Chatto & Windus, £25 or order at the discounted price of £19.95 inc. p&p from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

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.

Get this book at the discounted price of £19.95 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?