Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was the author of nine novels, including Offshore, which won the Booker prize in 1979, and The Blue Flower. She was a longtime contributor to the LRB before her death in 2000.

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.’’‘

The first volume of John Lehmann’s autobiography, published in 1955, starts:

Renewing the Struggle: Edward White Benson

Penelope Fitzgerald, 18 June 1998

It’s more of a difficulty than a help that so much has been written about the Bensons (Palmer and Lloyd have already done a biography of Fred Benson) and that the family should have written so much about themselves. The Archbishop kept diaries, and his wife Minnie wrote two – one a dutiful sightseer’s journal, kept at her husband’s suggestion on her honeymoon, another one 20 years later which told some, at least, of the story of her heart. (There is also a contemporary diary of Minnie’s for 1862-63.) Arthur Benson wrote four and a half million words of diaries, a book of family reminiscences, a family genealogy, lives of his father, his sister Maggie and his brother Hugh, and a memoir of his sister Nellie. Fred wrote Our Family Affairs, Mother, As we Were and (almost on his deathbed) Final Edition. He also kept a diary. The Bensons, ‘a rather close little corporation’, as Arthur called them, had a boundless talent for self-expression, self-justification and self-explanation. Yet they did not give themselves away.’‘

Seeing and Being Seen: Humbert Wolfe

Penelope Fitzgerald, 19 March 1998

‘An obituary,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on Saturday, 6 January 1940.

Large and Rolling

Penelope Fitzgerald, 31 July 1997

Anthony Sampson begins and ends his book with an account of his grandfather’s funeral, held, as requested in his will, at the top of a Welsh mountain, Foel Goch. Among the mourners were Gypsy harpers and fiddlers, scholars, civic officials and ‘the painter Mr Augustus John’. ‘Hundreds of spectators,’ it was reported, ‘waited for the coming of the mortal remains of Dr John Sampson, the well-known philologist and librarian of Liverpool University.’ As a specialist in Romani he had been known – not only to the Gypsies – as the Rai, the Master. Indeed the Daily Express (this was in 1931) began its obituary with a quotation from Browning’s ‘Grammarian’s Funeral’: ‘Leave him still loftier than the world suspects.’ Afterwards there was a tremendous blow-out, complete with wines and cigars, at the White Lion in Cerrigydrudion. But Michael Sampson, Anthony’s father, who had scattered the ashes nine times over the mountain, looks cold and ill at ease in the faded press photographs. And the Rai’s widow was not present.’


Penelope Fitzgerald, 4 July 1996

It would be quite possible to read about Edward Thomas and wonder how it was that so many people made such allowances for him. A man who had a house built for himself and then refused to live in it, he tormented his wife and children with his restlessness – he calculated he was never happy for more than a quarter of an hour in the day. Two women, his wife Helen and the good-hearted but overwhelming Eleanor Farjeon, spoiled him as much as they dared. He couldn’t get on with his son and was sometimes ruthless with his friends – ‘people soon bore him’ said Walter de la Mare sadly – although most of them were called on to help him in his struggle with depression. But Edward Thomas was, and is, greatly loved. His scholarly biographer, George Thomas, irritated as he is by what he calls the ‘dithering’ of Edward Thomas’s early life, treats him not only with respect but with love.’

Cold Smoke, Wet Rubble

Penelope Fitzgerald, 20 July 1995

This is Heinrich Böll’s apprentice novel, written between 1949 and 1951. Since Friedrich Middelhauve, who published his stories, was unwilling to bring out the novel, Böll put it by and with professional economy used passages from it in later books. For that reason it wasn’t published in his lifetime but has come out now, to mark what would have been his 75th birthday.


Penelope Fitzgerald, 9 February 1995

At the age of 48, after thirty years of lecturing on German literature and writing radio plays, Gert Hofmann began to produce disconcerting novels. Michael Hofmann, his son, the poet, confronted him head-on in his collection, Acrimony, and in 1987 wrote in the LRB (25 June) about the second of the novels to be translated into English, Our Conquest. This covers the first two days of peace in a small town in Germany, and follows an ambiguous group of children, free at last to get out of the cellars and poke round the secrets of their own streets. ‘The point is not character revealing itself in action, it is not even … the abrupt revelation of one particular horror, it is the process – as elsewhere in my father’s work – of the curious, obsessive and mechanical mind digging round in a soft and disordered world.’ The Film Explainer, which takes place in the same hometown of Limbach, in Saxony, seems at first sight to be a more innocent and comic story and a gentler one, but after reading it you feel the same chill.’…

Hug me, kiss me

Penelope Fitzgerald, 6 October 1994

Shena Mackay’s outstanding anthology, Such Devoted Sisters, consists of 21 sisterly stories, all written by women, much more thoughtfully than the title suggests. Since this is a relationship which doesn’t change, the book isn’t chronologically arranged, and the earliest piece, Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, comes last of all. Placed there, it seems like a magical explanation of all that goes before.

Distant Sheep

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 July 1994

John Bayley’s new novel is largely about those who are had on, or taken in, and this may well include his readers, who need to keep their wits about them. To begin with, he conjures up a couple of innocents. There was an innocent, too, as hero in his last novel, In Another Country, published in 1955. But Oliver, a young officer with the British army of occupation, was a worrier and a sensitive, risking trouble for the sake of his German girlfriend, and contrasted with his hideously successful rival. In Alice the two innocents are uncompromisingly green, in the sense that the Vicar of Wakefield, or Daisy Miller, or Crocodile Dundee, are green, their misfortunes illustrating the world’s vanities.

Little Nips

Penelope Fitzgerald, 26 May 1994

The moment between the past and the future is brought home to Zhenya Usvatov, the prosperous First Deputy of the Theatre Workers’ Union, when he wakes in his well-appointed dacha and turns on his Japanese radio. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth at this time in the morning! On TV he sees a black-suited orchestra sawing away – but the first violinist has been dead for six months: he remembers signing the widow’s pension form. Presumably this was the only film they could lay hands on. The date is 10 November 1982. Brezhnev has died. Zhenya Usvatov groans. Usvatov’s new appointment has not been confirmed, ‘If only he could have hung on for another month.’ Five days later, at the state funeral, Andropov is observed to be the first to scatter a handful of earth. But nothing is certain. The future is still terrifyingly open to history.’

Farewell Hong Kong

Penelope Fitzgerald, 24 February 1994

Samuel Pink is brought up in an English country rectory in the 1880s. He knows that the Pinks are not his real father and mother. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Victoria by her servant John Brown, who must have ‘lifted his kilt’ on some unrecorded occasion. Everywhere, on tea-caddies and biscuit-tins, he looks proudly at images of his mother’s face.

Sunny side up

Penelope Fitzgerald, 9 September 1993

‘The Stone Diaries’ (though there are in fact no diaries, they are said to have been lost) because everyone raised in the Orphans’ Home in Stonewall Township, Manitoba is given the name of Stone, because Mercy Stone’s husband, Cuyler Goodwill, works in the limestone quarries, because her neighbour, the dour Magnus Flett, comes from the stony Orkneys, because Mrs Flett is killed when she falls against the sharp stone corner of the Bank, because for all of us the living cells will be replaced in death by ‘the insentience of mineral deposition’. A train of imagery, then, which recalls the mermaid metaphors, ‘giving off the fishy perfume of ambiguity’ in Shields’s last novel, The Republic of Love. The present book is just as readable, but more disconcerting.

Family Life

Penelope Fitzgerald, 25 March 1993

The poet is not a poet in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s new novel, and the dancer is not a dancer. ‘Although her movements were always the same – she waved her arms above her head, she ran now to the right of the room, now to the left – her audience obligingly saw what she wanted them to see. She was pleased, she ran faster, she attempted to spin round; her tread was not light, and she was flustered and breathing hard.’ The dancer aims to impress, but she is also self-deluded. The poet is not. ‘When she came upstairs she sat at this table and tried to write poetry. It came very hard. When she was small, words had flown out of her like birds; now they fell back into her like stones. Their hardness seemed to lacerate her, and often she had to rest her head on the table to recover before she could go on.’’


Penelope Fitzgerald, 28 January 1993

Banana Yoshimoto contributes a respectful preface to her book, dedicating it to her publisher, and thanking the manager of the restaurant where she supported herself while she was writing it and the professors who voted her a prize – ‘it made me so very happy.’ This dutifulness sounds traditional. Traditional, too, when you get to the novellas themselves, are the violent emotions restrained within cramped but manageable limits and the compelling need for analogy between the human predicament and the natural world. ‘I understood it from the colour of the sky, the shape of the moon, the blackness of the night sky under which we passed.’ ‘The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness.’ ‘The scratching of our pens mingled with the sound of raindrops beginning to fall in the transparent stillness of evening.’’

Finest People

Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 December 1992

In 1944 GBS was a widower of 89, dying, as we like celebrities to do, in public, and still in receipt of hundreds of letters every month from admirers, enquirers, beggars and cranks. They were in search, sometimes of money, more often of sympathetic magic. To many of them Shaw sent printed reply cards which he had ready on a wide range of subjects.

Grandmother’s Footsteps

Penelope Fitzgerald, 9 April 1992

Jung Chang’s grandmother, Yu Fang, walked ‘like a tender young willow in a spring breeze’, meaning that she could only totter because her feet had been bound and the arches crushed with a stone. If this was not done, a girl would be exposed to the contempt of her husband’s family and she would blame her mother for weakness. Fifty years later, Jung Chang herself was 14 when the Red Guards were organised in her school. ‘It went without saying that I should join, and I immediately submitted my application to the Red Guard leader in my form.’

Children’s Children

Penelope Fitzgerald, 7 November 1991

Grandmothers, says Nell Dunn, ‘make a strong and Vivid extension of a child’s world’, but they do this at very different ages, from about thirty-five to the limit of the mortal span.

Fried Nappy

Penelope Fitzgerald, 12 September 1991

This is the third and last of Roddy Doyle’s novels about the Rabbitte family of Barrymount, an unprepossessing council estate suburb of North Dublin, much like Kilbarrack, where Doyle was born himself. Barrymount, although by no means a foul rag-and-bone shop, is a place for dreams to start. In The Commitment young Jimmy Rabbitte decides that Ireland is ready for soul music and gets his group together. Just as there seems to be a chance with a recording company they desert him one by one. In The Snapper Sharon Rabbitte, drunk in the car park at the Soccer Club Christmas do, gets pregnant by that fucking old eejtt Mister Burgess – the father, what’s more, of a friend of hers. Still, the family will help to look after her snapper, and she can always pretend she’s had a night out with a sailor. In The Van Jimmy Rabbitte St is helping to run a fish-and-chip van. It ends up a wreck. All these could be called success stories. What matters is the strength to believe in possibilities. There is hardly any of the bitterness here which the past generates. Barrymount, as Doyle shows it, is not much interested in the What Happened Shite.’

Good as boys

Penelope Fitzgerald, 15 August 1991

You don’t remember the lessons, you remember the teachers. At the heart of Gillian Avery’s book are the distant, half-familiar figures of extraordinary women, pioneers: Frances Buss of North London Collegiate, Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham, Frances Dove of Wycombe Abbey, Lydia Rous of The Mount. ‘A pupil at The Mount remembered saying loudly: “Well, I hate her.” A voice outside said calmly: “Whom dost thou hate?” There was an awful silence, and I could not answer.’ Gillian Avery makes it clear that she hasn’t set out to write a history of women’s education. It is an attempt, she says, to piece together the history of the schools at present within the Girls’ Schools Association (the equivalent of the Headmasters’ Conference), but at the same time she is comparing their ideals and their moral climates as well as their day-to-day life, and relating them to the social history of the past one hundred and fifty years or so. She herself was a fee-paying pupil at a day school at Reigate. She half-smiles at us, in her gym-slip and Peter Pan collar, from the back row of the tennis team on the jacket.

Luck Dispensers

Penelope Fitzgerald, 11 July 1991

Amy Tan was born in San Francisco soon after her parents emigrated from Communist China. A few years ago she joined a Writers’ Circle, which told her, as Writers’ Circles always do, to write what she had seen herself. She wrote about what she had seen herself and what she hadn’t – her own experience and her mother’s She produced I long, complex and seductive narrative. The Joy Luck Club, which was one of the best sellers of 1989, The Joy Luck Club itself is a group of young wives, stuck in Kweilin during the Japanese invasion, who keep up their spirits by playing mah jong with paper money which has become worthless. All four of them escape to California, and one of them, as an old woman, wants to tell her Americanised daughter, who has ‘swallowed more Coca Colas than sorrows’, what happened to them, then and afterwards. But the story at best will be no more than a fragment of the whole memory – like a single feather from a swan that has flown.’

White Nights

Penelope Fitzgerald, 11 October 1990

Irina Ratushinskaya was 28 when she was arrested on her way to work on an apple farm and sent to the Small Zone section of a Mordavian labour camp. She was imprisoned on account of her poetry (or rather, the ‘creation and dissemination of anti-Soviet materials in poetic form’), and was released on account of it. No, I’m not afraid and Pencil Letter were translated and circulated in the West, and when the concern and pressure on her behalf reached a certain point she was allowed to emigrate with her husband to England. This was in December 1986. ‘I have been free for two years now,’ she writes, ‘and people keep asking me whether I am happy.’ But to be happy she would need to forget those left behind in the supposedly emptying camps, those who died, and, worse still, the hatred of those who gave in and collaborated for those who did not.

Human Boys

Penelope Fitzgerald, 7 December 1989

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ came out at much the same time as John Pocock’s The Diary of a London Schoolboy 1826-30, published by the Camden Society. John Pocock, 12¾, decisively a real person, was a builder’s son who lived on the edge of Kilburn, two miles out of London. In his journal, written on the empty pages of an old bankbook, he notes that on 23 May 1826 he walked to school: ‘Old Monk drinks like a fish.’ At 14 he feels it is ‘high time for me to be learning some trade or profession’, and at 15 he is alone at his father’s deathbed, holding ‘the cold clammy hand’. At 16 he ships for Australia as an apprentice surgeon. His experiences were hard enough. But although his diary was so private that he had to write part of it (particularly when his father was arrested for debt) in cipher, he makes no mention of his adolescent spots, his wet dreams, or the anxieties of measuring his Thing. Adrian Mole’s diary, which does, made an instant appeal to six million readers as being truer to life.

Living Doll and Lilac Fairy

Penelope Fitzgerald, 31 August 1989

These books are all witness to a hope as old as the Garden of Eden, the hope of a perfect partnership. The full-length biography of Carrington and the edited correspondence of Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova (from 1918 to their marriage in 1925, more volumes to follow) also suggest that there is still a good deal of reading to be done about Bloomsbury. Both these two books show the fate of newcomers, arrivals in Bloomsbury from the outside.

Russian Women

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1 June 1989

Tatyana Nikitichna, her publishers keep reassuring us, is ‘descended from the Tolstoys’ – that’s to say, from Aleksey Tolstoy, not the one who wrote nonsense verse (with two cousins) under the name of Kuzma Prutkof, but the one who wrote The Road to Calvary. But none of this has any bearing on her brilliant success. That came in 1986, three years after she had begun to appear in print, with her story ‘Peters’. Readers of Novyi Mir met something heady and irreversible, like the first entrance of the Firebird. There are 13 stories in On the Golden Porch, ranging from childhood to old age and the experience of death. The faces seem familiar. There are young sisters eating raspberries in the dacha, poor relations, an extravagant mother-in-law, an old peasant nurse, oddly-behaving uncles, small-time officials and clerks in cheap suits. ‘A little man is a normal man,’ Tolstaya told the Moscow News in 1987. But she has also said: ‘It’s difficult to read peole’s souls: it’s dark, and not everyone knows how to do it.’ She is not reading souls, nor is she offering the traditional Russian sympathy. She treats her characters with a humour which, disconcertingly, is often not kind at all, and shifts, with dazzling agility, from one viewpoint to another.’


Penelope Fitzgerald, 13 October 1988

Rebecca West said that Olive Schreiner was a ‘geographical fact’. Others were reminded of a natural force, admired and dreaded, unchecked by illness, war or poverty, something new coming out of Africa. To fit her into the history of South Africa, of literature or of women’s movements is an exhausting business. ‘The day will never come when I am in the stream,’ she said. ‘Something in my nature prevents it I suppose.’

Big Books

Penelope Fitzgerald, 15 September 1988

As a schoolboy, Rudyard Kipling used to stay in North End Road, Fulham with his aunt and uncle, the Burne-Joneses. One evening William Morris came into the nursery and, finding the children under the table and nobody else about, climbed on to the rocking-horse and

Dame Cissie

Penelope Fitzgerald, 12 November 1987

There were giant-killers in those days. Storm Jameson, rallying English writers in defence of peace and collective security, had to toss up to decide between Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay for the place of honour. Between these three women enough power should have been generated even for an impossible cause. They were tireless collectors of facts – Rose used to take her newspaper-cuttings everywhere – and what courage they showed, what endurance, what determination to call the world sharply to order, what unanswerable wit, what impatience for justice. They were all prepared to outface the mighty, but they also judged themselves, on occasion, more strictly than anyone else would have dared. ‘When I come to stand,’ wrote Storm Jameson, ‘as they say – used to say – before my Maker, the judgment on me will run: she did not love enough … For such a fault, no forgiveness.’ ‘As we grow older,’ said Rebecca West, ‘and like ourselves less and less, we apply our critical experience as a basis for criticising our own consciences.’ It isn’t surprising that her son grew up with the ‘idea that a woman was the thing to be, and that I had somehow done wrong by being a male.’’

Kay Demarest’s War

Penelope Fitzgerald, 17 September 1987

In The Other Garden Francis Wyndham manages a classic form, the first-person novella, with great delicacy and originality. His first person, as in his collection of short stories Mrs Henderson, is a gentle, helpful, observant boy growing up during the Second World War, a boy who is eventually bewildered by what human beings do to each other. He seems reluctant to define himself and Wyndham never gives him a name. At the beginning of his story ‘Obsessions’ he quotes Valéry’s Monsieur Teste: C’est ce que j’ai d’inhabile, d’incertain, qui est bien moi-même. But this boy is also a historian. Around him, or just out of his reach, there are glittering and mysterious figures, his elders and their friends and relations, and beyond them a region of myth, the partygoers of the Twenties, the film stars of the Thirties. He has something in common with Leo in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, but without the strain and the treacherous anxiety to please the great ones which bring Leo to ruin. What he offers, as a historian, is not curiosity but sympathy, and what he is looking for turns out to be an innocence which, even in the most unlikely places, can be recognised as something like his own.

Various Woman

Penelope Fitzgerald, 2 April 1987

Mary Kingsley, the traveller – not the explorer, she said, because there wasn’t anywhere she went in West Africa where Africans hadn’t been before her – was and is described as a splendid woman. I don’t know at what point the word ‘splendid’ acquired its present shade of meaning and became something that a woman would rather not be called. In the instructions for the first Schools Broadcast I wrote, in the days of crackling wireless sets in stuffy village schools, the producer called her ‘splendid’. Because of the crackle, we weren’t allowed sound-effects, certainly not the ‘thunder of the foaming, flying Ogowé River, and beyond it the pool of utter night’, of which she said that ‘if I ever have a heaven, that will be mine.’ But we presented Mary fishing for a crocodile with a home-made hook, Mary taking soundings from a canoe with her umbrella, Mary trading her white blouses, one by one, with the cannibal Fangs, Mary saved by her thick skirt when she fell into an elephant trap. ‘Mary Kingsley is a heroine English children have grown up with,’ we’re told in the introduction to A Voyager Out. ‘In the United States she has been largely unknown.’ This is all to the advantage of Katherine Frank, a lecturer from Iowa, who has produced this fine biography.’

Vous êtes belle

Penelope Fitzgerald, 8 January 1987

By the time he was 20 Henri Fournier wasn’t able to say whether it was the country itself that he missed – Epineuil-le-Fleuriel, in the heart of the old Berry province – or the time that he spent there. He shared his country schoolhouse childhood with his young sister Isabelle and their most intense memory was the arrival, at the end of the year, of the livres de prix. They hid themselves, and read every book. But though the dreaming reader persisted in Henri, he became tough and intransigent. He was sent to the Lycée Voltaire and didn’t like it, started to train for the Navy and didn’t like it, prepared for the entrance exam for the Ecole Normale Supérieure and didn’t pass it. In June 1905, however, while he was still a lycéen in Paris, he saw (almost as if he had been expecting her), and spoke to, and walked a few hundred metres with, a tall, blonde jeune fille. Her name was Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, and she was of good family, staying with her aunt. He told her, in the words of Pélleas: ‘Vous êtes belle.’ She dismissed him, saying they were both no more than children, and for the next eight years, during which he never saw her, she was his Mélisande, and (transferred to the deep country) the Yvonne de Galais of Le Grand Meaulnes, which was published in 1913. Meanwhile, Fournier – he used the pen-name Alain-Fournier from 1905, partly to avoid confusion with a racing driver – had become a journalist and had a succession of mistresses, the last being the strong-minded actress Simone Benda, who pulled every string, in vain, to get him the Prix Goncourt. He took to racing cars and flying – ‘like Peter Pan’, he told Francis Jammes. Le Grand Meaulnes was written, for the most part, in Rue Cassini. If he had survived the war, what would he have written? Not, probably, Colombe Blanchet, which he had begun, but, as he put it himself, about ‘the countries behind the painted doors of the Paris café-concerts; a world as terrible and mysterious in its own way as the world of my other book’.’

Holy Terrors

Penelope Fitzgerald, 4 December 1986

These three women writers were mythmakers. Alison Uttley created Little Grey Rabbit (1929-1973), Richmal Crompton thought of Just William and kept him going for 48 years, May Annette Beauchamp invented herself as Elizabeth.

The Real Johnny Hall

Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 October 1985

When The Well of Loneliness came out in July 1928 the reviewers were not astonished. Both Leonard Woolf and L.P. Hartley thought the book sincere, but overemphatic. The Times Literary Supplement also called it sincere, and Vera Brittain said it was ‘admirably restrained’. It sold quite well, going into a second impression, and Radclyffe Hall, with her lover Una Troubridge, thought of taking a cottage in Rye. She may have felt some disappointment, having planned her novel in a crusader’s spirit. She claimed to have written the first full-length treatment in English of women who loved women. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, she said, ‘the subject was only introduced as an episode.’ (She seems not to have known Dickens’s Tattycoram and Miss Wade.) She wanted to ‘smash the conspiracy of silence’, but found herself instead mildly successful at W.H. Smith and the Times Bookshop.

Dear Sphinx

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1 December 1983

Ada Leverson (1862-1933) said she had learned about human nature in the nursery. A little brother got her to help him make a carriage out of two chairs, but when he was taken out in a real carriage he was not in the least interested. Certainly she never under-estimated the human capacity for imagination or for disappointment.

Keeping warm

Penelope Fitzgerald, 30 December 1982

Sylvia Townsend Warner expected her correspondence to be published, indeed she sensibly provided for it. ‘I love reading Letters myself,’ she told William Maxwell, her literary executor, ‘and I can imagine enjoying my own.’ She was born in 1893, an only child. Her father was a Harrow master, who, in a way not very complimentary to his profession (but quite right for STW), never sent her to school. She was allowed to study what she liked, and was devoted to him, emerging from the ‘benignly eccentric household’ as a musician: she was about to go to Vienna, to study under Schönberg, when the First World War broke out. When her father died, leaving her, as she put it, ‘mutilated’, she saw that it would be better to earn her own living than stay in the country and quarrel with her mother. She came to London, and worked as an editor on the monumental Tudor Church Music. Plain, frail, shortsighted, not quite young any more and, for the first time in her life, rather poor, she set out to enjoy herself. ‘I am sure that to be fearless is the first requisite for a woman: everything else that is good will grow naturally out of that.’

Story: ‘The Prescription’

Penelope Fitzgerald, 2 December 1982

After Petros Zarifi’s wife died his shop began to make less and less money. His wife had acted as cashier. That was all over now. The shelves emptied gradually as the unpaid wholesalers refused to supply him with goods. In his tiny room at the back of the shop he had, like many Greek storekeepers, an oleograph in vivid colours of his patron saint, with the motto Embros – Forward! But he had now lost all ambition except in the matter of his son Alecco.

Sonata for Second Fiddle

Penelope Fitzgerald, 7 October 1982

Great sobs shook him. His whole body seemed buffeted, as in a gale at sea. Leaning back against a far bench, his head jerked down on his breast: ‘It is my turn to cry now,’ he cried between deep-rising sobs. My turn. My turn. My turn to cry. And I think my tears will never stop.’

Lotti’s Leap

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1 July 1982

During her lifetime Charlotte Mew was either greatly liked or greatly disliked, and now, more than fifty years after her death, those who are interested in her are very much interested. There are at least two collections of her papers which nobody is given permission to see – not quite with the feeling that she ought to be left to rest in peace, but, rather, that she shouldn’t be shared indiscriminately with outsiders. She was a writer who was completely successful perhaps only two or three times (though that is enough for a lyric poet) and whose sad life, in spite of many explanations, refuses quite to be explained.

Christina and the Sid

Penelope Fitzgerald, 18 March 1982

Christina Rossetti wrote ‘If I had words’ and ‘I took my heart in my hand’ and ‘If he would come today, today’ and ‘What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through’ and:


Penelope Fitzgerald, 3 December 1981

Stevie Smith said that she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning. She presented to the world the face which is invented when reticence goes over to the attack, and becomes mystification. If you visited Blake and were told not to sit on a certain chair because it was for the spirit of Michelangelo, or if Emily Dickinson handed you a single flower, you needed time to find out how far the mystification was meant to keep you at a distance, and to give you something to talk about when you got home. Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie’s case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face ‘pale as sand’, pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death. She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige, she had survived a suicide attempt in 1953, she was touched by the silence of the ‘countless, countless dead’: but when in her sixties she felt the current running faster and ‘all you want to do is to get to the waterfall and over the edge,’ she still remained Florence Margaret Smith, who enjoyed her life, and, for that matter, her success. Her poetry, she told Anna Kallin, was ‘not at all whimsical, as some asses seem to think I am, but serious, yet not aggressive, and fairly cheerful though with melancholy patches’. The melancholy was real, of course. For that reason she gave herself in her novels the name of Casmilus, a god who is permitted to come and go freely from hell.

Dear Lad

Penelope Fitzgerald, 19 March 1981

Charles Ashbee – C.R.A., as he asked to be called – must be counted as a successful man. He was an architect whose houses stood up, a designer whose work has always been appreciated, a homosexual who in his fifties became – almost absent-mindedly, it seems – the father of four daughters, and a dreamer who, by founding the Guild of Handicrafts, put his ideals into practice and then kept them going for twenty years. He has not many competitors there.

A Secret Richness

Penelope Fitzgerald, 20 November 1980

In this, the last novel we shall have from Barbara Pym, it is Miss Grundy, a downtrodden elderly church-worker, who says that ‘a few green leaves can make such a difference.’ The phrase echoes a poem which the author loved, but found disturbing, George Herbert’s ‘Hope’.


Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 August 1980

I don’t find that my children want to hear what things were like when I was young. Publishers, who are sometimes also parents, must find that their families don’t want to listen to them either, and yet they are right in thinking that childhood reminiscences make seductive books. Michael Schmidt was brought up in Mexico, and in his ‘not strictly autobiographical novel’, The Colonist, he turns with brilliant and painful concentration to his early years.

Following the plot

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 February 1980

Suppose I were to try to write a story which began with a journey I made to the North of Mexico 27 years ago, taking with me my son, then aged five. We were going to pay a winter visit to two old ladies called Delaney who lived comfortably, in spite of recent economic reforms, on the proceeds of the family silver mine. They had lived in Fonseca ever since they were girls – one was sister-in-law to the other. Their relations in Ireland had died, they were alone in the world, and it was hoped that because of some distant friendship they might take kindly to my son and leave him all their money. Indeed, if I had understood their letters correctly, they had suggested the idea themselves.


The Engine Room

7 January 1999

Bernard Crick made me out to be more charitable in my account of John Lehmann than I intended (Letters, 21 January). I should have put: ‘He wasn’t an intellectual, neither was he original, but he did have an editor’s instinct for the latest thing.’ Certainly intellectuals don’t have to be original. ‘All shuffle there, all cough in ink’ and it’s a thousand...

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More


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...

Read More

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...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences