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