Playing the Seraphine

Frank Kermode

  • The Means of Escape: Stories by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Flamingo, 117 pp, £12.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 00 710030 2

This is a collection of eight stories, the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on until there seemed to be nothing more to say. Her novels are exactly long enough. They accommodate her unique ability to imagine and record all the necessary authenticating detail of her settings: Cambridge before the Great War, Germany in the time of Goethe and Novalis, Pre-Revolutionary Moscow. The achievements of the novelist betoken a wonderfully economical habit, but perhaps the trick is more difficult to bring off in the even more limited space of the short story; and it is true that not all of the tales in this collection have the fineness and fullness of the novels, though some of them have a touch of the same quiet power to astonish.

The oldest of the set was written for an anthology of ghost stories, a genre that had an obvious appeal. Fitzgerald’s Cambridge novel, The Gate of Angels, contains a character closely resembling M.R. James, and ‘The Axe’ is a skilfully composed horror story he would have enjoyed. But it is far from derivative, with much more going on in it than one would at first suppose. Its peculiar virtue is that the narrative is not merely the path to a horrible conclusion but has itself a complex, ironical texture that enriches the wilful ghastliness of the whole exercise. Of all these stories this was the one that most impressed me.

The most ambitious piece is the one from which the collection takes its name. Here the setting is, in true Fitzgerald fashion, mid-19th-century Tasmania. The scene is well enough sketched in to suggest that we might be starting a novel, but the story is brief enough. It concerns a meeting between an escaped convict and a perfectly balanced rector’s daughter, a coup de foudre when, surprised in church by the convict, she discovers a sexual affinity with this semi-literate, stinking poisoner, and makes a plan that is frustrated by the intervention of another woman, a reformed convict, simpler, more urgent, and a more suitable match. The girl is one of those seemly young Fitzgerald females, amenable but tough, not to be put off by a lice-ridden convict mask, but thwarted by a sexual coming together too simple to be imagined by a rector’s daughter.

Incidentally, this rector’s daughter, Miss Godley, plays the seraphine in church. The seraphine, according to the OED, is an ‘instrument of the reed kind’ invented by a Mr John Green in 1833. It is, or was, a kind of harmonium, sometimes called an American organ and, according to the Dictionary, common in ‘Boer houses of the better class’. In Tasmanian houses, too, one is willing to bet. Indeed Fitzgerald, defying the lexicographers, says the instrument was invented by a Mr Ellard, formerly of Dublin, now resident in Hobart. ‘He intended it to suggest the angelic choir.’ As between Green and Ellard, I would take Fitzgerald to be right, even against the testimony of the Dictionary, since she always is. And I am also prepared to believe that the convict’s letter to Alice Godley explaining why he had to jilt her on the occasion of his escape, may be seen, as she says, in the National Library of Tasmania at Hobart.

Another story, called ‘The Red-Haired Girl’, is about a group of poor and talentless young English painters on an expedition to Brittany in 1882, the girl in question being used as a reluctant peasant model. This, though of course furnished with the proper period detail, is one of the thinner tales. Another is about an eccentric old Mahler conductor whose services had to be sought on a remote Scottish island. It has a flaw, to be attributed rather to the proof reader than the author: the old conductor declines to perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, here renamed his ‘English’ Symphony – in the context of this writer’s certainties surely an appalling blunder.

‘The Prescription’ first appeared in this journal in 1982 and concerns rival diagnoses by practitioners of Arab medicine a century or so back, just the kind of anecdote that demanded Fitzgerald’s scrupulous attention, but unlike the bulk of her work easily forgettable. A more substantial story is about childbirth in a remote part of New Zealand, with racing pigeons, it goes without saying expertly described, summoning the distant doctor. And the last, ‘Desideratus’, tells of a 17th-century boy’s quest to find a medal he had lost, at first seeing it buried deep in ice and then, in a great house, finding it in the hand of a (probably) dead boy; here large themes may begin to sound, but we are left to discover for ourselves what they may be.

It doesn’t seem possible to draw, from this handful of examples, any very strong conclusion about Fitzgerald as a writer of stories. What is clear enough is that there is no dissonance between the style of the tales and the style of the novels. More and more emphatically one sees how everything in these works exists between two worlds, one to be accounted for in the dialect of common sense: the middle-aged lady opening a bookshop in East Anglia, the independent yet amenable, life-loving girls to be found in nearly all the books; and the other world, subject to incursions of supernatural evil, in the form of the appalling damp in the offices in ‘The Axe’, the evil stench of the convict in ‘The Means of Escape’, the relatively harmless poltergeist in The Bookshop or the shocking novelty, in The Gate of Angels, of the gate that should not be opened – which it is, at the very time when, just a few blocks away, scientific men are opening up the atom. In this same category one might place the wise children, sometimes doomed: for example, ‘the Bernhard’ in The Blue Flower.

Now that there is this supplementary volume one can see that all the works of Penelope Fitzgerald have something of the same surprising, baffling clarity, and that more than most they will defy commentary yet win admiration from everybody capable of delight that so new and so firm a talent should have come, as it were from nowhere, to refresh our fiction. These tales are minor examples of her gift, but they still confirm the highest valuation of it.