The Duckworth School of Writers

Frank Kermode

  • Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Collins, 177 pp, £5.25, September 1980, ISBN 0 00 222280 9
  • Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 157 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1495 9

The potter William de Morgan, finding himself at the age of 65 without a studio, decided not to look for another but instead to change his trade and become a novelist. Not so long ago the lucky and the cunning were picking up de Morgan tiles for a song, but it is altogether otherwise with his novels. Almost nobody seems to have picked them up for at least half a century The best-known, or anyway the only one that ever gets mentioned, is Joseph Vance, the first of them, which was published in 1906; the best, or at any rate the most interesting, is Alice-for-Short, which followed, in spite of its great length, only a year later. De Morgan lived to be 88 and wrote seven novels, as well as two more which were completed by another hand and published posthumously. They were mostly long books, and the first four came out at annual intervals, for de Morgan seems to have found fiction very easy after all that arduous tiling. He was writing at a time when such masters as Henry James, Conrad and Ford were agonising a lot about modern technique, but although he seems to have found the business of technique quite interesting – or rather, although he made a few knowing nods in that direction – what he really liked was to get on with his solid and complicated stories. According to the Cambridge Bibliography nobody has had a go at de Morgan since 1926, and there is clearly a case for fishing the novels out of oblivion.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel, Offshore, the wide distribution of which may have had the fortuitous effect of sending up the price of de Morgan tiles, two rather forward little girls conspired to fish two out of Battersea Reach, when the tide was down and the afternoon sun level enough to cause them to glitter. They sold the tiles, to a rather devious antique-shop owner in the King’s Road, for £3. All this is held to have happened about twenty years ago: Mrs Fitzgerald, like the novelist de Morgan, is fond of what he called ‘dichronism’ – tales which belong to two different periods, the past looked at in terms of the present. A dash of modernity is a good thing, for, as the little girls remark when the dealer tries to fob them off with very old toys in exchange for their tiles, very old toys ‘may have been all right for very old children’.

After a splendidly late start. Mrs Fitzgerald has been producing a book a year, much shorter, it must be admitted, than Alice-for-Short, but equally dichronic. The Bookshop belongs to 1959, Offshore is early Sixties, Human Voices is very exactly 1940-41. She has become, like Mrs Verrinder in Alive, a sort of human time-machine. And she is expert in picking out, by the long level light of late afternoon, the glint of objects worth retrieving, even by means of a quite difficult balancing act, bits of the past fished out of the mud, washed under a churchyard tap, and given their proper lustre. One longsightedly identifies some interesting group of persons, far down the reach, as it were, and then notes, not their ordinary comings and goings, but the random glittering which promises, to a closer examination, some beauty of design or finish. The method is one that calls, like de Morgan’s, for an assured elegance of workmanship as well as the ability to surprise.

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