Review: Brigitta Olubason Hermione Lee

Sorry I’m late: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Your life story so far, Mrs James, has had a certain lack of distinction. I daresay it seemed distinguished enough while you were living it – distinguished, at least, from other people’s lives.

Offshore (1979)

In the last three decades of her life, Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) published three biographies and nine novels, and became one of the most admired English novelists of her time. Four of her novels were shortlisted for the Booker prize – Offshore won in 1979 – and her last novel, The Blue Flower (1995), won the US National Book Critics Circle award almost two decades later. She was awarded the Heyward Hill Literary Prize in 1996 and, the year before her death, the Golden PEN Award for services to literature. Her work has been praised for its intelligence and moral insight, characterised by a combination of meticulous attentiveness, a kind of ironic reticence, and an extraordinarily distinctive style.

Hermione Lee records many such responses. Alberto Manguel

told her he was ‘overwhelmed by the exquisite beauty of [The Blue Flower]. Your reviewers, again and again, seem to ask “How does she do it?” How indeed?’

After Fitzgerald’s death, A. S. Byatt

expressed her enormous admiration for [her], but also her bafflement. Her books are apparently precise, she said, yet ‘they cannot be grasped, or completely understood’.

There is to be found in Fitzgerald’s work a profound understanding that is presented to readers through an exacting but always enigmatic lens. Frank Kermode wrote that she ‘has the gift of knowing, of seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside’. The often metaphysical intelligence at work in her novels is also in some way informed by a distinctive spirituality, as suggested in this observation by Julian Barnes:

A priest in The Beginning of Spring, seeking to assert the legibility of God’s purpose in the world says ‘There are no accidental meetings’. The same is true of the best fiction. Such novels are not difficult to read, since they are so filled with detail and incident and movement of life, but they are sometimes difficult to work out. This is because the absentee author has the confidence to presume that the reader might be as subtle and intelligent as she is. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are pre-eminent examples of this kind.

For Joan Acocella, the complications of Fitzgerald’s work are complications of genre. Her work ‘is the comedy of tragedy’; the novels ‘end like poems’; ‘terrifying in their meaning, [they] are still comedies’. And they are complications of scale, as in her quotation from The Gate of Angels (1990): ‘there seemed to be something like an assassination on a small scale, taking place in the tranquil heart of summer.’ Acocella pursues this point to return to the strangeness of Fitzgerald’s elusive but everywhere suggested spirituality:

And what does it mean? Well, says Nenna’s sister in Offshore, her husband has a theory: ‘He believes there’s a Providence not so far away from us, really just above our heads if we could see it, that wants things to be the way they’re eventually going to be.’ Don’t laugh – Fitzgerald believes the same thing. She combines an old-world faith with a completely modern pessimism.’

If the critical response to Fitzgerald’s writing binds together acclaim and perplexity, the public’s sense of the writer is more straightforwardly bewildered. Her professional reticence and her sustained performance of somewhat diffident and amateur eccentricity gave her, as she wrote in Offshore, ‘a certain lack of distinction’. As Barnes put it, she ‘comported herself as if she were a jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world’ – an image at odds with her literary achievements and the fact of her literary pedigree. Her family, the Knoxes, were of some renown. As Lee observes: ‘Penelope would always think and talk of the Knoxes as her intellectual breeding ground, the background likely to produce a writer.’

The task faced by Lee, Fitzgerald’s first biographer, whose output includes acclaimed biographies of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, is to make sense of these apparent disjunctures in the figure of the writer: her intellect and acerbic wit and insight; her vulnerabilities and the prosaic and at times dismal matter of her life; the contradictions and intricacies of her personal and public lives in the face of more than the usual amount of enigma, silence and secrecy. Fitzgerald is known, as Lee explains, for her ‘reticence and indirection’. She is also known for the dramatic shape of her life, in particular for the ways in which her early brilliance was rerouted through years of undistinguished penury before re-emerging late in life, still cloaked by the preconceptions of the literary world.

Edward Said has given us a way to think about how the late works of established artists depart in crucial ways from their earlier work, such that the final compositions of Beethoven constitute

an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile.

By the time Fitzgerald started publishing novels, exile had already taken on a somewhat literal caste through the circumstances of her life, and the very idea of lateness is bound to be complicated in the case of ‘an old writer who has never been young’, as she described herself. Nonetheless, Said’s privileging of ‘artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction’ might be taken as determinants for Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, and guides for her readers. She wrote in 1988 of the somewhat contrary force of late writing, as the expression of a subject who has become intractable and inconvenient:

An old writer is even less likely than any other old person to be serene, mellow, and so forth. More probable are a vast irritation with human perversity, sometimes with fame itself, and an obstinate sense, against all odds, of the right direction for the future. ‘I detest the hardness of old age,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, the year before her death, ‘I feel it. I rasp. I’m tart.’ But she added, ‘I walk over the marsh saying, I am I: and must follow that furrow, not copy another.’ This certainty, even if it makes the readers uneasy, acts as a call to order, even as an unintentional reproach.

Fitzgerald was born, as I have noted, a Knox (she later published a biography of her father and uncles) in London. She studied at Oxford – her final examination papers were reputed to be so brilliant that one of her examiners asked to keep them and had them bound in vellum – then married fellow Oxford graduate Desmond Fitzgerald after the war. Together they edited the progressive journal World Review from 1950-1953. That year, in some financial distress, they suddenly left their Hampstead home with their three children and moved to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, from whence in 1961 they returned to London, where they lived for a time on a Thames barge, which sank. After a short period in homeless shelters, the family moved to a council estate. It was only then that Fitzgerald began to write seriously.

Many of Fitzgerald’s readers would already be more or less familiar with these broad contours of her life. But there are some important gaps in this account, which Lee’s biography addresses, although mysteries persist. The Fitzgerald marriage, and the part played by Desmond’s alcoholism in the misfortunes of the family, are fleshed out here, to a degree, for the first time. While Desmond remains an enigmatic figure and the nature of their relationship opaque, some details are nonetheless illuminating. For instance, when describing the layout of the Thames barge, Lee provides a telling if somewhat elliptical detail that helps inform our understanding of her subject as she entered the writing stage of her life:

Penelope slept in the living room on a single day-bed. From this time onwards, she and Desmond never slept together. What grew out of conflict and disappointment turned into habit. For the rest of her life she would not have a bedroom of her own, but would sleep in a bed that turned into a sofa in a sitting room. She would be up before anyone else and fastidiously tidied her bed away, so that the room did not look like a bedroom, and she would go to bed after everyone else.

In Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Writings on Biography (2005), Lee proposes that ‘gaps and absences and unprovable stories’ are at the heart of the genre:

Biographies are full of verifiable facts, but they are also full of things that aren’t there: absences, gaps, missing evidence, knowledge or information that has been passed from person to person, losing credibility or shifting shape on the way. Biographies, like lives, are made up of contested objects – relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable.

Biography thus simultaneously thwarts and fulfils expectations for its readers and its writers. It brings them together around the absence, the continuing mystery of the subject. In her review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Australian biographer Brenda Niall quotes Lee’s words of summation:

There are many things [Fitzgerald] did not want anyone to know about her, and which no one will ever know. I find this frustrating, amusing, seductive and admirable.

Niall adds: ‘That’s how I feel about her biography.’ Fitzgerald voiced a similar insight in a talk she gave on the subject of biography: ‘As a biographer you’re never satisfied. There can’t be any last word on another person’s life, except rest in peace.’

So the interest and value of this biography lies not so much in disclosure and revelation as in the larger narrative of Fitzgerald’s remarkable life, to which Hermione Lee gives shape and context, initially at least, through two kinds of stories: one about Fitzgerald’s early promise, the other about the lateness of her achievement.

A little before the halfway mark of this book, Lee pauses to reflect on one of the sorriest points of her subject’s life:

Poynders Gardens was her home for eleven years, until December 1975, all through her fifties. A profile of Penelope Fitzgerald in these years might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband in a dismal low-paid job … her early ambitions to be a writer catastrophically thwarted, her life obscure.

For Lee, it is not simply the sorriness of Fitzgerald’s circumstances and prospects at this point that is noteworthy, but the fact that they mark how far she had come down in the world:

she was certainly a very long distance away from the ‘blonde bombshell’ of Oxford, to the wartime BBC employee, or the literary editor in Hampstead, and she felt that distance acutely.

This is the biography’s narrative arc. It is the story of a life that began with great prospects and great promise, but which lurched abruptly and mysteriously into a terrible fall, an absolute decline in terms of class and professional status, as well as, by any measure, personal achievement, satisfaction, pleasure, or even comfort. It was nonetheless a fall from which the council flat at Poynders Gardens was to be the first stage of recovery.

Fitzgerald’s downward trajectory is decisively marked in a narrative figure that seems to belong more in a work of fiction than in the factual matter of a life: the sinking of the family  barge. While its decrepitude makes the story of its sinking completely plausible, the event still delivers a sharp narrative jolt, rendered through the account of the event given by Fitzgerald’s daughters ‘who only recall the shock of coming home to find their home gone’, a dolls’ tea-set ‘floating out of the hold’, the cat ‘clinging to the mast’, and ‘most of Penelope’s documents, photographs, letters from her mother, childhood mementoes … lost’ – with the added observation that ‘Desmond was no help: “God knows where Daddy was”.’

Fitzgerald presented this story wryly from the start. She apologised to her students – ‘I’m sorry I’m late but my house sank’ – in a manner that folded the cataclysmic event into a novelistic world, indeed into a world that could be from one of her own novels: understated, comic and peculiar, but also palpably real and hauntingly believable. The event, of course, made its way into a novel: the Booker-winning Offshore, where the moment and consequence of the barge’s sinking is extended beyond its effect on the family:

struggling to rise against the increasing load of water … like one of those terrible sights of the racecourse or the battle field where wallowing living beings persevere dumbly in their duty although mutilated beyond repair.

Returning to land, Fitzgerald made the best of Poynders Gardens, where she endured the decline of Desmond’s health and then his death, and where she began to write seriously. The upward path, which makes up the second half of Lee’s biography, was agonisingly slow. Fitzgerald’s eventual achievements as a novelist were undercut, if not undermined, by the repeated, even dogged dismissals of her work by publishers and prize committees and some reviewers, who subjected her work to the kinds of derision reserved for older women in the public sphere. This was evident in the media’s treatment of her when she won the Booker Prize, which it had been assumed would go to V. S. Naipaul. ‘The BBC Book Programme about the Booker Prize, recorded and aired on 24 October, was breathtakingly condescending and ill-judged,’ Lee writes. The program chair Robert Robinson announced to a panel, which included Fitzgerald, that ‘the Booker judges had made the wrong choice and “the best book didn’t win”.’ The other panellists agreed. Lee records Fitzgerald’s typically understated response to these dismissals:

‘I felt as though something had hit me very hard on the head’ … And that is rather how she appears throughout [the broadcast].

Lee nevertheless draws attention to way that Fitzgerald’s public presentation of herself provided rich fodder for such misjudgements:

People took for granted the stocky, ruddy-cheeked, now white-haired figure, just off the bus or the train, with her Marks and Spencer’s coats, her buttoned-up blouses, wide skirts and sensible shoes, carrying her capacious William Morris bags, giving an impression at once neat and shabby. The unwary continued to be taken in by her mild-voiced, scatty-seeming person.

Fitzgerald’s star is unmistakably on the rise throughout the second half of the biography and Lee records, alongside the prosaic detail of Fitzgerald’s life, the dawning public recognition of her subject’s extraordinary and deeply original achievement as a novelist. Lee also provides an account of the honing and refining of Fitzgerald’s inimitable novelistic style. But while Fitzgerald’s writing is distinctive, the pattern of her writing career, its lateness and its substance, will be familiar to readers of women’s writing – and writing about women’s writing – from across the last century. Her novels were built on decades of experience as a teacher, editor, professional writer and reviewer, a regime that produces its own thwarted temporality, its own practices of inhibiting, impeding and delaying more substantial writing, even while it supports and nurtures practical skills. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf made clear how the tight fit around practical economics and the profession of writing in women’s lives provides the matter of writing itself, its finances, its circumstances and its longevity. This matter must always be at the heart of the way the genre of biography tackles the lives of women writers.

The post-war, mid-century context of Fitzgerald’s career is, moreover, crucial, framing as it does the dramatic shifts in the professional and personal lives of first-world women, just ahead of the upheavals of second-wave feminism. Susan Sheridan’s Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark (2011) has tracked some of the defining features of women’s literary production across this period, in particular those of timing. Sheridan adds the idea of the late start to the history of the breaks or delays occasioned by women’s personal or professional circumstances, and considers the consequences of this for a writer’s public and scholarly profile. In this context, it is significant that Fitzgerald’s story shares some of its historical coordinates with Sheridan’s Australian subjects, as well as with compatriot writers such as Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym (whose novels she reviewed), and with Spark’s friend Shirley Hazzard. The careers of all these writers were marked decisively by various kinds of delay or interruption, and it is impossible to account for their stylistic achievements, not to mention their subject matter, without bearing this in mind.

This is part of the reason it is so fascinating to read Lee’s account of Fitzgerald’s years as a teacher, which provided material for one early novel – At Freddie’s (1982) –  but which also subtended her development as a literary writer. Lee provides plenty of detail about this work, suggesting that it constituted a bridge between Fitzgerald’s early literary brilliance at Oxford and the novels she would go on to write:

In the memories of her ex-pupils, in her teaching books and her essay-markings there is evidence of passionate interest, vigilance and dedication – and of a writer practising in secret. What began as a makeshift necessity became a useful vocation.

Lee also takes us through Fitzgerald’s teaching notebooks – ‘One of them has notes on the English Stage Company, on 1950s and 1960s English drama including Osborne, on Wittgenstein and Borges (“Borges likes to keep complications but reduce them to their most economical form”) and page after page on Beckett’ – and through what remains of her library of teaching texts:

This is the battered, much-used library of a working woman, mostly dog-eared paperbacks stuffed full of notes, marks, clippings and reviews, their margins annotated all through in Fitzgerald’s clear, italic handwriting. They are the teaching texts of an enormously conscientious person, with (as she said of herself) an unshakeable Evangelical work ethic.

This idea of vocation, and its valuing of the new kinds of professional opportunities opening up for women throughout these postwar decades, draws the chaotic events of Fitzgerald’s life together in another, quite different narrative arc, one that eventually supplants the well-known story of her dramatic decline and belated, halting ascent.

This is one of the great achievements of Lee’s biography, eclipsing, for me at least, the wonderful texture and detail it also provides of Fitzgerald’s long life of tenacity and brilliance. Within this narrative frame, the lateness of Fitzgerald’s literary blooming takes on qualities that return us to the compelling question of her novels. The biography proposes that Fitzgerald’s lateness is best understood not in relation to a (missing) body of ‘early’ work, but rather in the way that it works to refute conclusion and conclusiveness. It provides a ‘certainty’ that ‘even if it makes the readers uneasy, acts as a call to order, even as an unintentional reproach’, as Fitzgerald wrote in response to Woolf’s sense of the writer’s compulsion.

In the same essay, ‘Last Words’, Fitzgerald takes Beckett as her touchstone of late or last writing, with the end-game of human life attenuated, drawn out in the naming or the telling of it:

‘Old end-game lost of old,’ Beckett calls it, ‘play and lose and have done with losing.’ A human being is old when he has survived long enough to name, with absolute confidence, a year, one of the next thirty, which he won’t be there to see.

This thwarted and insistent sense of time and timing is, finally, encased in the biography’s epigraph – ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’ – drawn from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and final novel, The Blue Flower, which tells of the life of the German Romantic poet, Novalis. By citing as her own point of departure Fitzgerald’s stunningly convincing imitation or invention – a form of ventriloquising – of the mystical words of Novalis, Lee suggests that her biography will treat of more than the details of her subject’s life, that it will take us back into the novels. She has provided Fitzgerald’s readers with a biography that does something like this, permitting us to imagine the voice of this reticent author by attending to the elusive shape and structure of the world in which she lived, and the unexpectedness of the life she lived. Or, to use Fitzgerald’s own worlds, from her review of Hermione Lee’s earlier biography of Virginia Woolf, it is ‘as though the biographer was following Virginia Woolf’s own advice to herself “to get down into the depths, and make the shapes square up”.’

Works Cited

Joan Acocella, ‘Assassination on a small scale,’ New Yorker (7 February 2000).
Julian Barnes, ‘How did she do it?’ Guardian (26 July 2008).
Terence Dooley (editor), Penelope Fitzgerald: The Afterlife (Counterpoint, 2003).
Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (Pantheon, 2006).
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth, 1929).