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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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood