Penelope Fitzgerald, a sublimely gifted and versatile writer, died in London on April 28, at the age of eighty-three. Her book reviews and essays are a model of amateur criticism. Her concise, discreet, intuitive lives remind us that biography belongs to literature, and that the ideal biographer is not an academic specialist, not a forensics expert, but an informed heart in service to the truth about a fellow human being. She was English to the bone and so naturally loved puzzles and games and intellectual entertainments; she wrote ghost stories in the tradition of M. R. James and a humorous locked-room murder mystery complete with codes and ciphers. But it is for her novels—her eight brief, witty, and wholly original novels—that she will be remembered. Here, in the words of Frank Kermode, is "fiction in which perfection is almost to be hoped for, as unostentatious as true virtuosity can make it, its texture a pure pleasure."
Everything God sent her to do she did with all her might, including filling out her publishers' questionnaires. For one such document she wrote the following notes about herself. "Although I didn't start writing until late in life"—her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, was published when she was almost sixty— "I was born into a 'writing family.' . . . My father [Edmund "Evoe" Knox] was the editor of Punch from 1932 to 1945. His brother Dillwyn—my uncle Dilly—was a wartime codebreaker and a peacetime decipherer of ancient Greek manuscripts. Two other uncles were priests . . . and two of the most convincing Christians it would be possible to meet." Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic agitator for social reform; Ronnie—Monsignor Ronald Knox—was, quite simply, the most famous English Catholic of his era. Except for Dillwyn, who published little and apparently said even less, "writing came to them as naturally as breathing, though [none] was very good with a typewriter."
She memorialized her remarkable family in her second book, The Knox Brothers. Her third and final biography was of the poet Charlotte Mew, a book that, being true to life as Fitzgerald understood it, is both haunting and very funny. A morbidly conscientious woman at odds with her times and her own nature, her life a sad tangle of misunderstandings (mainly about herself) yet punctuated by moments of grace, Mew is of a piece with the protagonists of Fitzgraed's novels. "I feel drawn," Fitzgerald wrote, "to people whom the twentieth century considers expendable, but who don't give up. As far as I'm concerned, they are not failures, for no one who shows courage"—the courage that comes from simply choosing to survive—"can ever be considered a failure."
Fitzgerald's early novels were autobiographical in inspiration. They came, in a coruscating burst of creativity, at the rate of roughly one a year from 1978 to 1982. The Bookshop, the first and perhaps the best-loved of her novels, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; the second, Offshore, took the prize the following year. They form a kind of diptych: each concerns a woman attempting to live in a world that refuses her, one the proprietor of an embattled small-town bookshop, the other the mistress of a slowly sinking houseboat. Human Voices remembers the wartime BBC, where, just out of college, Fitzgerald held an entry-level job and fell in love "with someone older and more important, without the least glimmer of a hope of any return." At Freddie's concerns Italia Conti, a school for child actors where Fitzgerald was employed as a tutor, and its eccentric, tyrannical founder-director, "a natural grande dame of a species which, allowed to flourish unchecked, becomes in time uncontrollable." Each of these novels is a tragedy dressed out as a comedy, "for otherwise," Fitzgerald said, referring to the human lot, "how can we manage to bear it?"
With Innocence (1986), an Emma set in Tuscany after World War II, Fitzgerald began what she called "a journey outside of myself," a masterly series of novels set in places and times remote from her own experience. The Beginning of Spring (1988), nominally the story of an Anglo-Russian printer in Moscow on the eve of the revolution, is a lament for an entire civilization, an entire way of human life, about to be washed away by history. The Gate of Angels (1990) revisits her uncles' Cambridge and the debate between "those old friends and antagonists, soul and body, intuition and reason." The Blue Flower (1995), her final masterpiece and the novel that won her a large international audience, takes us farthest away of all. Set in the Saxony of Goethe and Schiller, it dramatizes the birth of the Romantic impulse by way of a fictionalized biography of Novalis.
Penelope Fitzgerald's final days were a battle against crippling arthritis, about which she didn't complain, and against the enticing distractions of fame, about which she did—with good humor. She worked until the end: book reviews of Ravelstein and the Klemperer diaries, introductions to works by J. L. Carr and Jane Austen. Her last month was a crowded one, correcting the typescript of two final books: a collection of stories called The Means of Escape, and a new American edition of The Knox Brothers. Both will appear in the fall.
For us, as for all of her readers, her passing leaves the world much diminished. It was a privilege, and a rare kind of aesthetic thrill, to be alive in her time and to watch her gift unfold.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 10, on page 3
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