- - Friday, November 14, 2014


By Hermione Lee
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 488 pages

The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald is not every reader’s cup of tea. She firmly believed that “less is more,” so her novels are brief. They are also cryptic and elliptical; packed with brilliant scenes, funny at times, but dark, too, and a little unsettling. Superficially, she was often classed with other English women who wrote clever short novels: Barbara Pym, for example, or Beryl Bainbridge. However, her admirers — and there are many — think of her as much more.

In a well-researched biography that traces the odd trajectory of her life and analyzes her work perceptively, Hermione Lee describes her as “a great English writer not quite like anyone else.”

Fitzgerald was born in 1916, the daughter of Evoe Knox, the editor of Punch. She left Oxford with a first-class degree and started her career writing film and book reviews for Punch. During World War II, she wrote scripts and produced programs for the BBC. By the early 1950s, she and her Irish husband, Desmond, were jointly editing The World Review. Bertrand Russell, Muriel Spark, L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare were among its contributors, but nonetheless it failed — the first of a cascade of disasters that struck the Fitzgeralds.

Chief among these was that Desmond, a barrister, was disbarred for embezzlement. The root of the problem was drink. Soon, rather than living in the heights of Hampstead, the family was making a home on a barge moored on the Thames. When it sank, they moved into public housing. Desmond found work in a travel agency where he earned little, but free vacations in Europe were a perk, and Penelope made ends meet by teaching. Her students reacted to her rather as readers do. Some failed to see the point of her or found her brusque or vague, but many described her as opening the doors of literature for them.

With teaching plus caring for family — she had three children — Fitzgerald was more than busy, so it was not until 1975, when she was nearly 60, that she published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones. In 1977, she published “The Knox Brothers,” about her father and his three brilliant brothers. Her first novel, “The Golden Child,” came out the following year, quickly followed by “The Bookshop” in 1978 and “Offshore” in 1979. These novels drew on her own experiences: “The Bookshop” of decamping to the coastal town of Southwold after the magazine debacle, and “Offshore” of living on the barge. “Offshore” won the 1979 Booker Prize, edging out the front-runner V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River.” Faced with criticism for honoring a book so seemingly modest in its ambitions, one of the judges explained they had voted for “something sober, lucid, subtle rather than showy.”

Winning the Booker put Fitzgerald on the literary map. She wrote two more novels based on her own experiences, including “At Freddie’s” (1982), which draws on her years teaching in a stage school. She also produced another biography, “Charlotte Mew and Her Friends” (1984). Then in the later 1980s and early ‘90s, she wrote more novels, all of them set in the past and in other countries. Of these, Ms. Lee notes, “Her life’s subjects — hopefulness, innocence, misfortune, failure, stoicism — would persist, but she would find different embodiments for them.” Among these later books, “The Blue Flower,” based on the German Romantic writer Novalis and published in 1995, when she was nearly 80, is a masterpiece. Ms. Lee describes it as “a mysterious short book, as well as a very fully realized, complex, populated and realistic one.”

Fitzgerald died in 2000. Many relatives and friends survive her, and so Ms. Lee — who met and worked with her occasionally — has been able to draw on a rich supply of memories and anecdotes, which give her book a freshness usually lacking in biographies of people who have been long dead. Perhaps more significantly as a biographer whose previous subjects include Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, she has an educated sensitivity to the minutiae of the lives of female writers. If it seems crazy that a person of Fitzgerald’s education, talents and connections should have failed to write books until she was nearly 60, Ms. Lee’s account of her life as a wife, mother and teacher shows how much she was occupied by daily detail — and also how much the inner life that fed her books nonetheless continued. In particular, noting Fitzgerald’s keen interest in European writers, she suggests, “The obliqueness and strangeness of her work, its surprising un-Englishness, its mastery of deep emotion, link back to years of thinking about modern European art and writing.”

When Fitzgerald died in 2000, her bank balance had been augmented by publication in America and the enthusiastic reprinting of her books on both sides of the Atlantic. Lovers of her novels will certainly want to read Hermione Lee’s excellent and readable biography, which may attract new readers to this odd and wonderful novelist.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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