Attentive reading

<strong>So I Have Thought of You: the Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald</strong>

Edited by Terence Do

After the works, the life. There used to be a donnish school of thought which considered that a body of work was all you needed to know about a writer; that further biographical inquiry was a vulgar distraction from the purity of the oeuvre. This is not a view with which Penelope Fitzgerald would have sympathised.

Before she became a novelist, she was herself a remarkable biographer: of Edward Burne-Jones (her first book, published in 1975, when she was 58) and, under the title The Knox Brothers, of her father, "Evoe", the editor of Punch magazine, and his three brothers - Wilfred the Anglican priest, Ronald the Catholic convert and Dillwyn, the classicist and Bletchley cryptographer. In 1984, she published her life of Charlotte Mew (she was later gratified to learn that her American publisher had named his kitten after the anguished lesbian poet). She also pursued with lively if frustrated energy a biography of P Hartley, which remains one of the great un written lives of literary history. From all this one may conclude that Fitzgerald, though habitually described in evasive terms as "shy" or "self-effacing", would probably have had no great objection to the posthumous publication of her private letters.

Which is just as well, as Fourth Estate has just produced a 532-page edition of them, edited by her son-in-law Terence Dooley. In his introduction, Dooley acknowledges a looming problem at the heart of his enterprise: the loss of Fitzgerald's personal records when Grace, the Chelsea houseboat on which her family lived for a time (a period recorded in Fitzgerald's Booker-winning novel, Offshore), sank for the second and final time in 1963. "There is therefore," he writes, "a hole in the middle of this collection which engulfs her work as a programmes assistant at the BBC, the early years of her marriage, her editorship of World Review, her childbearing and child-rearing years, and her financial disasters. The years when, as Cervantes said to explain his own long silence, she was living her life, the years before she came to write." Some hole. Yet Fitzgerald was a voluminous correspondent, and what survives is more than enough to make a substantial book. The letters are organised under two headings, "Family and Friends" and "Writing", and within these categories arranged chronologically and by correspondent.

The effect of repeatedly following the correspondence from Fitzgerald's financially beleaguered middle age to her physically beleaguered old age is disconcerting: again and again, one reads her "final" letter, only to resume with the narrative, subtly adapted to a new correspondent, of the survival strategies - Green Shield Stamps, home couture, attempts to dye her hair with a tea bag ("but it did not make much difference") - of her penurious middle age. If the flavour of the individual relationships is not to be lost, these oddities are unavoidable, and tolerable.

Less tolerable is the eccentric paucity of footnotes, a labour- (or money?) saving device that leaves the reader groping in a fog of surreal ambiguity: Who is the "Ferdie" who "pecked me sharply on the way to the Budgie Hotel"? Who is the "Hansel and Gretel lady"? What is the "glove" that is "going quite well" now that she has "thrown away the dreadful glove booklet"? For £25, I think we should be told. Nor, disappointingly, does the preface by A S Byatt shed much light on its enigmatic subject. "She is not a novelist of manners, though she observes them wickedly," we are told, though we might, by attentive reading, have discerned that for ourselves. Attentive reading is the key to Fitzgerald's letters, as to her novels. Much is made by critics of her belief that the "reader is insulted by being told too much", and if one is prepared to shift for oneself, there is much pleasure to be had from the letters, both from the vignettes of domestic life, which Fitzgerald found intractable - home-made skirts perpetually outwitting her, umbrellas spitefully losing themselves, pens declining to write - and from the accounts of literary life so sharp that the sting follows long after the blade has slid in: "Beryl [Bainbridge] rather under the weather, perhaps," writes Fitzgerald of a fearful Booker dinner, "but she's the only one who really gives the idea of a proper old-fashioned bohemian, which I suppose is what is needed at an alleged writers' dinner."

There are tender portraits of grandchildren, great comic set pieces, particularly at a retreat at a theological college ("I'm the only lady and I do think my skirts are too short"), and a watchful account of the diminishments of old age. On the whole, one's understanding of Fitzgerald as an author is enriched by these glimpses into her private life. And perhaps she would have been pleased with the handsome appearance of the book and with how the reader must work to decipher the connection between the title and the untranslated, unattributed German epigraph.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.