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 predecessor’s Moscow, but it is entirely convincing: Fitzgerald’s pre-1914 worlds are wonderfully circumstantial. The book is short and full of activity. The story moves swiftly in unexpected directions. It is inspiring, funny and touching. One cannot write about it without giving away a lot of the plot, which is a pity when the story is so briskly anecdotal. However, the book has a fine, strange beginning which may be enough to make you decide to get it into your hands immediately:
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road, past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, treetops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
The place, and, in particular, the limits of logic and reason in human affairs, the way things can be turned upside down, and how this may give people as well as cows strange and good times is a heading under which much of the book’s content can be considered.
Fred Fairly, junior fellow of St Angelicus, is one of the cyclists on Mill Road. If H.G. Wells had not used the title already for a story on a similar theme, the book could have been called The Wheels of Chance. Fred’s life had taken a turn three weeks before when, cycling at dusk, this time along the Guestingley Road, he had an accident in which he became, literally, entangled with a stranger: Daisy Saunders. Fred (who is a physicist) might accept the analogy that he and Daisy are like particles, usually kept apart by the gravitational pull of the social masses to which they belong (he is of the middle class, she of the working class) who are suddenly drawn together by a strong force – the sort of force which only comes into operation when members of those classes are obliged to be very close to each other. Propinquity resulted from the accident, consequent on the collision which left them unconscious on the road, of Fred and Daisy coming round in the same bed. They had been put there by Mrs Wrayburn, an alumnus of Newnham, who would have been a graduate if the university conferred degrees on women (as she points out when giving evidence to the magistrate who finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of who it was who was driving the unlighted cart which caused the accident on the Guestingley Road). Mrs Wrayburn put them in bed together because Daisy wore a wedding-ring; Daisy was not, however, married.
The causes and consequences of all this fill a book which runs to only 160 pages. Despite this, the structure of the story is such that it merits its three parts and 22 chapters. The chapter titles (‘How Fred Got His Job in the First Place’, ‘No Mystery about Daisy’s Movements’), confident of the reader’s attention, signal turnings and backtrackings. But they are also instances of the ducking back and forth across the line into pastiche (there is, for example, a complete M. R. James-like ghost story) which makes, occasionally, for too-conscious artfulness.
How Fred (son of the rectory) and Daisy (failed student nurse) get together and get on is not separate from other stories of 1912 – of how atomic physics was developing and of how women were fighting for their rights. In Cambridge, the ‘university city devoted to logic and reason’, Fred addresses his first year, second term, practical physics students, who he had asked to write an essay devising a rational system for human happiness:
All of you looked startled. A physicist sitting down to answer such a question, you seemed to think, would be a freak. As a class you had the air of wanting your money back. I, however, wanted to have the opportunity of reminding you that there is no difference between scientific thought and ordinary thought. You must face the fact that if another human being, whose welfare means considerably more to you than your own, behaves in a very different way from anything you expected, then your efficiency may be impaired.
Fred’s efficiency has been impaired because he has learnt that on the day he and Daisy bumped into each other she was expecting to spend the night with Kelly, a seedy journalist. But Fred is also assistant to Professor Flowerdew, who is worried about a science based on unobservables, and thus removed from ordinary thought. Flowerdew observes, presciently, that physicists will end up finding ‘that since they are dealing with what they cannot observe, they can’t measure it, and so we shall hear that all that can be said is that the position is probably this and the energy probably that. The energy will be beyond their comprehension, so they’ll be driven to the theory that it comes and goes at random.’ Flowerdew sees what is coming, but does not like it. He sends Fred to take notes at a lecture given by Geiger, Rutherford’s Manchester assistant. He will not go himself: ‘No Fairly, I might disgrace myself, I might ask, “How can the unobservable be indivisible?” or, indeed, divisible, for that too, I daresay, will soon be proposed.’
The spirit of conservatism which Flowerdew represents in an unblinkered form is anciently and richly incorporated in the buildings, members and traditions of the college of St Angelicus. It does not only deny married men fellowships but allows no female creatures within its gates, not even female cats: the blind Master of the college is disturbed when he thinks he hears some kittens mewing. Conservatism will not win: the future lies as much with young women in men’s colleges as with the young men fighting for a corner in the Cavendish to struggle with their string and sealing-wax.
Fred points out that your emotions can affect your science; and your science can affect your emotions. Among Fred’s acquaintance are young men pursuing the rational life whose strong opinions and shaky grasp of emotional reality contrast with Daisy’s uncommon sense. The most appalling of these young men, Holcombe, pursues Fred with notes. Notes are Rational Cambridge’s way of making and then of straightening the record. (The Master writes one explaining why he might have seemed annoyed at hearing Fred walk on the grass: ‘The Master was fond of sending these notes in the interest of truth, or rather with the intention of going to bed every night with the knowledge that he had not said or written anything untruthful which he had not corrected.’) Fred’s fellowship, as Mr Wrayburn explains to Daisy, making uneasy parallels with La Traviata, cannot be held by a married man; and Holcombe’s first series of notes are about the uselessness of meeting marriageable women when one’s circumstances preclude marriage. When Holcombe sees Daisy in court, where the unrespectable story of how she came to be on the Guestingley Road is made public, he sends Fred a further note: ‘but, Fairly, you’ve no idea how difficult it is for me to get hold of a woman of any kind. Here is my suggestion. I cannot afford to marry, but neither can I afford to be particular and nor I suppose, can Miss Saunders ... ’ The reader, who by this time is very taken with Daisy, realises that she has (once again) attracted the attention of a man who thinks he needs her without appreciating her.
Daisy’s is a character of a kind rather rare in adult novels, and The Gate of Angels has much of children’s fiction in it. Fred Fairly is the sort of name found in improving literature of the 19th century, and the names of the dogs at the rectory, Sandford and Merton, are those of characters in such a book. The explicit chapter titles, the length, above all the hopeful and cheerful aspects of life which the novel dwells on, are rarely now the preserve of books which also achieve, as this one does, much more than the passing gratification of the reader. Daisy herself is attractive because she is clever and energetic, happy giving and uneasy taking, but she must, if there is to be a plot at all, be allowed to trip – in the end she will stumble up a step not down. Her first job is as a clerk: ‘The hours at Lamberts were from eight until eight. Young Daisy arrived with the irrepressible readiness to please, as though on creation’s first morning, which is one of the earth’s great spectacles of wasted force.’ She avoids too much waste by becoming a student nurse (after her mother dies, the result, Daisy fears, of a visit to the opening of Selfridge’s store – one of the admirable historical set-pieces which never come unstuck from the story).
Medicine, like physics, is changing. At the London hospital where she trains, Dr Sage, one of those indulged and eccentric consultants thrown into relief by the starched discipline of the wards, animadverts on the evils of beef tea and is much loved for his free and old-fashioned prescription of large bottles of medicine – ‘many of them with rhubarb, ginger and honey added in a wild gesture of palatability’. In one of the lists, abundant in particulars, which turn out to be a wonderfully economical way of contrasting then and now, the contents of the hospital dispensary, from aceta (or vinegars) to vina (or wines), and some of their uses (‘paralysis with strychnine, tapeworm with male fern’), are set out. But Dr Sage is also an alienist. ‘Believing, as he did, that what is said by children and the mentally disturbed should be considered just as seriously as any other evidence he needed a place well away from London to make his painstaking notes without, so to speak, appearing in character.’ The place is Cambridge. Daisy finishes up there, too, because, ‘not knowing how dangerous generosity is to the giver’, she is dismissed from the hospital for trying to place an article in a local paper about one of the patients, an attempted suicide who looks like finishing off the job by refusing nourishment. Dr Sage, who does not believe anyone should have the vote, is also against forced feeding, a fact which allows two or three issues to be absorbed and crossreferred in very few sentences. This elegance in construction accounts for the novel’s miraculous combination of factual density, ease of style and brevity.
Daisy is not, like Mrs Wrayburn, a New Woman, but a new kind of woman. The former had made the kind of marriage all her Newnham friends had prayed to avoid, to a man – doctor, clergyman, or, as in her case, a lecturer without a fellowship, whose profession requires him to lunch at home. The list of what a man eating at home might expect on his table – from toast racks, egg cups, and salt cellars with blue glass linings to ramekins, pipkins, cruets and pots – fills more than a third of a page. ‘All of these were not too much (on a clean cloth, too, with the centre fold forming a straight line the whole length of the table) for Mr Wrayburn to expect. Mrs Wrayburn did not think it unreasonable, and nor did Daisy and most of them were in the sink at this moment waiting in mute reproach to be washed and dried.’ There was no mystery about Daisy’s whereabouts in Cambridge because she was doing Mrs Wrayburn’s housework and working as a housemaid at Dr Sage’s clinic.
In both The Gate of Angels and The Beginning of Spring young working-class women are poised to enter a world which, despite war and revolution, promise a kind of freedom. Mrs Wrayburn, like Fred’s sisters and mother, who stitch banners in the purple white and green of the WSPU, will gain less from the changes to come than Daisy, who has nothing to lose and is already quite tough. When Kelly, the journalist who has cost her her job, meets her as she sets out for Cambridge, she lets him propostion her. ‘He put his arm round her waist, fingering her. What a pair we make, she thought. He doesn’t deserve any better, no more do I.’ When Fred tells her he has confronted Kelly and knocked him down, she reminds him of his advantages: unlike Kelly, he doesn’t have to dye his hair to disguise his age and keep his job. And Kelly is the character who sees what is coming: ‘I’ll have to go and be shot at, though, if the cousins don’t stop quarelling. I’m a Territorial.’
The Gate of Angels has, like others of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, a sudden, open ending in which the trajectory of the plot continues into an uncertain future. This final economy is appropriate in a book which is poetic in the sense that the pleasure it gives comes from compact, uncluttered expression to which readers can add much for themselves.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.