A foreign country

The Means of Escape

Penelope Fitzgerald <em>Flamingo, 117pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0007100302

Penelope Fitzgerald famously began writing in her sixties. These short stories, written between 1975 and 1999, and published together for the first time, span her entire writing career and reflect her move away from affectionate domestic comedy towards historical fiction set abroad. Of the eight stories here, only three take place in contemporary England. The cultural context establishes each story's intellectual argument. Whether it be 17th-century England, 19th-century France or turn-of-the- century Istanbul, the past provides Fitzgerald with a wealth of philosophical possibilities, not least a chance to explore her preoccupation with German Romanticism.

The epigraph to her last novel, The Blue Flower, is a quotation from Novalis: "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history." Shortcomings, misunderstandings, missed opportunities - each story is constructed around an unobtainable truth. The "missing" past in literature is often understood to mean the unwritten history of the oppressed or a minority, but Fitzgerald is always most interested in the individual's story.

In "A Means of Escape", set in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1852, the conventions of the historical form are tested. A minister's daughter, the God-fearing Alice Godley, falls for a runaway convict who goes by the name of Savage, aiding his escape while dreaming of her own. Told with mischievous wit, the story fairly trembles with Alice's boredom and repressed sexuality. Savage escapes on the Constancy, taking not Alice, but her uncommunicative housekeeper with him - a betrayal of which the reader is as unsuspecting as poor Alice.

With masterful dissemblance, the narrator stresses the impossibility of ever really knowing what happened in the past. A letter from Savage to Alice, apparently now in the Tasmanian library, explains his disappearance, while the housekeeper's motives "were never set down and can only be guessed at". Stressing the tale's historic context has the opposite effect of drawing attention to its fictionality. The rest of the story, particularly our access to Alice's most intimate fantasies, is deliberately undermined.

The modern-day tales are equally examples of the genre at its best. "The Axe", the earliest in the collection, is a discomfortingly effective ghost story. Written in the first person by an office manager as a report to an absent boss, the moving plight of one of his employees - a lonely, pathetic figure to whom "dismissal would be like death" - is routinely related. Like the damp building in which the narrator is trapped by his own fear, the story is seeped in "the smell of disappointment". The most recent, "Beehernz", is a playful tale about an eccentric veteran composer who gets the better of a pompous festival director. Fitzgerald died in April last year at the age of 83, and this final gentle, but defiant, story seems fitting.

Despite the importance in them of the past and their traditional structure, all of these stories, with the emphasis on a fundamental symbolic absence, are essentially modern. Fitzgerald's generous moral vision informs each story, the metaphysical implications of which are always underpinned by a more mundane, universal wisdom. Her economical, elegant style and strong narrative purpose make for the perfect short story.

Lisa Allardice is deputy arts and books editor of the NS