Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was the author of nine novels, including Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, and The Blue Flower. She wrote nearly fifty pieces for the LRB before her death in 2000 on subjects including Stevie Smith, Radclyffe Hall, Charlotte Mew, Anne Enright and Edward White Benson. A collection of some of her essays for the paper is available from the LRB store. Jenny Turner wrote about the difficulties of her life and the method of her books, ‘building then shattering and compressing the piles of information’.

Some people never expect to be expected. No matter what their preparations, they can never be sure that they are at the right place at the right time, or worse still, they know that the place, and even the time, is right, but can’t believe they will be welcome, either then or ever. As a child, and even in adolescence, Matthew Massini had been in this condition. As a young man he had corrected it himself to this extent, that although he assumed that other people might not much want to see him he also came to believe that they were wrong. At 37, as an adviser to private collectors, he believed he had almost forgotten the feeling altogether

Thirteen Poems: Doodles

Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 October 2002

The poems and drawings reproduced here were sent by Penelope Fitzgerald to her daughter Tina in 1970-71 when she was an undergraduate at Oxford. The drawings were inspired by Tina’s ‘Klee/doodles’.

The Father and the Mother

Here are two individuals whohave reproduced their kindand each of them possesses botha body and a mind.

They sit upon two separate chairsthey sit between...

The Death of a Poet: Charlotte Mew

Penelope Fitzgerald, 23 May 2002

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Death of a Poet’ in 1980 or 1981, intending it to form part of a group portrait of the writers published by Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury. In the event, however, she wrote a biography of Charlotte Mew, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, which was published, and reviewed in the LRB in 1984 – and will be reissued this summer.


In Anne Enright’s collection The Portable Virgin (published in 1991) the first story is about Cathy, who works in the handbag department of a large Dublin store. Cathy classifies the customers by the bags she induces them to buy, bags which ‘take them one step beyond who they thought they might be.’. Cathy marries late, but only falls violently in love when a ‘loose, rangy woman’ comes into the store and fingers the most beautiful of imports, ‘an Argentinian calf-skin shoulder bag in tobacco brown’. The customer asks if the store has it in black. Since they don’t, she leaves without buying. Cathy says nothing, but having failed to persuade, her whole life is out of joint. She draws out her entire savings and goes on a shopping rampage, buying all the size 5½s in the shoe department and going home festooned with bags. Hitherto she has always respected the immaculate emptiness of handbags, carrying her few possessions in her pocket. Now she takes the Argentinian bag home and violates it by actually putting things into it And ‘she started to sleep around.’ It’s true that from the outset Cathy’s department has been ‘a discreet mess’. Still it was just, even if only just, within her control.

Nuthouse Al: memory and culture in wartime London

Penelope Fitzgerald, 18 February 1999

‘I began this study with the fairly simple idea of “the finest hour” ’ Jean Freed man says: ‘Greer Garson as Mrs Miniver singing bravely in the bombed-out church, Winston Churchill’s broadcast inspiring and uniting people in all parts of the country’ – that’s to say, with two fictionalisations, at quite different levels, of what may or may not have happened. Her enquiry was eventually modified to ‘How does the standard image of wartime London match with memory and experience?’ This means that she has to consider the loss of confidence, by professional historians, in themselves, and she decides, in her introduction, that she cannot do better than quote David Lowenthal: ‘Even if future insights show up present errors and undermine present conclusions, evidence now available proves that some things almost certainly did happen and others did not.’’‘

In 1997, three years before her death, Penelope Fitzgerald asked her American publisher, Chris Carduff, who had offered to send her any books she wanted, for a copy of Wild America by Roger Tory...

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Playing the Seraphine: Penelope Fitzgerald

Frank Kermode, 25 January 2001

This is a collection of eight stories, the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on...

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Dark Fates

Frank Kermode, 5 October 1995

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is a historical novel based on the life of the poet, aphorist, novelist, Friedrich von Hardenberg, a Saxon nobleman who wrote under the name of Novalis...

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Taken with Daisy

Peter Campbell, 13 September 1990

Penelope Fitzgerald’s new novel, like her last one, The Beginning of Spring, is set just before the First World War. Its locale, 1912 Cambridge, is not much less exotic than its...

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Women’s Fiction

Margaret Walters, 13 October 1988

Penelope Fitzgerald has always seemed a quintessentially English novelist, low-key, exquisitely perceptive, and with a notable feeling for place – the seedy houseboats on the Thames in

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Chiara Ridolfi

C.K. Stead, 9 October 1986

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence is set in Florence, the principal characters are Italian, and I kept asking myself: how is it done? She knows quite a lot about Italian society: but more...

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Finishing Touches

Susannah Clapp, 20 December 1984

On 24 March 1928 Charlotte Mew killed herself by drinking a bottle of disinfectant in a nursing-home near Baker Street. She left behind her a volume of poems, a number of uncollected essays and...

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John Sutherland, 6 May 1982

A new novel by Günter Grass invites comparisons of a national kind. If a British writer of fiction wished to engage with the big stories of the day – the kind of thing Brian Walden...

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The Duckworth School of Writers

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1980

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...

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