Taken with Daisy

Peter Campbell

  • The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Collins, 168 pp, £12.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 00 223527 7

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.

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