Paperback reviews: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Asunder, The Mystery of Princess Louise, The Face in the Glass and other Gothic Tales, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay

Fitzgerald: A ‘wholly necessary’ biography

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The Independent Culture

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (Vintage £10.99)

Four years ago, the letters of Penelope Fitzgerald were published. For her fans, they exhibited perfectly her reticence to divulge private, personal feelings; a ladylike refusal to wash dirty linen in public, and simply endeared her to them even more. For many of us, they were endlessly frustrating, giving little suggestion of a difficult or extraordinary hinterland. Thank goodness, then, for Hermione Lee, who has explored thoroughly the often dreadful parts of Fitzgerald’s home life, not to offer sensation or gossip but rather to illuminate the struggles that Fitzgerald the artist, and Fitzgerald the woman, endured. This biography was a wholly necessary task; indeed, it is hard to think of a subject more in need of a biography than Fitzgerald.

An excellent example of the disconnect between the letters and the biography occurs early on, when in October 1962, Fitzgerald took her eldest son, Valpy, on a trip with her to Mexico, when she was three months pregnant with her third child. Why did she make this trip at all, never mind at such a time, Lee asks? “She was restless, she was escaping, she was trying to raise some money ….” Lee acknowledges that Fitzgerald partly answered the question in a 1980 essay about plotting; in her letters, though, there is little explanation, In 1987, she writes to her daughter asking for the return of a “serape” she bought whilst in Mexico and which seems very dear to her. But that is all.

As Lee knows instantly, this trip is a comment on Fitzgerald’s marriage, which was difficult at the best of times. Her husband, Desmond, returned from war a changed man, waking up screaming at night and unable to bear fireworks. Immensely damaged, he couldn’t be saved, and it’s significant that it’s towards the end of his life that Fitzgerald began to publish, and after his death that her writing really took flight.

*****

Asunder by Chloe Aridjis (Vintage £8.99)

The connections made in Aridjis’s novel between the past and the present argue ultimately that we are all ghosts in a way, a kind of amalgam of imprints built one upon another, and her ingenious storytelling makes for both an intriguing premise as well as an often mesmerising execution of it. Marie is the grand-daughter of a man who failed to stop a suffragette mutilating a painting and she herself prefers to stay in the background. Thus, her job as a security guard at the National Gallery is perfect: it has personal history for her and the portraits can take centre stage, allowing her to all but disappear. However, when a friend invites her to Paris, she finds herself thrown into the foreground by her confrontation with the deranged and elderly owner of the Challemont chateau. She has previously been alerted to tiny cracks that appear on the surface of old paintings; now their equivalent appear on her skin. Aridjis tells an improbable tale with enough detail to give it authenticity, and to make her genuinely creepy story something thoughtful and original.

****

The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley (Vintage £9.99)

Hawksley’s biography of Victoria’s most artistic daughter is full of gaps that she attempts to fill, with delicious success. Access to crucial papers regarding Louise’s life has long been denied to a stream of biographers, and Hawksley was no different. So, the questions remain to be asked: did Louise have a secret illegitimate child with an art tutor? Was her marriage to the Marquess of Lorne, son of the Duke of Argyll and therefore a social step down, a recognition of that mistake? And was her husband homosexual? The picture of Louise that emerges is of a modern woman who managed somehow, against the odds, to almost have the artistic kind of life that she so desperately wanted.

****

The Face in the Glass and other Gothic Tales by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (British Library £8.99)

Braddon is the mistress of the Gothic in many ways, her “sensation” novels, as popular in her day as anything by Wilkie Collins or Ellen Wood, are full of gutsy heroines who think nothing of betraying those dearest to them. These stories, collected here for the first time in a century, may seem a little more clichéd to us now,  and there is such an obvious theme that runs through all these stories that it is hard not to chuckle sometimes rather than feel the chill in your bones. But that single theme of betrayal is still powerful. Her prose style is wordier, in the 19th-century fashion than is popular today, but she remains as readable as ever, melodramatic and overwrought as any contemporary soap opera.

***

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay by Hooman Majd (Penguin £9.99)

Majd is an Iranian-born journalist raised in America after his father, who worked for the Shah’s regime, was sent into exile. His American wife understands his long-felt desire to spend time in the country of his birth, and they arrange to spend a year living in Tehran. Majd begins by acknowledging his own fears about the country and what residence there might mean for himself and his family, but what works so well in his account is the complementary mix of the familiar and the strange. The way that Iranians adore children so that the couple can barely walk down the street without someone exclaiming over their young son; the subterfuge required to get a decent broadband speed; these are strange yet somehow recognisable things to us all.

****

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