Review: Hermione Lee’s ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’

PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A Life. Hermione Lee. Knopf. 488 pages. $35.
PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A Life. Hermione Lee. Knopf. 488 pages. $35.

Few of us will ever manage such dramatic rebirths as did Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who never published a book until she was just shy of 60 — yet became one of Britain’s most admired novelists. Her tragicomic masterpieces, such as The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower, are concise, beautifully composed accounts of ordinary people stoically facing up to life’s confusions and defeats. In several ways, the contemporary American writer Fitzgerald most resembles is Marilynne Robinson. She’s that good, that distinctive, albeit with a far livelier sense of the human comedy.

Fitzgerald was born into a remarkable family. Her father, E.V. Knox, edited Punch, the English humor magazine. Her uncles included the saintly Wilfred Knox, who worked as an Anglican priest among the poorest of the poor; Dillwyn Knox, atheist, classicist and Britain’s chief code breaker; and Ronald Knox, who at Eton was regarded as that school’s most brilliant student in living memory.

The four brothers were quick-witted, competitive, loyal to their family and emotionally reticent. Penelope Knox exhibited these same traits, winning the top scholarship to Oxford’s Somerville College. But she also was dubbed “the blonde bombshell” and regarded as one of the most beautiful girls at the university. With the outbreak of World War II, the young Oxford star took a clerical position with the BBC, then in 1942 married a “gallant” Irish soldier named Desmond Fitzgerald.

The young Fitzgeralds appeared to be a golden couple and before long were the parents of a son and two daughters. But the battle-scarred Desmond — although qualified as a barrister — proved neither ambitious nor especially hard-working. With Penelope’s help, he edited a fine literary magazine called World Review during the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the couple made hardly any money, Desmond began to drink too much, and their lives slid downhill. The family fled London for Southwold, a small Suffolk town by the sea. Penelope worked in a bookshop. When the Fitzgeralds finally returned to London, they found the cheapest possible lodgings on a decrepit boat permanently moored in the River Thames. It was often ankle-deep in dirty water. Desperate, Desmond furtively stole checks from other lawyers, forged their signatures and eventually was caught and disbarred. One day, the family’s dilapidated home sank.

The Fitzgeralds eventually found themselves living in government-subsidized housing. The family largely depended on Penelope’s low-paying jobs teaching English. Desmond finally found a position as a clerk in a travel agency, where he remained for the next 30 years. Penelope taught until she was 70.

Hermione Lee, the acclaimed biographer of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, chronicles all this with even-handed sympathy and understanding. Fitzgerald’s marriage was in many ways a disaster, but she stood by her feckless husband and staunchly refused to ask for charity. Her clothes often looked as if she made them out of curtains. Yet beneath the dowdy, almost bag-lady image, she possessed a piercing, Jane Marpleish intelligence. Moreover, this devoted mother strove hard to give her children solid educations through her own example of constant reading and by taking them to museums, plays and concerts.

Only when her children had finally left home for university (on scholarships) did Penelope Fitzgerald — by then in her 50s — start writing. Her intellectual hero had long been the progressive thinker, poet, novelist and artist William Morris, whose best friend was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. After five years of intense research and writing, Fitzgerald published the biography Edward Burne-Jones. This was followed by The Knox Brothers, a group portrait of her father and uncles and one of the most delightful books of its kind. Finally, to keep up her spirits and to amuse Desmond as he lay slowly dying from cancer, she turned out her first novel, The Golden Child, a mystery set in the museum world.

But these were just warm-ups for Fitzgerald’s serious fiction. In her early 60s, she pillaged her own life for settings and background: The Bookshop was based on the sojourn in Southwold; Offshore evoked the family’s life on the Thames; Human Voices drew on her time at the BBC, and At Freddie’s had its origins in that school for young actors. Offshore even won the 1979 Booker Prize, to the amazement of almost everyone.

All these are wonderful books, but Fitzgerald got even better with her historical novels. As she entered her 70s, she published Innocence, which takes place in post-World War II Italy, followed by The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow just before the Russian Revolution. They were succeeded by The Gate of Angels, which evoked Edwardian life in Cambridge and The Blue Flower, which focuses on Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, one of the greatest poets of 19th century German literature.

I can’t praise Hermione Lee’s elegant work enough, whether for its clear prose, clever organization (she discusses Fitzgerald’s early novels when relating the events that inspired them), insightful criticism or amusing and horrifying anecdotes. Half the names in contemporary English literature briefly appear (Julian Barnes, Anita Brookner, Beryl Bainbridge and A.S. Byatt). Any admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work — or, for that matter, any passionate reader — will enjoy this capacious, masterly biography. Like its subject’s own late flowering, it is a triumph.

Michael Dirda reviewed this book for The Washington Post.