while Desmond worked as a lawyer and then began editing, with Penelope's help, the newly-founded World Review.

A slow collapse of marital fortunes ensued. They fled to Southwold in Suffolk, probably for financial reasons, and found a cheaper, run-down place to rent. This crisis later inspired the writing of The Bookshop (1978). Stoic Penelope struggled to make ends meet, while Desmond stayed in London during the week, working, but still drinking too much. Rows erupted. Finally the family were put out, with their belongings, onto the pavement. In 1960 they moved back to London, to live on an antique, decrepit, leaking barge moored on Chelsea Reach. Penelope became the family breadwinner and began teaching at various crammers, an exhausting job she continued for 26 years.

Desmond loved her and the children, but earned little and spent most of it on cigarettes, drink, impractical presents and peace-offerings. He began stealing from his Chambers. He was caught, disbarred, and commanded to repay the money.

Penelope FitzgeralD produced several fragments of autobiography in later life, but maintained a loyal and discreet silence over this catastrophe. Her Knoxian fortitude obviously helped her survive. Lee gives us heart-rending vignettes of a mother almost at her wits' end, occasionally harsh with her children, counting out the potatoes for supper, proudly refusing to ask her richer relatives to help.

Her diary recorded her suicidal thoughts. When, in 1963, the barge finally sank (inspiring the enchanting, Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore, published in 1979), the family was put first into a temporary hostel and then found a council flat. Penelope slogged on, writing in the gaps between teaching and domestic life, practising the essential writerly virtues: patience and ruthless determination. The intensive, copious reading she did as preparation for her literature classes fed her. The life of the mind was a lifeline.

Eventually – her children grown up and settled, a new home found for her and Desmond – she brought out a series of finely written short novels and biographies. Various ignorant, condescending critics patronised her early fiction as slight, autobiographical, feminine. They could not appreciate her strong intellect, toughly wrought art, distilled prose and subtlety. Fame crept up slowly, arrived when she was 80. Her final novel, The Blue Flower, which for many readers embodies the maturing of her genius, was ignored by the 1995 Booker judges, but won her huge admiration.

Penelope protected herself by pretending to be a gentle, old-fashioned, absent-minded eccentric. From underneath this woolly disguise she could shoot razor-sharp barbs when necessary. She also wrote penetrating literary criticism, deploying quiet scholarship, wry humour, wisdom and generosity. Lee mirrors her lovingly, and does her lucid justice.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Ignorance' (Bloomsbury)

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