Although celebrity came to her only with age, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote beautifully about childhood - especially her own. Hilary Mantel remembers a greatly missed novelist and critic

A House of Air: selected writings

Penelope Fitzgerald

<em>Flamingo, 552pp, £20</em>

ISBN 000

This is a book to remind us that art is long and life far too short; Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000, and as readers of her fine novels still miss her, so do readers of the review pages, to which she brought lucidity, immediacy and a watchful courtesy born of long experience. Born in the Great War, she had been reading since 1920, and began writing only a little later; she described her childhood as "dipped in ink". Her biographical subjects included the artist Edward Burne-Jones and the poet Charlotte Mew. She published nine novels, three of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She won it in 1979 with Offshore, but made her greatest impact in the US only in 1997, when The Blue Flower won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Celebrity came with age, but she wrote beautifully about childhood. Anyone who was lucky enough to know her will remember her droll, distinctive manner and her trick of saying surprising things in a low, even tone without any change of facial expression. Innocence, you felt, was fighting experience and the result would not be known until you read it on the page. While her mind was moving swiftly towards some startling conclu-sion she would look preoccupied, even bemused. Her manner was civil, mild and unassuming, but hinted at a wild humour and a certain ruthlessness, kept under firm restraint; no doubt this was a suitable demeanour for someone whose grandfathers were bishops and whose father was the editor of Punch.

She described her father as being of "a vicarage family, and vicarages were the intellectual powerhouses of Victorian England". She shared the traits of the family mind, which was subtle and principled, and her sensibility - so modern and acute in many ways - seems to reach back into the past and connect her to the work of Jane Austen and George Eliot, who are among the subjects of essays here. Two of Fitzgerald's uncles were distinguished priests - Wilfred Knox, an Anglo-Catholic and a wit, and Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic and a scholar (Knox was a writer, too, of detective stories). Her other uncle, Dillwyn, was a code-breaker who worked on the Enigma cipher.

Some readers may feel that her novels are codes to be broken; they are often reticent and elliptical, their impact stealthy. But in her reviews she writes carefully and plainly, unafraid to show the line of her thought. In this collection of non-fiction pieces, with a thoughtful introduction from Hermione Lee, her subjects range from Blake to Bloomsbury, and on to Ishiguro and Carol Shields. She meets them all with an even-handed sympathy and undazzled directness. She trains a spotlight on the under-appreciated (E M Delafield), on the popular but puzzling (Stevie Smith) and on the prolific but neglected: for instance, Mrs Oliphant, who wrote 98 novels and 25 biographies to support her children and pay other people's debts.

And why did Fitzgerald write? She explains some of the reasons in a short piece included here. She wrote for money; she wrote to guide lost characters home; she wrote to make up, she says, through the tenderness of fiction, for the harshness of fact. When she lived on a Thames barge a neighbour of hers who was a male model saw that she was "rather down in the dumps, a middle-aged woman shabbily dressed and tired" and took her for an outing to Brighton where, she writes demurely, "We went on all the rides and played on all the slot machines." She wrote about him later, but improved his fate; in life he killed himself, but art spared him - someone so kind, she says, should not be taken to be a failure.

In conversation she would profess unpredictable enthusiasms, and their range is captured here. It is quite a stretch from Barbara Pym - whom you would assume she would like - to Roddy Doyle, whose world you might assume would be strange to her, but isn't; she has an ear for the flat demotic as well as for the sonorous, the Tennysonian. What she appreciates in Roddy Doyle is "delicacy of human feeling"; when she finds this quality in an author, she can analyse it without brutalising it. She reads in order to appreciate but can be brisk with biographers who indulge their subjects. Martin Stannard, writing of Evelyn Waugh, "concludes that he died, as he lived, alone". Fitzgerald ends her piece: "How he makes that out I can't tell . . . Waugh was never without a sympathetic friend, and by his family he was offered more love than he was ever able to accept. I don't call that loneliness."

Penelope Fitzgerald grew up first in rural Sussex, then in a Queen Anne house in Well Walk, Hampstead, at a time when sheep still grazed on the heath and from the top of the house there was a clear view to Westminster, so that residents could see the flag flying on the Houses of Parliament. Three fragments of memoir printed here are the plums in a rich and wonderful book. She evokes - without a single hackneyed image, and in a way that is singular and personal - her childhood world of horse-drawn delivery vans, muffin-men, lamplighters and messenger boys, coal fires and toasting forks, sago and suet, blacklead and starch, of skeleton leaves and yellow fogs, of furlongs and farthings and five postal deliveries a day. And in the country, in the heat of summer afternoons, "the garden was silent, not a murmur even from the hens in their run behind the rose hedge, and inside the house the only sound, apart from the kitchen clock, was the red-currant juice dripping slowly through the strainer into the jelly pan".

There was, she says, "a glowing illusion of security and peace that can never be recovered". It is like her to remark, so very gently and implacably, that it was an illusion and move smoothly on. In those days words were precise and behaved in expected, limited ways: her shoe bag bore, embroidered in chain stitch, the words "shoe bag", and the hot water jug sat under a flannel cover marked "hot water". Yet the wider possibilities were evident to her. The children of her family produced their own weekly magazine, called (for some reason she has forgotten) Howl Ye Bloodhounds.

Keats's ghost haunted the house two doors down, or at least Keats was blamed for the disturbances, though the phantom smoked a cigar - which was not among the poet's known vices. For a time she had a home tutor, a Miss Lucas; Miss Lucas got married to a man whose sedentary habits she explained by saying, "Work of any kind makes him feel dizzy." A seaside prep school at Eastbourne was followed by Wycombe Abbey, where she failed to become a Girl Guide, for which "you had to pass in General Information, knitting and rice pudding". Her pudding, placed perhaps in the coolest part of the oven, failed to cook. She must have dwelt on it over the years, and her wry conclusion reminds us of what we have lost: "When I saw it I braced myself for failure but not for being called, as I was, a disgrace to the ideals of Baden-Powell. I still think that was putting things too strongly."

Hilary Mantel's most recent book is Giving Up the Ghost (Fourth Estate)