Bril­liant ob­ser­va­tions of a gifted am­a­teur

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michelle de Kretser

FER­NANDO Pes­soa re­marked that hav­ing read The Pick­wick Pa­pers was one of the great­est tragedies in his life: never again would he be able to read it for the first time. I feel that way about Pene­lope Fitzger­ald. There’s con­so­la­tion to be had in re- read­ing her books, but I re­main deeply en­vi­ous of peo­ple who have yet to dis­cover them. They have such riches in store.

Fitzger­ald was al­most 60 when her first book, on the life of painter Ed­ward Burne- Jones, was pub­lished. She died, aged 83, at the beginning of the cen­tury. Since then, her pub­lish­ers have is­sued a vol­ume of her sto­ries, a se­lec­tion of crit­i­cal writ­ing and now this mar­vel­lous col­lec­tion of let­ters. It ranges from the beginning of World War II, soon af­ter Fitzger­ald grad­u­ated from Ox­ford, to let­ters writ­ten weeks be­fore her death. The lat­ter are al­most un­bear­able to read be­cause we know that what came next was obliv­ion.

Not that Fitzger­ald would have seen it that way. The grand­daugh­ter of a bishop, she was a be­liever all her life, and worlds other than this one shim­mer through­out her fic­tion. A poltergeist fea­tures in The Book­shop , her first fully- fledged novel. In her last, bril­liantly un­set­tling story, a boy vis­it­ing a spooky house comes across an eerie dou­ble. One of Fitzger­ald’s cor­re­spon­dents here, her clos­est friend at school, claims that the writer came to her af­ter she died, to tell her not to worry. ‘‘ It sounds,’’ notes Ter­ence Doo­ley, Fitzger­ald’s son- in- law, ‘‘ the sort of thing she would do.’’

The first part of this col­lec­tion, Fam­ily and Friends , is built around the loving let­ters Fitzger­ald wrote to her daugh­ters. Burst­ing with daily de­tail, they con­vey a lively sense of her life be­fore she be­came a writer. There are re­ports on the Euro­vi­sion song con­test (‘‘ We thought Cliff ( Richard) should have won’’), on the fam­ily’s coun­cil flat (‘‘ The bath­room basin is stopped up again’’), on the Oxbridge cram­mer where Fitzger­ald taught lit­er­a­ture (‘‘ I can’t get on with Mrs Smith. She is warm and gen­er­ous and splen­did and has blonde hair’’). In life, as in fic­tion, noth­ing is be­neath Fitzger­ald’s no­tice. Meals are men­tioned of­ten and ap­pre­cia­tively. Like Balzac, she dis­plays a keen in­ter­est in money and for the same rea­son: it was usu­ally in short sup­ply. Most of her mar­ried life was lived in gen­teel poverty; the leit­mo­tif of her cor­re­spon­dence is in­ge­nious mak­ing- do. Home­made clothes are al­tered to last an­other sea­son, tea bags serve as hair dye, san­dals are mended with some­thing called plas­tic wood.

Des­mond Fitzger­ald — rou­tinely re­ferred to as ‘‘ poor Daddy’’ — is a touch­ing fig­ure. The war left him a legacy of medals, ill- health and night­mares. Af­ter­wards, it was ‘‘ dif­fi­cult to adapt to civil­ian life’’, Doo­ley writes, a tact­ful gloss on al­co­holism and a chronic in­abil­ity to man­age

money. There were rows, un­paid bills, re­pos­ses­sions, sud­den flights from du­bi­ous res­i­dences.

Doo­ley tells us that Fitzger­ald lost most of her per­sonal pa­pers when the fam­ily’s house­boat ‘‘ sank for the sec­ond time’’. In those last three words there is a very great deal to pon­der. Yet what the Fitzger­ald chil­dren re­mem­ber of their rack­ety child­hood is the love of their funny, in­tel­li­gent par­ents.

When she is wid­owed, Fitzger­ald writes to a friend, ‘‘ with all our ups and downs, Des­mond thought ev­ery­thing I did was right’’, and we are pierced by the vast­ness of her loss.

The sec­ond half of this book is de­voted to writ­ing. Fitzger­ald’s let­ters to her sev­eral ed­i­tors, largely con­cerned with prac­ti­cal­i­ties, re­veal al­most noth­ing about how she came to write her re­mark­able nov­els. They are fas­ci­nat­ing, none­the­less. For in­stance, Fitzger­ald fre­quently men­tions two bi­o­graph­i­cal works that pre­oc­cu­pied her for years, a life of L. P. Hart­ley and an ac­count of Harold Monro’s Po­etry Book­shop. Re­gret­tably, nei­ther ma­te­ri­alised, al­though the lat­ter mu­tated into Fitzger­ald’s study of Char­lotte Mew; but th­ese books of air are vividly present in her let­ters.

No­table, too, is Fitzger­ald’s habit of play­ing down her work (‘‘ the PR man de­spairs of me’’). Well into her ca­reer, she refers to her­self as an am­a­teur and to her books as ‘‘ lit­tle bits of writ­ing’’. Mod­esty, that sub­tle form of cour­tesy baf­fling to the Age of Me, comes into play here.

So too, I think, does the re­flex­ive self­ef­face­ment of a girl who grew up with bril­liant men. Fitzger­ald’s fa­ther and un­cles were the fa­mous Knox broth­ers, the sub­ject of her most ac­com­plished bi­og­ra­phy. It is per­haps not ac­ci­den­tal that her lit­er­ary life didn’t be­gin un­til the last of them, her fa­ther, a for­mer ed­i­tor of Punch , had died.

For the most part, Fitzger­ald writes lightly of the dif­fi­cul­ties and de­pri­va­tions she faced on a daily ba­sis. But once, sur­rounded by piles of ‘‘ foul A- level scripts’’, a ter­ri­ble cry es­capes her: ‘‘ I have a sen­sa­tion of wast­ing my life.’’ The prospect of lone­li­ness in old age haunts her; there is the fear, too, of be­ing a nui­sance to her chil­dren. This is a book that, like Fitzger­ald’s fic­tion, has no short­age of sad­ness. It also has hope­ful­ness, yearn­ing, hu­mour, courage, great feel­ing for chil­dren and the nat­u­ral world. Its only short­com­ing is Doo­ley’s ar­range­ment of the let­ters by cor­re­spon­dent rather than chronol­ogy, which causes jolt­ing tran­si­tions. How­ever, as A. S. By­att points out in her pref­ace, to read th­ese let­ters is to be once more in Fitzger­ald’s com­pany. No one who has been touched by her fic­tion will want to pass up that plea­sure.

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