Fourth Estate £25

So I Have Thought of You: The letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, ed Terence Dooley

Penelope Fitzgerald's correspondence reveals the hardships of being an unfairly neglected writer

Penelope Fitzgerald has a strong claim to be the least known great British novelist of the last quarter of the 20th century. This collection of letters casts little light on the creative processes that produced the distinctive fiction of her later years, such as her final masterpiece, The Blue Flower. She was, after all, notably reticent about her writing, remarking after one, slightly awkward, encounter with an interviewer that "He told me he found me a rather difficult job but the truth was I couldn't think of very much to say." But her letters do offer an essential guide, perhaps better than any biography could do, to the unusual trajectory of Fitzgerald's professional life as a writer, and to the diffidence which remained one of her most striking characteristics long after she achieved the kind of success which most writers only dream about.

Fitzgerald was 58 when, in 1975, she published her first book, a biography of the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, and over 60 when she saw her first novel in print. After this late start, recognition followed swiftly. Her novel, The Bookshop, drawn from her experiences as a bookseller in Southwold in the late 1950s, which appeared in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker. The following year, Offshore, set on a houseboat like the one on which Fitzgerald, her husband Desmond, and two daughters had lived, which sank along with many of their possessions in the early 1960s, won the prize. Fitzgerald's triumph, however, was underscored by the unpleasant sniping of male critics who hadn't expected her to win. In one letter she recounts her terrible Booker experience, which evidently scarred her for years afterwards, contrasting it to the stories she had read as a child about horses winning the Grand National when "everyone seemed to cheer".

Arriving at a television studio, "soaking wet because I'd had to be photographed on a bale of rope on the Embankment", she was met by the surly complaints of the presenter Robert Robinson, who asked his producer, "Who are these people – you promised me they were going to be the losers."

By then Fitzgerald was used to such putdowns, and all the more exposed to them because she never had an agent. One cringes with feelings of outrage and horror as her first editor, Richard Garnett, informs her that she is "only an amateur writer", or at the throwaway remark of Duckworth's Colin Haycraft which Fitzgerald took to heart, that if she went on writing fiction he didn't want it blamed on him, and that in any case he already had too many short novels with sad endings on his list. In the early 1980s, after a hostile review in which she found "so much personal dislike", she wondered "if it's a good idea to go on, if the going is to be quite so hard." Yet she remained resilient. One strand of correspondence details Fitzgerald's eventually thwarted attempts to write a biography of L P Hartley, against the "implacable opposition" of Lord David Cecil, who parades his letters from Hartley before her, but then shuts them up in his desk before she has a chance to read them. Another strand demonstrates her passionate desire to write something about the world of Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop in the face of a studied lack of interest from a series of publishers. Fitzgerald wouldn't give up, and in the end published an admired work of non-fiction about the poet Charlotte Mew, one of Monro's discoveries.

Terence Dooley, Fitzgerald's son-in-law, who contributes a well-judged, informative introduction, made the sensible decision, given the paucity of material for some periods of Fitzgerald's life, not to place the letters in chronological order, but in an arrangement according to correspondent. The first section of family letters, to Fitzgerald's daughters, Tina and Maria, are largely from the final years of Fitzgerald's marriage in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before her career took off.

The daughter of Edmund Knox, the editor of Punch, Penelope had left Oxford in 1938 with a congratulatory First, then worked for a time at the BBC. Her marriage to Desmond Fitzgerald, who won the Military Cross for heroism in North Africa, was overshadowed by his drinking and their financial problems. Even when their fortunes stabilise, life is lived on a shoestring. Penelope does "endless ticking" of exam papers as a teacher at Westminster Tutors, saves Green Shield Stamps, and resorts to dyeing her hair with tea-bags. She pines for her daughters, who have left home, and perceives the need "to justify" her existence. The wry, comical observation of her letters, from the most unpromising domestic minutiae of everyday life, leave one in no doubt that one is in the presence of a writer.

In later letters, she remains modest despite her growing distinction, and sometimes caustic at the expense of larger egos (one of Rushdie's novels is described as "a load of codswallop", while she questions the choice of Peter Ackroyd as Dickens' biographer as she can't see how Dickens' life can be written "by someone who has no sense of humour whatever"). It's difficult not to breathe a sigh of relief as Fitzgerald enters a relatively safe berth in her final decade. These wise and wonderful letters should provide a welcome fillip to her reputation.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor