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 Peterson and James Fisher. An account of a 30,000-mile journey around the continent by two naturalists, it was originally published in 1955 and was being reissued in memory of Peterson, who had recently died. Fitzgerald wanted it, however, for the sake of his co-author, who had been her cousin. ‘I’ve so often driven about with him,’ she told Carduff, ‘with the zoo’s first Chinese panda in the back of his car, together with a supply of bamboo shoots.’ (Fisher, she explained, was working at London Zoo.) After five hundred pages of her letters the reader is, if not exactly used to this sort of thing, then perfectly prepared for it. The eruption of the startling, the comic and the inexplicable, into a life that Fitzgerald was often at pains to portray as humdrum, gives her correspondence its character and makes these letters, written mostly to family and friends on small occasion or none and with no eye on posterity, completely compelling.
She was born in 1916 into a family so variously distinguished that it was hardly surprising she took the remarkable for granted in later life. Her father was Edmund Knox, editor of Punch and one of four brothers. Her uncles were Dillwyn, the classicist and cryptographer, one of the most important code-breakers of both world wars; Wilfred, the Anglo-Catholic priest and theologian; and Ronald, who became a Roman Catholic priest famous for his translation of the Bible, his satirical wit and a series of popular detective stories. Fitzgerald later wrote a biography, The Knox Brothers, a title which she reminded Malcolm Muggeridge he had advised against on the grounds that ‘it would sound like a circus.’ It was her second book. The first, a life of Burne-Jones, appeared two years earlier, in 1975, when she was nearly 60. Until then child-rearing, teaching, a difficult marriage and the constant struggle to keep the family afloat – which failed several times, once literally when their houseboat sank in the Thames – had left little time for writing. Other biographies followed but it was her novels – one of which, Offshore, won the Booker Prize – that were responsible for her late flowering as a celebrated author and somewhat reluctant figure in London literary life.
Not everyone who knew her, her son-in-law Terence Dooley notes cryptically in his introduction, was pleased by this transformation, but for her readers and the press it made a romantic story, the sudden emergence of a fully formed writer from the chrysalis of an elderly, somewhat dowdy-looking schoolmistress. Or, as she put it herself, unromantically, when she won the Booker: ‘In the stories I used to read when I was a little girl cab-horses used to win the National . . . but you can’t expect this in real life.’ The letters make clear how far from reality both the public perception and to some extent the private, self-deprecating persona were. For one thing Fitzgerald was clearly a writer all her life: her correspondence from the beginning was a playground, and at times perhaps a refuge, in which she created characters and drew a narrative thread through the random events of everyday life. In the earliest letters, written to her friend Hugh Lee in 1939 when she was working at Punch, her laconic colleague, the ‘subeditor from Lowestoft’ with his pipe, his ‘permanent flush’ and his passion for gadgets (he ‘has made a penknife and magnifying glass combined’), turns over the course of three or four letters into ‘Lowestoft’, a poignant creation whose frugal life of cheese sandwiches and Fleet Street digs conceal a longing for travel to the South Seas.
For all their intrinsic humour nothing in Fitzgerald’s novels suggests the talent for comedy revealed in her letters. Staying in Rye with Alec Vidler, former dean of King’s College, Cambridge, who was helping her with research for The Knox Brothers, she described the house party to her daughter:
a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting ) . . . contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation wh: he couldn’t hear.
Her humour was in that tradition in which her father and her uncle Ronald excelled, and which Punch, at its best, epitomised. In 1967 Fitzgerald was ‘reading Diary of a Nobody for the 20th time’, and Mr Pooter was undoubtedly an influence on one of the best comic creations of the letters, ‘Daddy’, the version of her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, who features in correspondence with their two daughters. Almost always off-stage, he is generally in some kind of domestic muddle, breaking a cuckoo clock, dismantling the gas stove and at one point actually attempting, like Pooter, to paint the bath: ‘Alas, poor Daddy . . . not a great success, but hope it will pass – perhaps fit a dimming lampshade?’ Here and in his more gnomic utterances (‘We are watching some dreary music by Michael Tippett and Daddy keeps saying: “When does the shooting start?”’) Fitzgerald also surely owed something to E.M. Delafield, whose Diary of a Provincial Lady appeared in Time and Tide in the 1930s and whose ‘Robert’ is similarly laconic, impassive and discouraging.
This fairly benign fiction, created perhaps as much for herself as for her daughters, concealed the painful truth that Desmond drank too much, spent too much and went from one unsuccessful job to another. An alternative version of him appears in Offshore, written after his death, in Edward, the husband whom his wife Nenna loves but cannot manage, somehow, to live with. ‘And now the quarrel was under its own impetus . . . And the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known . . . and there was no one to tell them this.’ Their daughters, Dooley comments, remember frequent rows and a fair degree of domestic chaos; this reality receives the occasional anguished acknowledgment in the letters. ‘You kindly say it is nice to have a 2nd home,’ Fitzgerald wrote to her daughter Maria in 1974. ‘I wonder if you feel you have a 1st one! But we love you very much and that must count for something.’
To Carduff in 1987 she remarked that ‘on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.’ In later novels, Innocence and The Blue Flower, she combined the two, setting historic lives in fictional landscapes, but in the letters, where love and admiration are mingled with mistakes and sadness, they coexisted from the beginning. The novelising was a way, perhaps, of tackling the difficulty she described to Lee in 1940, that she found it ‘necessary to talk about serious things, but also quite impossible’. Her own persona for the family was a perfect counterpart to Daddy, accident-prone and often at a loss, falling off ladders, dyeing her hair with a tea bag: ‘I have cut out my Irish tweed skirt but daren’t look at the pieces in case I’ve cut them out the wrong way up. Several vital pieces of the pattern are missing anyway.’ While to the outside world she presented herself, often, as one of the numerous ‘potty’ lady biographers whose overabundant outpourings had a depressing effect on her in bookshops, and as a novelist of improbable incompetence. Collins ‘said they’d have to have a typescript by mid-January’, she told Francis King, ‘so I had to sit down and write a novel and, worse still, type it’. On the reverse side of this fabric, woven from an often difficult life, is to be found the material of her work as she herself described it: ‘the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities.’
The subjects of her biographies often fitted this description. They were mostly figures she felt compelled to rescue, either because, like her father and uncles, they belonged to an age that was fading so fast from living memory that they might otherwise be lost for ever, or because, like Charlotte Mew, their achievement, though slight, was not negligible. ‘She did write at least one good poem, how many of us can say that?’ Fitzgerald wrote to Richard Ollard at Collins, who was pessimistic about the prospects for a biography. At odds with the ineffectualness of Fitzgerald’s self-portrait is the passionate determination with which she pursued her subjects, wooing the recalcitrant owners of private correspondence and gently besieging publishers. ‘I’ve just sent you another letter about Charlotte Mew,’ she wrote to Ollard. ‘I can’t help it, it keeps coming over me as they say.’ In the end she prevailed. She had less luck with the book she wanted to write about Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop. It was a world she had known, and its later obscurity, especially its eclipse by the ‘much-heard-of Bloomsbury group’, she felt was unjust. She persisted with the research despite everything and managed, in the course of trying to establish a complete list of the broadsheet poems Monro published, to find a retired policeman who on night patrol ‘used to shine his torch into the window of the . . . bookshop and learn the poems off by heart’ and who, thanks to a photographic memory, was able to fill in the gaps in her bibliography.
Mew interested her partly for the period her life spanned, the turn from the Victorians to Modernism. Fitzgerald’s own life encompassed a similarly profound change in cultural sensibility. Having grown up in a family for whom the debates of the Oxford Movement were still alive she found herself in the 1960s taking guitar lessons from one daughter and reporting to another on the Eurovision Song Contest: ‘Quite exhausted by emotions raised . . . We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles . . . Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.’ She was melancholy sometimes for the passing of things, including Punch, which she could not bear to read in its last agonising years, and the Liberal Party, for which she used to vote only for it to be abolished ‘once and for all, while I went out into the kitchen to make a cup of tea’. But unlike Mew she found herself suddenly in vogue, and the long round of making do and mending, of visits to the Clapham Antiquarian Society – a source of much kindly satire – and hours of teaching, gave way to literary success and fame.
The transformation was a mixed experience, which she met with as much stoicism as pleasure. It came too late to make up for the decades of poverty or to give her the ‘little house and garden, and an attic to put things in’ that she had longed for when living on the ‘squalid’ Poynders Gardens estate in Lambeth. She was anyway too modest, too old and too intelligent to be unduly impressed by celebrity, and since she was also self-effacing, elderly and female it was easy, if rash, for people to patronise her. She had never thought of herself as obscure (nobody does) and with a congratulatory first from Oxford had no need to feel intellectually inferior, certainly not to Robert Robinson and the ‘dread’ Malcolm Bradbury, who seem to have been especially condescending. The petty humiliations of fame, however, gave her a new comic theme for the letters. There was the impertinence of photographers, who made her sit on a coil of wet rope on the Embankment when she won the Booker (‘Jane Bown . . . tells me that when Lord Snowdon came to photograph Anita B. he pinned her at the back with clothes pegs and she was justifiably upset’). Then there were the judgments of critics. She was compared, inevitably, with Barbara Pym and Beryl Bainbridge (the latter she thought ‘a good corrective to vanity’), and was informed by a pundit at a soirée that she had to be in Pym’s ‘group’: ‘You either have to be in hers or Beryl’s. This made me vow never to go to a literary party again and I shan’t, either.’
Those who were not used to her letters took them, and her perhaps, at face value. They learned that although she was shy she was not timid. When Colin Haycraft seemed to want to drop her from Duckworth’s list she duly left. Then, when he seemed to regret it and want her to stay, she stood firm with a reply so delicately two-edged that it was lacerating whichever way he took it: ‘I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect . . . However having made this mistake, and I’d rather be taken for an idiot than a liar, I’ll be careful to make it clear that it was my mistake, which is what you want, I think.’ On the rare occasion when she lost patience and ‘said something nasty’ she did it to such economically deadly effect that the reader can only wish she had done it more often. Turning down an invitation from her editor at Collins, Stuart Proffitt, in 1990 she wrote: ‘I think Tosca might be wasted on me as I am so fond of it, and Jonathan Miller is so silly. They encourage him to be silly.’
Fitzgerald believed that as a biographer she could get to know a subject as well as anyone she had actually met, ‘particularly if you have the letters’. In her case the letters are probably better for they offer us an intimacy that only a few people enjoyed with her in life. Despite which they are tantalising. Letters are not a Life, and Fitzgerald had a haphazard attitude to her own documents, having lost a great many when the houseboat sank and inclining later to a belief that it would save trouble if she gave them to the NSPCC, ‘who bring a green bag round every week to collect the waste paper’. But the inevitable gaps in the material do not excuse the fact that the book is so badly edited. The sparse footnotes are whimsical to a degree, telling us that when Fitzgerald mentioned that her daughter’s dog was having puppies she was mistaken, but not that the biographer of Dickens with ‘no sense of humour whatever’ is Peter Ackroyd or that the German epigraph is by Wilhelm Müller or that Arcadia is a play by Tom Stoppard. Patric Dickinson, Felicity Ashbee and David Cecil are among the dozens of names who pass by unnoted and still more are missing from the index. How Fitzgerald came to know Stevie Smith and when it was that T.S. Eliot told her that the staircase from the Poetry Bookshop featured in ‘Ash Wednesday’ are among the questions that hang in the air. Neither Fitzgerald’s date of birth nor that of her children is given, and whether the religious faith that meant so much to her was Anglican or Catholic, a matter of particular interest in a member of the Knox family, is not explained. Dooley’s introduction is no doubt constrained by anxiety not to offend the living, but it is impossible not to wonder why there are no letters to her son, Valpy, or what is meant by the reference to ‘eight years of freefall’ in Fitzgerald’s life. The impression of a story told in fragments and of immensely important matters left unsaid is quite in keeping with her writing as a novelist and as a correspondent, but it was not her practice as a biographer and she deserves better.