Reviewed: Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Past infidelity.

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler
Two Roads, 384pp, £17.99

In 1923, T S Eliot wrote that the critic must have “a very highly developed sense of fact”. This is also a useful attribute for the historical novelist but it is precisely what is missing from Therese Anne Fowler’s fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, which is less a fiction than a series of falsities.

Fowler’s novel retells the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, from their courtship in Montgomery, Alabama at the end of the First World War, through Scott’s sudden fame as the bestselling author of This Side of Paradise in 1920 and their marriage a week later. The Fitzgeralds proceeded to take America by storm, while their well-publicised escapades in the early 1920s helped to inspire The Great Gatsby. After it was published in 1925 to disappointing sales and mostly uncomprehending reviews, the fun began to spiral into something more destructive. Fitzgerald’s drinking raged out of control and Zelda’s behaviour, always unpredictable, started to become seriously erratic.

In 1930, Zelda had a mental breakdown, and was hospitalised. She spent the next decade in and out of psychiatric clinics, while Fitzgerald’s alcoholism took a stranglehold over his life. Recriminations were thrown, Zelda’s friends and family murmuring that Scott was to blame – he had driven her crazy, or else was a jazz-age Mr Rochester locking up an inconvenient Bertha Mason. In fact, there is a great deal of epistolary evidence to show that Fitzgerald was desperate to find a cure for the woman he loved until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1940.

Zelda was in and out of hospital for the next eight years but conspiracy theories are nothing if not resourceful: and so we are told that it was the treatments to which she was subjected that drove Zelda mad. It’s a tiresome story but tenacious, and unfortunately one to which Fowler whole-heartedly subscribes – the kind of victim feminism that can only see women as casualties and martyrs of selfish, domineering men, rather than as agents of their own destinies.

The truth, evident from the accounts of virtually everyone who knew them and from their own writings, is that both Scott and Zelda were brilliant, beautiful, charming, egotistical, theatrical, impetuous and selfdestructive; and they loved each other deeply, to the ends of their lives. “We ruined ourselves – I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other,” Scott wrote to Zelda soon after her breakdown. But Fowler knows better.

The emphasis in Z, an afterword tells us, “is not on factual minutiae but rather on the emotional journey of the characters”. Fowler certainly pays little attention to facts: names are wrong throughout (Tallulah Bankhead was called “Dutch”, not “Tallu”; Edna St Vincent Millay was “Vincent”, not “Edna”; Alexander Woollcott was “Alec”, not “Alexander”), as are easily checked dates (Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable flopped in November 1923, not 1922). Relationships are rewritten: Fitzgerald quarrelled with Alec McKaig in March 1922, ending the friendship, so the Fitzgeralds should not be meeting “our beloved Alec McKaig” in Paris in 1925. The Black Bottom was not later “called” the Charleston; they are two different dances. Anachronistic language abounds: people in the 1920s did not say “come on” or “when he does shit like that”.

Defending such errors as the poetic license of the novelist is a prevarication: sloppiness is not art. Historical fiction can imaginatively fill gaps in historical knowledge, bringing the past intimately to life, or it can rewrite history, as a counterfactual. It’s not clear what virtue there might be to getting the known facts wrong, however, and most of what Fowler invents goes against the letter or the spirit of what we do know.              

This is true not only in the case of factual “minutiae” but also in terms of the larger emotional lives of the characters that Fowler claims concerned her more. It is precisely Zelda’s character that Fowler fails to respect or to capture, turning one of the most memorable women of her era into a sanctimonious bore, with decidedly 21st-century attitudes to monogamy, work, alcohol and child-rearing. Fowler’s Zelda is driven to exhibitionistic behaviour only by “the need to take some kind of action, even if it was wrong”, once tossing her lace knickers on to a lunch table.

The real Zelda was famous for throwing off her clothes at the drop of a hat, for dancing on tabletops and necking with men at parties, inviting them to take baths with her and reportedly chasing the 16-year-old brother of one party host up the stairs, none of which appears in Fowler’s account. Nor was there ever any suggestion that she regarded such antics as “wrong”. Indeed, conventional moralising was anathema to Zelda. It is simply absurd to suggest, as Fowler does, that Zelda would have been shocked to hear that Scott got drunk and “exposed himself” at a party. The real Zelda would be insulted at being portrayed as a prim Victorian maiden.

Fowler’s Zelda keeps preaching moderation and prudence in a way that would have made the historical Zelda hoot with laughter. She urges Scott to spend less and drink less. But Zelda’s own letters at the time admit with casual insouciance how much she’s been drinking, what she’s been buying, how much fun they’ve been having, very rarely mention their small daughter (who is, naturally, a subject of proper maternal devotion in Fowler’s banal imaginings) and never assert the need for temperance until after her breakdown.

On the contrary – in the summer of 1923, she wrote to a friend complaining that Scott had started on his novel and had retired into a monastic life, which Zelda was finding very boring. Fowler’s Zelda is horrified when Scott contemplates working on Gatsby after he’s had a drink; the historical Zelda embarked on an affair while Scott was working on his masterpiece because she was bored.

Needless to say, Fowler also thinks that Zelda was the artist in the family. Scott begins as a cynical self-publicist, and ends a sodden mess. It’s amazing that the unpleasant cretin in these pages could produce anything, much less The Great Gatsby. But happily he had Zelda’s constant, wifely support. Zelda comes up with the title for Gatsby and helps Scott write The Vegetable (an unfortunate credit for a champion of Zelda to offer, given that the play was Fitzgerald’s greatest professional failure).

Fowler can’t even grant that Scott was the one who kept a ledger; Zelda does that too. Even more ironically, although apparently convinced that Zelda was the greater writer, Fowler entirely fails to evoke her remarkable, imagistic voice. Zelda wrote in her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz: “Possessing a rapacious, engulfing ego their particular genius swallowed their world in its swift undertow and washed its cadavers out to sea. New York is a good place to be on the upgrade.”Fowler’s Zelda thinks: “The building was a wonder. Everything in New York City was a wonder, including Scott, who was treating me like the princess I’d once imagined I was.”

Writers of historical novels owe a debt to the facts that have inspired their fictions: Fowler wants to capitalise on the facts but feels no obligation to them. Where there is so little fidelity to the known facts, there can be no meaningful notion of history, no imaginative supplementing of incomplete stories, and the “minutiae” about which Fowler is so dismissive cannot be transcended. Certainly no sense of truth, history or fiction can flourish in a space that has no sense of fact.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” is published by Little, Brown on 6 June

F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and Scotty in 1925. Photograph: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear