Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Book review: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee (2013)

I bought second-hand, in November, this interesting account of a late bloomer who’s been abandoned by convention these days but who, in her hey-day – the 1990s – was widely read.

Like a lot of biographies, Lee’s book is possibly more interesting on account of what it says about the country of residence of its subject than on account of the subject herself. Fitzgerald is not an author who has ever been on my radar and a lot of what serves as material for Lee’s study is highly insular – you get the usual list of names of notable people (eg Lytton Strachey), of places (eg Bloomsbury) – but the portrait it gives of England at war is gripping. 

The book might not suit everyone. For those who prefer reading with the grain of history, Lee provides timely input regarding the status of women a century ago. Such things require statement again and again as, for each generation, the same lessons need to be learned anew in order to overcome the biological imperative as much as cultural inertia. 

Just when you think that this biography will be run-of-the-mill things turn south as a result of Penelope’s husband Desmond’s war experiences. In the years immediately after that conflict, Desmond was drinking heavily and regularly and money was tight, so tight in fact that the family – Penelope, Desmond and two of their children (one was at boarding school) – had to move suddenly to London to live on a canal barge. 

This wouldn’t be the final humiliation but to compensate for Fitzgerald’s trials Lee takes sides, finding reason to applaud her subject’s determination and grit, or her perspicacity when, working as a teacher, Fitzgerald found things to celebrate in the authors whose works had been set for her students. This time was, in Lee’s estimation, a kind of training ground for Fitzgerald’s later role as novelist, and so Lee is able to reprise an earlier theme – of economy – in the telling.

As a writer, Fitzgerald seems to have done best when drawing on her own experiences or when choosing biography as a medium for her expression. It’s premature to say more than this because I’ve never read any of her books but from what Lee writes about the Italian book – titled ‘Innocence’ – a complete absence of any reference to the mafia makes it an unlikely place for anyone to go to seek the truth about that country. It seems as though Fitzgerald simply drew on commonplaces in an effort to furnish her narrative with plot devices. I was reminded of these parts of Lee’s book when, at around 5.40pm on the last day of 2020, I saw a photo posted on Twitter (see below).

Novelists have always gone elsewhere to find inspiration for their plots, just look at the way the Gothic novelists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries plundered Italy and Germany for ideas in order to create settings and characters for their immensely popular novels. And today historical novelists do the same. Fitzgerald set some of her books overseas – in Italy and Russia and Germany.

Others were set in England at an earlier epoch than hers: she seems to’ve been particularly interested in the period just prior to WWI – what was known at the time as the Great War for Civilisation – because of a sense of optimism that then was rife in Europe. Finding a relief from the pressing disappointments of the present – she wasn’t happy with her financial situation nor with her son’s marriage, and her husband was a drunkard – Fitzgerald was able to fashion short novels that drew critical praise. 

Her books were popular as literature, so in a limited sense she was read in the Anglosphere but since her death in 2000 her fame hasn’t risen and, in fact, I’d never heard of her when I saw this book sitting on a shelf in a second-hand bookshop in regional NSW.  The book can be read not only for information about WWII and the generation that spawned the counterculture but also for background on publishing in the UK in the 1980s and 90s. This was in itself an interesting time due to the rise of democracy globally as well as the reactionary backlash of neoliberalism. History buffs can draw a good deal of sustenance from this book.

Another theme that emerged while reading was that of old age, and especially what it can do for an artist. This is particularly the case with regard to Fitzgerald as she didn’t start publishing until her 60s but I think also of the late paintings of the Boyds – explosions of colour that take your breath away with their intensity. In Fitzgerald’s case there is an awareness of the things that cannot be said in any way other than through art. I touched on this theme in a review of a book last year, a book by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Fitzgerald’s enigmas in her final published works – a novel and a book of short stories – stand out in relief against a background familiar to my generation because it was lived. 

This was an era when Rushdie and Naipaul were household names. I’m drawn to lost causes as much as Fitzgerald was, to those things that evade capture by convention and that are able to express things that commonplace objects and narrative cannot. In this sense it was a fatal attraction that drew my eyes to Lee’s book and that allowed me to commit a number of days’ leisure time to reading it.


marcellous said...

As it happens, I embarked on a bit of a Fitzgerald binge earlier this year - tracking down in libraries most of her books and in particular the quasi autobiographical ones. Actually I warmed less to the later historical novels, and couldn't finish "The Blue Flower" which was her big US success even though the subject (Novalis) and period is one I have an interest in.

I think you are underselling Fitzgerald's reputation when she was alive and generalising a bit much from your own interests. This is understandable because it was mostly amongst anglophiles of a generation older than us.

For example, my late stepmother (born 1927), who had a whole shelf of books by or about the Mitfords, and the all 12 volumes of the diaries of James Lees-Milne (she even wrote him a fan letter which he replied to twice) was a fan. I always used to tease her that she rather loved a lord and as you will know from the biography Fitzgerald's pedigree was formidable.

Fitzgerald always had a following in what I think of as the Spectator school of English letters. (My stepmother was also a great fan of Paddy Leigh Fermor, another writer with a great following in such circles, though she was a bit disillusioned by his biography which revealed what a terrible sponger he was. Still, he corresponded with Deborah Devonshire and so retained a place in her literary pantheon by virtue of the Mitford connexion.)

Lee's biography kickstarted a bit of a Fitzgerald revival. Her novels have been reissued with prefaces by living writers, mostly from a Spectatorish stable. Philip Hensher, literary editor of that magazine, is responsible for one.

Fitzgerald's Booker winner The Bookshop was adapted (rather freely - especially to give Bill Nighy more to work with) into the 2017 film which has been cropping up regularly this year on SBS. The book (rather less the film) is a grim little fable of oh-so-genteel English backstabbery which sneaks up on you much as it does on the protagonist.

Like most of Fitzgerald's books The Bookshop is quite short. I picked up a copy in a street library with a cover obviously inspired by the film.

By the way, your little summary table states that the author is no longer living. That may be true of the subject of the book but Hermione Lee is still with us.

I think Fitzgerald reads better today than, say, Anita Brookner. Then again, you may not take Brookner as much of a yardstick.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for picking up on my mistake. Regarding Fitzgerald's legacy, no doubt I'll get around to reading one or more of her books at some point. I thoroughly enjoyed Lee's biography and have done as your stepmother suggested by her example -- read a book on the Mitford sisters (and also one on the Curzon sisters). More fun in store for me, I'm sure, as I explore further. Thanks for the tips.