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

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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