The miraculous novels and life of Penelope Fitzgerald

Here is the gleam of gem-like details: Fitzgerald’s compulsive cheating at games, even with her little grandchildren; the lunchtime sausage roll warming on the radiator in one of the schools where she taught, filling the classroom with its smell; cutting

Late great: Penelope Fitzgerald at home in 2000. Image: Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press

Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life
Hermione Lee
Chatto & Windus, 528pp, £25

The word that immediately occurs to one when thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald’s last four novels – Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower (1995) – is “miraculous”. There is nothing quite like them in English literature: in fact, they are not really English novels at all, except in language. They are inexhaustible in their meanings; mysterious and oblique, even baffling, in craft, beauty and effect; and every reader who has come to them has asked, at one time or other, a variant of the question, “How is it done?”

In this first ever biography of Fitzgerald, which comes 13 years after her death, Hermione Lee, pointedly using the (madeup) words of Novalis in The Blue Flower as her epigraph (“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching”), has set out to attempt some answers to that question. The result is a luminous masterpiece of life-writing.

Penelope Knox was born in 1916 into a family of renowned high-achievers, on both her paternal side (Knox) and maternal (Hicks). It is unsurprising that her first book, published when she was 60, was a group biography of her father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, and his brothers, Dillwyn, Wilfred and Ronald. Penelope inherited not only the Knoxes’ extraordinary intelligence but also other typical family traits: obstinacy, a distrust of wealth and pomposity, an inability to share or express emotions, a certain stripe of neurosis and reserve. After Somerville College, Oxford, she worked for the BBC for most of the 1940s, an experience that was to go, 30 years later, into her fourth novel, Human Voices.

She married Desmond Fitzgerald in 1942 and the couple ran the internationalist highliterary magazine World Review from 1950 to 1953, when it folded. It is from this time that one can date the beginning of the Fitzgeralds’ years of adversity. The family – by then, they had three children: Valpy, Tina and Maria – moved from Hampstead to Southwold, Suffolk in 1957. Desmond began to drink heavily and his career in the law petered out. They had no money and they moved back to London in 1960 to live in a houseboat, Grace, moored in Chelsea. She began working as an English tutor in crammers; this was to be her main source of income for many years.

Things got much worse – Desmond was discovered stealing from his chambers and was disbarred; Penelope never spoke to anyone about this chapter in her life. Six months after this, the boat sank, taking with it most of their possessions. For the next 18 months they lived in a series of squalid homeless centres and temporary housing until the end of 1964, when they moved into council housing in Clapham, which was their home for 11 years. The pages on Fitzgerald’s poverty are unsentimental, clear-eyed and heartbreaking.

After Desmond’s death in 1976, Fitzgerald lived, variously, with her daughters’ families and in a rented attic room in St John’s Wood. Then the books started coming, one after another: two biographies; five novels, written from the material of her life stored up for so long; then those four late novels from the mid-1980s. From 1988 until her death, she lived in the coach house adjoining the house of Maria and her husband in Highgate.

It may appear at first glance that the biographer’s ordinary cradle-to-grave chronology provides the spine of this Life but look closely and you’ll see that the armature is a preternaturally finely tuned literary criticism. I read the “finding” in the epigraph as Fitzgerald’s books; the “searching” as uncovering what it was in her life that gave rise to them. It’s a book of great and harmonious intellectual unity, its artful investigation into how Fitzgerald’s inner life up to the 1980s can account for and be predictive of the late work gives the book its internal coherence.

It is easy to find parallels between her life and the first five novels – Lee does this with rigour yet extraordinary sympathy – but the later fiction calls for a different kind of illumination. Accordingly, Lee traces Fitzgerald’s reading, her intellectual and emotional affinities, producing a cogent account of Fitzgerald’s research, so compressed and buried within the work that the worlds the books bring forth feel entire and lived and utterly truthful. And the sustained pursuit of Fitzgerald’s central interest in failure and losers – “exterminatees”, as she called them – gives the biography its empathetic resonance.

The two-and-a-half-page preface alone is a wealth of such condensed thoughts that several could be pulled out into monographs. She writes that Fitzgerald’s life is “partly a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style”. Those last two words proudly insert both Lee’s biography and her subject’s work into the Adorno-Beethoven- Mann-Said conversation. There’s no getting away from it – Fitzgerald was a genius.

Then there’s the gleam of those gem-like details: Fitzgerald’s compulsive cheating at games, even with her little grandchildren; the lunchtime sausage roll warming on the radiator in one of the schools where she taught, filling the classroom with its smell; cutting down her clothes to make Valpy’s dungarees; dyeing her hair with tea bags . . . Here is the heart of the meaning of life-writing: to bring the dead back to life.

“Magisterial” can be a forbidding word; it can imply distance, loftiness, even a touch of arrogance. But Lee’s magisterial work is inseparable from warmth, intimacy, humaneness, and love for the subject of her biography – and the sui generis work that Fitzgerald left behind.

Neel Mukherjee is the author of “A Life Apart” (Corsair, £7.99)