Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

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I like to read biographies of authors. When the biography is as good as this one, I like to stop and read the author’s books just before they are discussed. Yes, the works stand alone; you don’t need to know details of the author’s life to appreciate them. But as a writer, I am curious about how her experiences shaped the author’s perspective and choices.

I’ve been particularly curious about Penelope Fitzgerald for two reasons: I’ve loved her novels, and she was 60 years old when her first novel was published. She did publish two nonfiction books, one when she was 58 and the other the same year as her first novel. I wondered how her life story meshed with the stories described so vividly in Tillie Olsen’s Silences.

Indeed, it does. While working at the BBC during WWII, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she’d met at Oxford. Within six months, he’d been sent to North Africa with the Irish Guards. Like so many soldiers, he returned damaged in ways less visible than a missing leg. His misadventures meant that the family lived in poverty, even being homeless for a while before gratefully moving into a council flat. Working to support the family and raise her children left Fitzgerald little time for writing, but she was storing up ideas and experiences that enabled her to produce nine novels and three biographies in just 20 years.

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. Lee incorporates excerpts from Fitzgerald’s speeches and writings: letters, reviews, essays. Without being didactive, she suggests places in the novels where Fitzgerald made use of her experiences. Fitzgerald’s first five novels draw on her own past, but even the later novels reveal traces of past preoccupations and concerns.

Lee gives us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer. For example, knowing that her beloved father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, wrote for Punch, adds a new perspective to her brisk, humorous prose. Her father and his siblings provided a rich, if unusual, environment for the young writer.

In talking about the novels, Lee traces some common threads, such as, “Bourne-Jones attracted her, too, because she felt a strong imaginative pull towards characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Her own experiences enabled her to sympathise with such characters. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

In her later works, she experimented with an impressionistic style, putting together fragments that push the reader to actively engage with the story. This style is most effectively used in The Blue Flower, her story based on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. It is especially effective because it mirrors his own style. In an early notebook, Fitzgerald wrote, “Novalis wrote: One can imagine stories which have no coherence, but only association of events, like dreams, or poems which at most have single verses which can be understood, like fragments of the most various objects.”

Lee pins down another aspect of this novel, saying, “she has been thinking all her writing life about the relation between biography, history and fiction. Now she merges the genres to create a new kind of book.”

What most impressed me in this account of Fitzgerald’s life and work was the incredible amount of research she did for each book, not just for the biographies, but for each novel as well. For Beginning of Spring, for example, Lee says, “there is a great deal of homework in her notebooks on printing works, alongside notes on merchants, railway stations, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms.” Some extensive reading may only be come a detail, such as the sandstone towers of a market in Moscow.

For me, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

What biography have you read recently that gave you new insight?

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