Brilliant observations of a gifted amateur
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.