Late Start, Spectacular Finish: The Life of Penelope Fitzgerald

January 21, 2015   •   By Priyanka Kumar

READING A Penelope Fitzgerald novel is a rare treat and not one you can overindulge in. She wrote nine novels, and they are short — her readers know, however, that brevity is part of her brilliance. Her last novel, The Blue Flower, has the music and luminosity of an epic poem.

In literary terms, Fitzgerald was a slacker until her mid-50s, after which time she became a model of productivity and went on to win the Booker Prize, among other awards. How and why this happened is one of the great literary stories of the 20th century. Fitzgerald was often “elusive” in interviews and the publication of her biography is a major event. Last year, I found out the book had just been published in the United Kingdom, and I fished about for a United States publication date, but got no definitive answer.

The biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee is now on US shores, and Ms. Lee is not one to disappoint. Her comprehensive research and poised storytelling make this book almost everything you want a literary biography to be. It must be said that Lee’s task was made difficult by her subject: Fitzgerald prized her privacy and she had winnowed her papers, not to mention her interviews and comments, to guard against any real intimate knowledge of her life beyond what could be gleaned from her work. No matter how good Lee’s writing, the feeling of not getting close enough persists, irritatingly at times, in the biography.

The bare facts of Fitzgerald’s career have been stated before. She published her first book, a biography of artist Edward Burne-Jones, at 58. She didn’t become well known, or, in then editor Janet Silver’s words, a “brand” in the United States, until her eighth decade. In a perceptive essay about Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes, referring to her late success, wrote: “It was a matter of rueful pride to her — and should serve as a warning to aspirant novelists — that she didn’t pass into the higher tax bracket until she was 80.”

One reason for the late start was that Fitzgerald’s husband, Desmond, once a budding lawyer, then an editor-turned-alcoholic, was unable to support her and their three children. In her early 40s, Fitzgerald turned to low-paid teaching jobs to stabilize the family finances, which were perilous enough to force the family to live on a leaky barge “moored on Chelsea Reach” in central London. Here, the family endured “freezing blizzards” in “insanitary, bleak and unsafe” conditions. They could only use the toilet during low tide and subsisted mainly on toast and eggs. The author would later use this experience for her novel Offshore, which would win her the Booker.

The untranslated epigraph for Offshore — “che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia/ e che s’incontran con sì aspre lingue” — referring to the souls in Book XI of Dante’s Inferno “whom the wind drives, or whom the rain beats, or who clash with such bitter tongues,” invoked all the desperation of their life on board.

For Fitzgerald, who grew up in a literary household (her father, “Evoe” Knox, was an editor of Punch), and who was a brilliant student at Oxford, barge penury was not supposed to be in the cards. She was too proud to ask her friends or family for help, and she never liked to talk about these troubled times either during or afterwards. After she’d graduated from Oxford, Evoe helped her secure reviewing gigs at Punch; later, he gave her small sums of money from time to time, but the biography doesn’t clarify what his response was to her time of extreme need. It is puzzling that Evoe, living a bourgeoisie life with his second wife in Hampstead, didn’t do more to help his daughter, who, at the time, was on poor terms with her alcoholic husband and who was living in a dingy barge with her two girls (the boy was away at a Catholic school), without enough to eat.

Their living conditions changed after the barge sank. (Fitzgerald lost all her papers). After stints in a homeless center, which her children found “traumatic,” and temporary housing, the family was finally assigned a council flat in south London. In a letter, Fitzgerald referred to this flat as a “Squalid Council Estate” and she lived here for just over a decade. Her relations with her husband improved — he got a clerical job in a travel agency — and her life changed in other ways. The girls were growing up. Around this time, Fitzgerald wrote to her older daughter, Tina, about the younger one:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: “What a funny old couple you are!” and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn’t really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seems to be crumbling into dust.

It is our good fortune that Fitzgerald chose, eventually, to disregard her daughter’s assessment of her life and her aspirations. In the preface to this biography, Ms. Lee tells us that Fitzgerald “believed in the value of art as work, and in the usefulness of art to the community.” The latter is almost a forgotten ethic. On this point, Fitzgerald may have appreciated the thoughts of the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov: “I love literature as a means enabling me to express what I hold to be true and good. If I cannot do that, literature is of no value to me [...] No, art must be useful.”

It certainly took Fitzgerald a long time to realize her beliefs about art. If anyone is wondering why, during her first 26 years of teaching, Fitzgerald didn’t snatch time to write, it’s because she was likely exhausted. Her future son-in-law, John Lake, assessed her as being “extremely hardworking, always reading, marking homework, shopping, cooking, doing the housework.”

In her fiction, Fitzgerald was interested in characters who were almost doomed to failure or whose success would, in one way or the other, be short-circuited. What is surprising is that this interest predates the disappointments in her own life and might even have, consciously or not, played a part in her personal life. She had been young and successful at Oxford, she’d moved in the best circles, and she knew what brilliant careers looked like in their nascent form. From what we know, she didn’t give any serious consideration to her prospects in life when, after a quick courtship during World War II, she inexplicably chose to marry Desmond — whom she sometimes referred to as the “Irish soldier.”

After her husband’s death, Fitzgerald moved into the lower level of the residence Tina shared with her husband. She set up a wooden table overlooking a garden. During this time, she, at last, began to write novels. Her astonishing productivity between 1978 and 1982 almost made up for the long delay in getting started. She wrote The Bookshop in “a few weeks.” She would go on to write nine novels, of which Offshore won the Booker in 1979 and The Blue Flower won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997.

There are other examples of notable women artists who have been able to practice art only late in life. Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron began using a camera at 48 — it was a gift — and had a glorious 11-year career, before a move back to Ceylon curtailed her prolific streak. Most of us know of intelligent, talented women whose domestic lives make such fierce demands that it is a struggle to come up for air or personal space, both of which are foundational necessities for an artistic life. Women like Fitzgerald and Cameron were geniuses, however, and we can only wonder about the body of work they would have produced if they’d had the full careers of their male counterparts.

Despite the financial setbacks Fitzgerald experienced in her 30s, 40s, and 50s, despite her husband’s troubles (alcoholism, disbarment for petty fraud, absenteeism), her curiosity remained vital. In the early 1950s, when she was a de facto coeditor, with Desmond, of a literary journal, World Review, she wrote and edited pieces not only about literature, but also about European painting and sculpture. She took every opportunity to travel, and she took her children, or at least one child, with her. She studied languages. Her curiosity was insatiable and she did not lack initiative. In her 60s, she was learning Russian and Chinese. This was a woman who did not intend to let life crush her.

The travels and the study of languages, the abiding interest in literature, drawing, painting, and sculpture, even the teaching experience, would all be of use. It was as though she was developing, incrementally, an ability to create entire worlds — her novels are glass globes that can be looked at from any angle and her sure-handed details add three-dimensionality to her settings. After her first novel, The Golden Child, she wrote four novels for which she largely drew upon her life experience. Then she made a sharp turn. She wrote four more novels in which she created worlds that were far removed from her life and whose settings were as dissimilar as prerevolutionary Russia (The Beginning of Spring) and 18th century Germany (The Blue Flower).

In The Blue Flower, Fitzgerald paints a vast landscape with concise strokes. The protagonist, Fritz, is based on a German Romantic poet who wrote under the penname “Novalis.” In love with a 12-year-old named Sophie, Fritz’s attachment shocks his family and friends. At first his infatuation-turned-obsession feels to the reader like a passing whim, but little by little we begin to understand that this is one of the key events in his life. In revealing Fritz’s philosophical map through brief diary entries, his interactions with siblings and friends, and his visits to Sophie, Fitzgerald adds greatly to our understanding of Novalis, a figure much written about in Europe. In fact, Fitzgerald accomplishes something miraculous — she uses the nuts and bolts of a novelist’s trade to get to the heart of Romanticism. Later in the novel, Fritz pens this observation in his diary:

We think we know the laws that govern our existence. We get glimpses, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, of a totally different system at work behind them. [...] When I first met Sophie, a quarter of an hour decided me. [...] These were the truly important moments of my life, even though it ends tomorrow.

The mystery of the choices people make is also at the heart of The Beginning of Spring (1998). The novel, about an English family living in prerevolutionary Moscow, begins when Nellie Reid leaves her husband and three children to return to England. Why Nellie makes this dramatic choice is the question that simmers underneath this family saga, yet Fitzgerald deals with it only obliquely. She stays on the family left behind, striving to negotiate practical difficulties while also dealing with seasonal excitements like going to their dacha with a new Russian governess.

Fitzgerald is always as much interested in her characters as in the universe they inhabit. The Bookshop (1978), for instance, offers a probing analysis of a quaint, provincial English town in 1957. Its values are tested when Florence Green, a quiet yet indefatigable widow, opens a bookstore in order to make some mark in the world. After much deliberation, she decides to sell the newly published and quite scandalous Lolita, becoming a target of a local socialite and upsetting the cultural ecosystem of the village.

Despite winning the Booker for Offshore, Fitzgerald was snubbed in various ways by the British literati and media. In post-award interviews, she was treated as though her book should not have won. The establishment may have resented her seeming lack of ambition — she never even got herself a literary agent, instead relying on her British publisher to do her contracts for her. Despite close, even affectionate, relations with her editors at Collins, she remained underpaid and underappreciated, compared to equivalent authors on the publisher’s list.

Still, once Fitzgerald hit her stride, she lived literary life to the full. She understood that she needed to stay in London to write and so passed up a chance to move with Tina’s family to the countryside. As an active member of a local literary society, she invited authors to speak; she was asked to write reviews and judge awards. Her income improved, but she would never own a house. She was not much of a cook, but she liked to garden. Throughout her struggles and her triumphs, her earthiness and her sense of humor stayed with her. She seems to have enjoyed putting journalists on the wrong track about her personality and her writing process. In preparation for her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, she had studied technical tracts on salt mining in Prussia as well as the letters and poetry of Novalis, in whom she’d nurtured a longstanding interest, which connected to another of her specialties, the Pre-Raphaelites. Tired of explaining how she had accomplished this tour de force of research for her historical novel, she answered one journalist’s query thus: “I found it all on the internet!”


Priyanka Kumar is an author and a filmmaker. She is currently directing a web series, “Gun Shop,” about our relationship with guns in America.