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

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)

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

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser