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 Offshore, or the mean little Suffolk town that dominates The Bookshop. Her latest novel, The Beginning of Spring, is a surprise, and something of a tour de force. Its subject is Moscow just before the Revolution: ‘dear slovenly Moscow, bemused with the bells on its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying onto the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and last to a circle of pigsties, cabbage patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village.’ The great messy city, muddling towards its destiny, is conjured up in vivid and astonishing detail: the narrow back streets with their seedy basement workshops; the crowded markets and railway stations; the exuberantly noisy club where the merchants drink tea and vodka; the vast dark river choked with broken ice and rubbish.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s hero is a quiet, thoughtful Englishman, Frank Reid, born and brought up in the city and running a small printing business inherited from his father. The tragi-comedy of Frank’s domestic difficulties is played out, often ironically, against this enormous, turbulent backdrop. At the start of the novel, his English wife Nellie has upped and left him without a word of explanation: she had apparently intended to take her three children with her, but left them behind at the Alexandrovna station. We never know much about Nellie, always ‘a jumper up and walker about’, though there’s a wonderfully telling glimpse of the girl Frank met and married when he was back in England learning the trade: a 26-year-old schoolteacher desperate to escape a spinster’s existence. We understand Nellie a little better through her 14-year-old daughter Dolly, captured in all her spiky individuality in just a few scenes. Deeply hurt by her mother’s departure, Dolly copes by plunging back into the routine of her next day’s homework, and offers a sad, precocious explanation of the way Nellie abandoned them. ‘After all, she’s never had to look after us before ... She had to send us back, we weren’t a comfort to her.’ Later, picking up on some of the advanced ideas around her, she informs her father that ‘the mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’ Dolly sees more of what’s going on than anyone else, though she has learned to keep her own counsel.
The Reid family troubles are acted out on a very public stage, with servants and neighbours and colleagues throwing themselves into the fray. The merchant Kuriatin welcomes the children, but they’re scared and shocked by his ‘half-savage’ household, and by the way rough-and-tumble games with a bear cub turn vicious. The English community is even less help. The chaplain’s sharp-tongued wife is always on the look-out for the least hint of scandal; an out-of-work English governess, lonely and half-crazed, pursues Frank through the streets to offer her services. Nellie’s brother Charlie helpfully makes the long journey to Moscow, but has no real news of Nellie, and wanders round wide-eyed and enthusiastic about their ‘Arabian Nights’ existence. And Frank’s dotty colleague Selwyn, a gratingly benevolent devotee of Tolstoy and author of Birch Tree Thoughts, consoles Frank with the notion that loss, like poverty, is ‘matter not for regret but rejoicing’. Frank can’t take the pretentious Selwyn seriously, and that’s one of his mistakes: he’s much more implicated in Nellie’s departure than he admits, and it’s Selwyn who changes their lives, for good or bad, by finding Lisa Ivanovna to look after the children.
Fitzgerald writes affectionately about the everyday routines in the house and at the printing-press, but we’re aware, all the time, of currents below the placid surface, of tiny discrepancies glimpsed from the corner of the eye and not fully understood, or awkward feelings not put into words. The city Frank loved as a child is changing fast: it is the new electric trams which break the silence in the early morning – not the cows leaving their stalls in the side-streets. Reidkas still use hand-presses, and there are loving descriptions of the routines and rhythms of the compositors, or the annual ritual blessing of the office icon. But everyone is nervous when a pistol-brandishing student breaks into the works and the Police start taking a closer interest in the firm: a couple of Frank’s best men talk about emigrating, while his ambitious new accountant insists that the future is with big firms using hot metal. When he dismisses hand-printing as a relic from the past ‘associated now with Tolstoyans and student revolutionaries’, Frank has a sudden vision of activists beavering away all over the city, in ‘garrets and cellars, in cowsheds, bath houses and backyard pissoirs, hen coops, cabbage patches, potato stacks – small hand-presses ... spirited away to another address at the hint of danger. He imagined the dissidents, on Moscow’s a hundred and forty days a year of frost, warming the ink to deliver one more warning. Printer’s ink freezes readily.’ Are those dissidents inhabitants of the past, or the future? Frank, a practical man, doesn’t ask many questions. But he’s made preparations for an emergency departure, in the sad knowledge that, though he doesn’t quite belong in Russia, he’ll never be at home anywhere else.
It’s Lisa Ivanovna, the joiner’s daughter, the girl from the men’s handkerchief counter in a department store, the governess, who represents the unknown future. With her ‘pale broad, patient, dreaming Russian face’, she brings order and calm back to the house: the children love her, and, inevitably, Frank finds himself desperately attracted to her. But she’s something else as well. The bitchy chaplain’s wife, not really meaning it, implies that she could easily be some kind of revolutionary. We begin to suspect that, for once, her malice has weaselled out the truth. But Fitzgerald resolutely refuses to spell anything out: we see Lisa’s intelligence and humour, but we are denied any insight into her inner world. There’s just one, tantalising glimpse of her other life. When Lisa and the children go to Frank’s dacha during the spring thaw, Dolly follows her to a mysterious meeting deep in the birch forest. Very briefly, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on history in the making: anything more would demand a different kind of writing, and a very different kind of novel.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction works by indirection, by hints and suggestions, and it leaves unresolved ambiguities. The image that dominates the novel is the coming of spring, the thaw. In Frank’s earliest childhood, when the family still lived at the factory, he would become delightedly aware of a small ‘protesting voice, the voice of the water, when the ice melted under the covered wooden footpath between the house and the factory ... once it had begun to run in a chattering stream, the whole balance of the year tilted over.’ As a man, he has more complicated reactions: he knows the dirt and discomfort brought by the melting ice, its destructive power, and the ‘inconceivable amount of rubbish’ that chokes the river as the ice breaks up. But, like the servants and the children, Frank feels released as the house is unsealed and the outer windows, at last, flung wide. ‘Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.’ There’s a feeling of optimism on the last pages, a feeling that the spring may imply rebirth, new ways of living, a freedom from personal or political repression. But with her characteristic cool integrity, Penelope Fitzgerald refuses to commit herself, and she leaves us with a whole series of questions, about Frank’s marriage, about his future, and about the great changes coming to the country he loves.
Emma Tennant’s new novel, too, offers a comic vision of a country in a state of change: Fifties England, tired and shabby after the war, and looking back, nostalgically, to a more gracious and settled world, is spinning, willy-nilly, towards the Sixties. A Wedding of Cousins takes up the story begun in A House of Hospitalities. Back in 1953, nervous 14-year-old Jenny spent a weekend in the country with her rich and aristocratic school friend, Amy. Jenny – who lives with an aunt who runs a stall on the Portobello Road – was looking for magic, and found it: the joke of the novel was the contrast between her determined romanticism, and the actual goings-on – greedy, cruel, irresponsible, sexually perverse – among the Lovescombe family and their guests. Four years later, Jenny is still weaving her fantasies, fed by women’s magazines, dreaming that she might win the love of the son of the family and herself become mistress of one of their great houses. As usual she misreads everything, and is constantly surprised by who is coupling with whom. She is not unintelligent: she knows that she tends to confuse fiction and reality, and she’s ironic about the job she’s doing – ‘gilding the mirrors of those who saw themselves reflected as the fairest of them all (albeit slightly distressed by the vagaries of war and taxation)’. But the Lovescombes have become a kind of addiction. When Amy, who’s unhappy about her arranged marriage, asks for help, Jenny does nothing. It’s Amy’s glamorous image that attracts her, not the real girl. Jenny drifts through London like a zombie, under the spell of the family and their hangers-on – a series of writers and painters and good-time girls and hustlers who are sharpening up their talons and talents ready for the swinging Sixties. Emma Tennant has a caricaturist’s skill in pinning down social types, and she brings them together in some splendid farcical set-pieces, in Harrods Bridal Department, at Amy’s coming-out ball, in a park where the first ban-the-bombers are trying their slogans. But the joke about the discrepancy between Jenny’s dreams and the often sordid reality has worn thin by now. It’s certainly too slight to carry Emma Tennant’s ambitious satiric investigation of a whole country in transition.
Alice Thomas Ellis’s new heroine runs true to type: she’s sardonic, occasionally malicious, with a snobbishness that hovers uncertainly between the material and spiritual worlds. But Mrs Monro in The Skeleton in the Cupboard is very old, and much preoccupied with her failing powers. ‘Time had once passed slowly, each year like a drop of blood from a new, as yet unrealised, unfelt wound. Now the years flowed, clustered, congealed and the wound was clearly mortal.’ She’s bored – her husband, whom she’d never much loved, is dead, and her middle-aged son Syl is still unmarried, though planning to wed a neighbour’s daughter nearly twenty years younger than himself – and she almost wilfully wastes what time she has, dreaming the days away recalling her Yorkshire childhood. The strength of the novel is her slow, almost painful recognition that she has some living and learning still to do.
She’s shaken out of her complacency by the gossipy, flirtatious Lily, whom she’d once, years ago, surprised in flagrante with her own husband. The two women form an unexpected friendship, and as they chatter and drink and smoke, Mrs Monro comes to see more clearly what she’s done with her life, and how her dissatisfaction with her marriage, and her grief for a lost love and a baby who died, have helped make her son what he is. And the two women talk a great deal about Syl’s silent and mysterious fiancée, Margaret, and how she’s been damaged, by her paedophile father and her smotheringly protective mother.
The problem is that the novel doesn’t stand alone. I was increasingly puzzled and irritated by its obscurities, and didn’t realise till I’d almost finished that it’s not just a sequel to the previous novel, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, but a kind of mirror-image. In the first novel, told from the point of view of Margaret, the girl Syl wants to marry, Mrs Monro is a shadowy and unlikeable figure, on the margins of what’s happening. In the second book, Mrs Monro expands the story, giving her version of characters and encounters, exploring things that Margaret can’t know or that she’s repressed. But the two stories stay static and separate: lifeless part-sketches for a single, longer and more complicated novel that was crying out to be written.
Even so there are some incidental pleasures. Alice Thomas Ellis is never dull and as usual she catches, with wit and precision, the rhythms, the shorthand and the jokes of women talking together. Her female characters may be preoccupied with men in one way or another: they spend a good deal of time discussing sons or lovers or husbands, cooking for them, and using traditional wiles to get round them, but the men themselves, as characters in their own right, are remarkably unimportant. Mrs Monro and Lily and the cleaning-woman make up a little world of their own, and their vitality is the source of the novel’s vitality. Alice Thomas Ellis writes women’s fiction, and at the top of her form, turns that ambiguous phrase into an accolade.