Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life 
by Hermione Lee.
Chatto, 508 pp., £25, November 2013, 978 0 7011 8495 7
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Nobody expected Penelope Fitzgerald to win the Booker Prize in 1979 for her novel Offshore. Keneally was also on the shortlist, with Naipaul’s A Bend in the River the clear frontrunner. Julian Barnes remembers Paul Theroux, who was judging, saying he would ‘skim out into the pampas’ the candidates he considered non-starters; back from Patagonia, there he sat at the Booker dinner, ‘a polite smile on his face’. ‘I couldn’t help enjoying the dinner,’ Fitzgerald wrote to a friend shortly afterwards, ‘though the Evening Standard man told me frankly that they’d all written their pieces about Naipaul and felt they were free to get drunk.’

Unlike the others on the shortlist, Offshore was, in the words of Asa Briggs, who chaired the judges, a roman pur: short, deep, highly crafted, about a colony of misfits in London in the early 1960s, living on boats with the ‘certain failure’ that kept causing them to ‘sink back … into the mud moorings of the great tideway’. Was this the reason for the pampas-skimming, that the book was so small and sad? The author was quite old and unglamorous, as photos taken at the dinner attest. Fitzgerald always struggled with what she called ‘the problem of evening dress’ and wore a long flowery cotton garment, like a flannelette nightie. Did that give licence to the next day’s BBC Book Programme, opened by Robert Robinson on the proposition that ‘the judges made the wrong choice’? A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

Offshore was Penelope Fitzgerald’s third novel and fifth book; her first books had been biographies, of her father’s famous family and of Edward Burne-Jones. She was 62 when she won the Booker, a widow and the mother of three grown-up children, and although no longer in straits as desperate as those she had drawn on for the novel, she was accustomed to making do on very little. She lived on the ground floor of her married daughter’s house in Battersea. She made her own clothes from material bought in the sales, and seemed never to acquire a handbag: acquaintances remember a trusty William Morris carrier, and she took a spongebag, Hermione Lee reports, to the Booker dinner. In her letters she uses the dotty-lady schtick for two main purposes. It’s there to entertain and mollify her daughters, on whom she depended for all sorts of things: ‘Marina Warner came to lecture at the Highgate Institute on Tues – embarrassing as the members had made a clean sweep of all the sandwiches and canapés by the time she got into the reading room.’ And it’s used defensively, to protect her privacy. ‘Have written to David Godwin pretending not to understand exactly and hope that will keep him at bay.’

After Offshore, Fitzgerald wrote six more novels, of which two more were nominated for the Booker. Since her death in 2000 it has become common to talk of her as one of the finest recent practitioners of the novel in English, admiring in particular the technique and mystery of the final books. In the words of A.S. Byatt, who worked with Fitzgerald at Westminster Tutors, the London crammer, she was ‘not an English lady writer’ – though she put on ‘an act as one’ – but ‘someone with an austere, original talent’, and Byatt presents the way she came to understand this as an epiphany. ‘She said to me about Human Voices’ – the scent rising, perhaps, from the sausage roll Fitzgerald was warming up on the radiator for lunch – ‘that she wished I would write something … to point out that it was based on a German poem by Heine, “Der Asra”’. Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, on the face of it a tragicomedy of love and loss among careworn bosses and dewy office girls at the wartime BBC, resonated, in its author’s mind at least, with a poem in which a Yemeni slave explains how, for the people he comes from, to love is to die. We are talking about a writer for whom intellect was a passion, and whose books as much recount romances with whatever she has been reading as they do anything else.

This is one reason the tag of ‘historical novel’, often attached to the final books, is inadequate. They aren’t ‘set’ in ‘periods’ so much as inhabited or even haunted by other works. In Innocence (1986), the highlight is the astonishingly precise and sympathetic portrait of Antonio Gramsci, dying in a Roman prison. Tolstoy himself does not appear in The Beginnings of Spring (1988), but his legacy does, in several variations, comic, beautiful, menacing. Her last novel, The Blue Flower (1995), recounts scenes from the youth of Novalis, and so, the everyday life-world of the German Romantics. So I Have Thought of You, the title of her selected letters, is, in a way, typical Fitzgerald: it looks so cosy and mumsy but it isn’t. It’s from ‘Gute Nacht’ by Wilhelm Müller, as set to music in Schubert’s Winterreise, as forlorn and desolate a lyric as they come.

Fitzgerald’s novels, Byatt concludes, are best approached as ‘very English versions of European metaphysical fables’ – English, maybe, in the sense that Muriel Spark was Scottish and Isak Dinesen Danish, and that Marguerite Duras was French. Byatt does not make this point, but it’s worth noticing, surely, that this minor modern tradition often attracts women writers, maybe because its minority and smallness work well with limited resources, or because its irony makes sense to writers in secret protest over the limitations within which they work. As a conventional literary career, Fitzgerald’s life’s work was, as one reviewer put it, ‘an awful hash’. But really and truly, in what universe does the phrase ‘literary career’ make the slightest sense? Not on a leaky houseboat, when life is a daily struggle to look after all the people you have to look after. Nor, presumably, in the realms of ethical life and spirituality. Though she said and wrote little about it, Fitzgerald was a practising Anglican, and when she went on a coach tour of ‘the Holy Land’ in the early 1990s, headed straight for the Jordan to be rebaptised.

It’s not that Fitzgerald’s work is pious, or even kindly – ‘geniuses are not nice people,’ as Byatt saw. ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating,’ Fitzgerald writes of her protagonist in The Bookshop, a novel that opens on a quiet vignette of English nature: a heron swallowing an eel, the eel struggling to escape, both creatures trapped for ever because ‘they had taken on too much.’ It’s that this numinous dimension gives weight and bearing to the poles around which the work revolves, as seen in a very late story, ‘The Red-Haired Girl’ (1998). On the one hand: ‘There is nothing really lasting, nothing that will endure, except the sincere expression of the actual conditions of life. Conditions in the potato patch, in the hayfield, at the washtub, in the open street!’ And on the other: ‘The withering sense of insignificance [that] can bring one as low as grief.’

Fitzgerald’s novels divide into two phases. The first group are short and spare, with English settings and clear autobiographical parallels: The Bookshop, Offshore, Human Voices, At Freddie’s. In the second, she has absented her personality, hidden it deep beneath princess-and-pea layers of material: Florence after the Second World War (Innocence), Moscow just before the First (The Beginning of Spring), Cambridge at around the same period (The Gate of Angels), pre-Napoleonic Saxony (The Blue Flower). One imagines the author building up the research, bit by bit, joining it from many sources, then cutting it to ribbons before reassembling the tiniest threads of it, in the most delicate, dreamlike structure, only the bits she wants and no others. And yet, the result is the opposite of decorative whimsy. It has inevitability and form.

The method emerges, startlingly developed, in the very first paragraph of her very first book, the Burne-Jones biography. Fitzgerald sets up a dialectic between ‘the daily life with its successes and disasters’ and ‘the inner life of a painter who might have said, with Jung: “If I had left these images hidden in my emotions, they might have torn me in pieces.”’ The work’s images thus become what Fitzgerald, following her subject, calls its ‘burden’, the points at which physical manifestation connect to inner preoccupation: ‘the enchantment of the willing victim, sleep, waiting, imprisonment, loneliness, guiding, rescue, the quest, losing and finding’ and ‘above all’ – as for his friend William Morris – ‘the language of flowers’. (The idea of writing about flowers as ‘a means of communicating, and yet concealing, the secrets of the heart’ was, as Lee says, with Fitzgerald for a long time before becoming the quest of her final book.)

What other things made up Fitzgerald’s ‘burden’? Well, Frank Kermode was right early on, in this paper (22 November 1979), when he noticed the fascination with water, in its many forms and depredations: damp, flood, rain, drowning, ‘the dead man’s stench of river water’, the ‘long-awaited torrents’ that come when the ice cracks in The Beginning of Spring. Those retiring, recessive protagonists are another: how many times do you have to read Innocence before you notice Cesare? The very odd, foreign-unto-themselves Englishness of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement might be another, as manifested in the love of colour and clearness, craft, plant forms and the Romantic re-enchantment of nature: the hands like nymphs round the birch trees, the flower with the face on it in the rocky crack. And as for the heron that The Bookshop made its emblem of the English countryside, surely this is it again, the ‘delicate grotesque silver bird’ on the De Morgan tile scavenged by the children from the mud in Offshore.

The Pre-Raphaelite interest was profoundly, though obliquely, autobiographical. Fitzgerald had known Burne-Jones’s window in Birmingham Cathedral since she was tiny – it was ‘the first time I’d seen something that I realised was stunningly beautiful’ – and it tickled her that it had been installed when her plain-living grandfather had been posted there as suffragan bishop, as ‘he had no aesthetic sense whatever.’ And the Pre-Raphaelite line continues, right the way up to The Blue Flower, via George MacDonald, whose Phantastes inspired generations of grot-and-goblin writers, and who was the translator of the Hymns to the Night. In fact, MacDonald was the only English-speaking writer who ‘really understood’ Novalis, as she wrote in a letter to Kermode.

Penelope Mary Knox began life ‘as a brilliant young woman from an exceptional family, of whom much was expected’. She was born in December 1916 in the Old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln, the second child of Christina Hicks, the bishop’s daughter, and Eddie ‘Evoe’ Knox, a comic journalist, later the editor of Punch. Both parents came from ecclesiastical low-church families, high-minded, industrious, ambitious, doers of good works. At the time of the child’s birth, the Old Palace had been ‘thrown open to a pitiful group of Belgian refugees’ and later became a Red Cross hospital. Eddie was about to leave for the trenches and would be sent home wounded from Passchendaele.

Though Christina was also, as Lee says, ‘exceptional’ – a pioneer graduate, student thesp and suffragist at Somerville College, Oxford – it was the father’s family that ‘set a tone and a standard’ (including the habit of overlooking the female members: Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers omitted the two sisters from its title, dismissing ‘poor Ethel’, the eldest sibling, as ‘somewhat slow and stunted’ and having little to say about Winnie, the third child, although she became a well-known writer under her married name, Winifred Peck). The family ethos was strong, self-mythologising even, and had to do with being ‘brilliantly clever’ – all but ‘poor Ethel’ went to Oxford or Cambridge – and ‘distinguished by alarming honesty, caustic wit, shyness, moral rigour, willpower, oddness and powerful banked-down feelings, erupting in moments of sentiment or violent bursts of temper and gloom’. Dillwyn, aka Dilly, was a classicist and an atheist, a leader of the team at Bletchley Park that cracked Enigma. Wilfred (‘Wilfie’) became an Anglo-Catholic priest and scholar. Ronald – Ronnie – converted to Catholicism and became a society priest and translator of the Bible, a writer of detective stories and the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh. Penelope’s father was in religion a sceptic and by vocation a wit. When asked if he had plans to write a memoir, he responded: ‘Must We Have Lives?’

As a child, Penelope, aka Mops or Mopsa, far outshone her older brother, Rawle. Her precocity was noted in Punch by her father: ‘“What colour is the wind?” inquired Priscilla. She had me there.’ When she was five, the family moved to Hampstead, ‘a place of high thinking, plain living and small economies … ham-and-beef shops, old bookstalls and an amazing number of cleaners and repairers’. When she was eight, Penelope was sent away to Deerhaddnn School in Eastbourne, which she hated, then to Wycombe Abbey, on a scholarship, at 13. Her triumphant ascent to Somerville, Oxford, like ‘generations’ of her family before her, in 1935 was shadowed by the death of her mother that spring from cancer. But she worked hard and played hard: she was in a set known as ‘Les Girls’ and acclaimed as a BLONDE BOMBSHELL in an Isis headline after her effortless rendition of ‘daguerreotype’ in the first ever Oxford-Radcliffe transatlantic spelling bee. She came away with a First in English after a congratulatory viva; legend has it that one examiner had her papers bound in vellum. ‘I have been reading steadily for 17 years,’ she told Isis when chosen as Woman of the Year. ‘When I go down I want to start writing.’

Except she didn’t, because she was interrupted, to begin with, by the outbreak of the Second World War. Although she did some freelance work for her father, most of her time was taken up by office jobs, at the Ministry of Food and then, from 1940, at the BBC. Human Voices looks back on that period, just before the fall of France, ‘the air … alive with urgency and worry’, the girls’ thoughts overwhelmed by ‘helpless waves of flesh against metal and salt water’. In the novel, we watch the unfolding of one of those mad romances you get when people are pushed together in such circumstances. In real life, Penelope was about to fall into another one, though from the outside it would have looked as though she was still securely on her golden path.

In summer 1940 she fell in love with Desmond Fitzgerald, a ‘dashing … tall, dark and handsome’ trainee barrister and lieutenant in the Irish Guards. The couple married in 1942 and settled, after Desmond’s war service (for which he was awarded the Military Cross), in London. Their first child, a boy called Valpy, was born in 1947 and the year after they moved into a cottage in Hampstead, ‘an appealing couple in their early thirties’ living in a ‘shabby-smart bohemian environment which suited them – or suited Penelope – very well’.

But ‘the Fitzgeralds – particularly Penelope – had ambitions’. In 1950 they moved to a much bigger house, doing it up with black floors, wicker balls, a gilded birdcage. The same year Desmond become editor of World Review, ‘a magazine of the Arts, Politics and Law’. Friends had the impression that although Desmond was ‘full of go, a handsome Guard-ee type’, Penelope had ‘the brains’. Louis MacNeice, Stevie Smith, L.P. Hartley were among the Review’s English-language contributors, but stronger indications of Fitzgerald’s inner life and future come from the pieces she wrote, signed and unsigned: about Jarry, Munch, Moravia, Medardo Rosso – the Italian interest was to re-emerge in Innocence – and ‘a curious pair of editorials’ styled as ‘Letters from Tisshara’, presented as a land of ‘self-deceiving political illusions’ where there is a festival at which critics ‘dig up the bones of dead writers, in a strange desolate windy landscape of wailing grasses’. Two daughters arrived, Tina (born 1950) and Maria (1953) and were dressed in ‘Victorian-style clothes’ with ‘proper party dresses and sashes’. There were drinks and dinner parties, an au pair and a charlady, a big car, a black taffeta dress with a yellow turban. ‘They were living a comfortable middle-class life: in fact, they were living beyond their means.’

Towards the end of 1952, Penelope, pregnant with Maria, left the infant Tina behind and sailed with Valpy to New York on the Queen Mary. From the US they travelled by Greyhound bus to Mexico, to visit – as she wrote in the first of her many pieces for this paper (21 February 1980) – two old ladies of Irish extraction, because ‘it was hoped that … they might take kindly to my son and leave him all their money.’ But the plan failed, and mother and son ‘left on the long-distance bus without a legacy, but knowing what it was to be hated’. Fitzgerald’s hopes that she might be able to salvage a plotline from the escapade failed also: ‘I could never make it respectable (by which I mean probable) enough to be believed as a novel … I am sorry to let it go.’

The problem – or a good part of it – was that Desmond had come back from the war ‘profoundly changed’. Two-thirds of his battalion had been killed. In 1949, he published a tribute to them:

A man drained of blood gets very cold; there is not much a man with a shattered thigh can do for himself … But they did not say anything, they didn’t ask for anything; they smiled painfully when the orderlies put a blanket over them or gave them a drink of water and a cigarette, and just shut their eyes for a moment when a shell exploded particularly close.

His son remembers him waking up at nights, screaming. He’d always been a bit of a drinker, but now he was a drunk. When the World Review closed in 1953, Desmond did try to get back into legal work but, it seems, only half-heartedly. A Hampstead neighbour remembers lots of ‘anxious tut-tuttings’: one child spotted shoeless, another left outside in her pram. In 1957, ‘quite suddenly’, the Fitzgeralds did a flit from Hampstead for a former oyster warehouse in Southwold, the basis for the fictional damp bookshop and the beginning, perhaps, of the fascination with dampness as a ‘burden’, an emotional, almost spiritual state. There were terrible rows, huge bills were run up and never paid, and Valpy had to leave Westminster after two terms to become a charity case at Downside, his father’s alma mater. Penelope got a part-time job at the local bookshop, which she would transmute to The Bookshop, Southwold becoming Hardborough, the son and husband eliminated, the girls merged into the sparky, doomed Christine.

In 1960, the Fitzgeralds moved back to London, into Grace, ‘an old wooden barge which for many years had carried cargoes up and down the east coast under sail, but was now a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. Grace was moored on Chelsea Reach, then as now ‘one of the very grandest parts of London’. The boat was cold, leaky, rat-infested and insanitary, ‘a total disaster area … mortifying and chaotic’, in the words of Valpy, who came home from school as seldom as he could get away with. The girls lived off ‘fried potatoes, fried eggs, toast’ and went to school only intermittently – a visitor remembers finding them risking electrocution, toasting bread on an upturned electric fire. The girls remember catching their mother eating blackboard chalk from a packet. ‘I feel I need it,’ she said.

To ‘keep things going for the girls’ Penelope started working as a teacher, first at Italia Conti, the stage school drawn on for At Freddie’s, then at Queen’s Gate in Kensington and at Westminster Tutors. Her children remember her constantly tired and fraught and bad-tempered, ‘at her wits’ end’. She started sleeping on a day-bed in the living area; she’d never share a bed with her husband again. One night Desmond fell off the boat, struck his head and gashed it open, leaving a scar and a dent there ever after. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to think about if I’m not going to worry about him all the time,’ Nenna the abandoned wife says of her hopeless husband in Offshore.

In 1962, Desmond was caught stealing money from his chambers. He went to court that summer and appears to have been put on probation, though there are persistent rumours that he went to prison. Penelope never talked about it, and around this period was pushing her friends away. In December 1962 he was disbarred, and six months later Grace sank, destroying pretty well all the Fitzgerald family papers. The girls, luckily, were out; the cat was clinging to the mast; Desmond was nowhere to be seen. The next day, Penelope turned up to one of her teaching jobs looking ‘more than usually dishevelled’. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank,’ she is reported to have said.

For more than a year after that, Penelope and the girls were shunted from one lot of temporary accommodation to another, with Desmond frequently absent. In 1964, he got a stop-gap job selling encyclopedias, then a better one, issuing train tickets for the Lunn Poly travel agency (Get away!). It was low-paid and menial, far below what either had expected: ‘I’m not going to pretend anything about my job,’ Edward says in Offshore, as his wife realises ‘in terror’ that he will ‘never get anywhere’. The drunken fugues continued, but from the Lunn Poly period they seem to have got less frequent and extreme.

Towards the end of 1964 Penelope was going through Desmond’s pockets when she found a letter, dated six weeks previously, offering the family a council flat. They moved to 185 Poynders Gardens, a three-bed flat on a classic brick-built London County Council estate. Desmond and the girls had a room each; Valpy shared with Maria when he was around; Penelope continued sleeping alone, in the living room, venturing out sometimes under cover of darkness to steal soil for her pot plants from the small park next door. She called it ‘Squalid Council Estate’ in her letters, but it seemed fine to friends who visited. She and Desmond went on living there until his final illness in 1975.

As an employee of Lunn Poly, then later Thomson’s and Thomas Cook, Desmond got cheap travel as a perk, and the Fitzgeralds became great takers of package holidays, visiting the Alps in 1965 then Elba, Florence, Turkey, Madrid. The trips were done ‘on a shoestring’, the girls eating the free bread and olive oil in one restaurant then ‘throwing down the menu’ before moving on to the next.

Fitzgerald, clearly, did not at all want to be a teacher: ‘I’d get tired of pretending to mind whether they’d done their essays or not,’ she said to her daughter Tina, but she did it for a long time, at Queen’s Gate until 1977 (most famous alumna: Nigella Lawson) and Westminster Tutors until 1987 (Anna Wintour, Edward St Aubyn). Meanwhile, she pieced together an impressive education for her own girls, with schooling at the London Oratory and Godolphin and Latymer (which was free at that time), and the price-of-a-bus-fare cultural life that was and is London’s glory: libraries and galleries, cheap tickets to the theatre (sneaking in their own pies and wine). At home, Desmond did the weekly launderette run and all the ironing, while Penelope dressmade, cooked, painted her own Christmas cards. She read and studied, and Desmond helped her, driving her around to research the books about the Knoxes and Burne-Jones.

Such details come mainly from Fitzgerald’s letters to her daughters. As Rosemary Hill noticed when reviewing them for this paper (25 September 2008), none of them is to Valpy. He didn’t keep them, Lee says, but there was more to it than that. As the eldest and as a boy, Valpy perhaps felt the Knox pressure more than his sisters did, not to mention the overweening love of a mother whose husband was a disappointment. Being Knoxes, they were all expected to go to Oxford – ‘it would not have occurred to them not to’ – but when Valpy won a place at Trinity to read Chemistry, all he remembers of his mother’s response was disapproval that it wasn’t Balliol. A few years later, Tina went to Somerville to read Spanish, and Maria to read Physiological Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall.

In 1962, mother and son together enrolled on a language course in Córdoba. Three years later, Valpy went back to work at the same language school and found a letter from his mother, also applying for a job. ‘It was a startling moment for him: he realised that during the crises at home, she had had an idea of another life.’ Even as he was having this realisation, his mother back in London was taking a Tefl evening class, though the effort petered out.

Still in Córdoba, a few weeks later, Valpy fell in love with the Spanish girl who was to become his wife. The marriage endured and Penelope tried to be nice about it, but it’s clear she found it hard.

In 1965, on that first Alpine trip with Lunn Poly, Desmond bought Penelope a flower book in German with a gentian on the cover. Inside, he wrote a dedication:

To dearest Mops, August 15 1965 (when we were on the bus).
Whenever I’m in trouble you’re there to help me out,
You are my better half of that there is no doubt
If I never had you dear, to be my loving guide
Beneath the roaring waves of life my heart it would have died.

For reasons parallel, presumably, to those that caused his wife to present herself to her daughters as an accident-prone Mrs Pooter, most of Desmond’s words that remain tend to the public schoolboy euphemistic: drunk was ‘bonky’, boring ‘yawny’, and after signing the consent for an operation to remove a tumour from his rectum, he wrote to Tina that it was like ‘a booking form prepared by a Tour Operator, except that there is no 60 per cent cancellation charge’. Penelope’s first novel, The Golden Child, was written to entertain him in his final illness. He died in August 1976.

The novel, blurbed by Duckworth as ‘a mystery first novel about hanky-panky in the British Museum’, was published in 1977 and Penelope took a package tour of the Great Wall of China to celebrate. She particularly enjoyed the Revolutionary Street Committee Kindergarten’s performance of Pulling Up the Turnip: ‘As we left, they all turned out waving their red scarves & shouting “Goodbye, Aunt and Uncle Thompson” as the blue dusk fell, which touched the heart, & how I wish D was alive to hear this tribute to Thompsons travel.’

Five years later, At Freddie’s, with its horrible final image of the stage-school pupil ‘climbing and jumping, again and again and again’, was the last Fitzgerald novel drawn from autobiographical experience. A third biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984), became what Lee calls ‘the crucial turning point’ – two others, on L.P. Hartley and the Poetry Bookshop of Harold Monro, were abandoned – after which came the four late novels, their settings derived almost entirely from book-research, plus imagination and dream. Knowledgeable readers can trace Moravia, Pavese and De Sica in Innocence. Fitzgerald herself listed Baedeker’s 1914 guide to Russia and memoirs from British expats as sources for The Beginning of Spring (including the awful story about the drunken bear). She started, and abandoned, a book about the Inklings (she had attended Tolkien’s lectures when she was at Oxford, and considered him ‘odious’), transposing the focus to Cambridge as her uncle Dilly would have known it: thus The Gate of Angels. Then, in the early 1990s, she settled down for ‘about three years’, to read everything she could by and about Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), the Saxon nobleman and salt-mine manager who, three years before his death at 29, began publishing under the name Novalis, and whose hallucinatory Heinrich von Ofterdingen – chosen by Borges to be read to him on his deathbed – introduced the idea of the ‘blue flower’ to German Romanticism, as the emblem of the impossible and irresistible search.

‘I started from D.H. Lawrence’s fatal flower of happiness at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how D.H.L. knew it was blue,’ Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to Frank Kermode, who had reviewed The Blue Flower in this paper (‘the more you reach after it, the more you become aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you,’ as Lawrence went on). In fact, the blue flower had already made an appearance at the end of The Bookshop, pressed inside an Everyman edition of Ruskin’s Unto This Last: ‘The book must have gone, perhaps fifty years before, to Switzerland in springtime.’

Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of the young, brilliant Fritz and his infatuation with his ‘Philosophy’, a girl called Sophie, who is only 12 when he first meets her. The book begins with the annual washday at the Hardenberg estate, ‘great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers’ dropping into the courtyard, and proceeds through ‘scores of miles of rolling country, uncomplainingly bringing forth potatoes and turnips and the great whiteheart pickling cabbages which had to be sliced with a saw’, to Jena, where Fichte fichterises and Goethe promenades with Schiller by the Saale. The scenes are very short, but stately and luminous, like the great Dutch paintings. Except that they are then distressed, swept over, with swirling particles: white shirts and sheets and snow storms, salt-flakes and snowflakes, droplets and bacilli, language, electric charge. ‘There is a question being asked, a different question for every entity … incessantly, most of the time however hardly noticeably, even faintly, like a church bell heard across meadows and enclosures.’ ‘Language speaks, because speaking is its pleasure and it can do nothing else.’

Both the luminosity and the distress are effects of extraordinary pressure: from the severe containment of the novel and the lives within it, and from what Candia McWilliam, in her excellent introduction to the new paperback edition, calls ‘the violent entropic subtraction of death in youth, leaving a burnt place behind in the creation – a bright star gone’. Shortly after Fritz meets Sophie, her cough starts, and the pain in her side: her doctor ‘never had the chance to hear the opening of The Blue Flower, but if he had done so he could have said immediately what he thought it meant.’ Three years later, after much suffering, she is dead, and will be followed four years later by her lover. Asked, around the time of publication, if she saw the novel as a form of consolation, Fitzgerald said no, ‘if consolation means something second-best’, and yes if it meant ‘to be made welcome in a different world, where the laws of time are suspended, and yet which is still my own’.

Reviewing Lee’s Virginia Woolf book in 1996, Fitzgerald wrote that as a biographer she is ‘calm, patient, strong, deeply interested and interesting’, and her book ‘wonderfully fluid [and] imaginative … every chapter [with] its own pattern’. The present book, though clear and readable, tactful and scholarly, is a bit less streamlined. This may be because Lee has made much use of the live memories and personal archives of Fitzgerald’s children, and so is walking on eggshells in places. It has also been suggested that Fitzgerald herself may have done what she could to get rid of painful material, that whatever was not destroyed in Grace’s sinking was long ago submerged in some other way.

The omission that really seems a pity has to do with that famous late Fitzgerald method: ‘How is it done?’; ‘I kept asking myself how it was done’; ‘So how does she do it?’, all the reviewers wanted to know. Towards the end of her life Fitzgerald sold two lots of post-sinking papers to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, including notes and drafts for the late novels. If you looked at these, I imagine, you’d learn a lot about how she ‘did it’, building then shattering and compressing the piles of information, but Lee doesn’t have much to say about this.

The illustrations, though, make up for it. The endpapers reproduce drafts in Fitzgerald’s neat, round hand of The Bookshop (on school-jotter squared paper) and The Blue Flower (with little drawings of the Schloben-bei-Jena estate). The ends of chapters have Fitzgerald’s vignettes of children, cats, bookshops, coffee pots. And in the chapter about The Blue Flower, there’s a photograph of the book Desmond gave Penelope on that Alpine coach-trip, open, and with a squashed and dried-out gentian on the page.

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