Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee

16/11/13, New Statesman

The word that immediately occurs to one when thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald’s four last novels – Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower (1995) – is ‘miraculous’. There is nothing quite like them in English literature: in fact, they are not really English novels at all, except in their language. They are inexhaustible with their meanings, mysterious and oblique, even baffling, in their craft, beauty and effect, and every reader who has come to them has asked, at one time or the other, a variant of the question, ‘How is it done?’ In this first ever biography of Fitzgerald, which comes 13 years after her death, Hermione Lee, pointedly using the (made up) words of Novalis in The Blue Flower as her epigraph (‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’), has set out to attempt some answers to that question. The result is a luminous masterpiece of life-writing.

Penelope Knox was born in 1916 into a family of extremely gifted and renowned high-achievers, on both the paternal (Knox) and the maternal (Hicks) side. It is unsurprising that her first book, published when she was 60, was a group biography of her father, Edmund ‘Evoe’ Knox, and his brothers, Dilwyn, Wilfred and Ronald. Penelope inherited not only the Knoxes’ extraordinary intelligence but also other typically Knoxian traits: obstinacy, distrust of wealth and pomposity, inability to share or express emotions, a certain stripe of neurosis and reserve. After Oxford, she worked for the BBC for most of the 1940s, an experience that was going to go, after thirty years, into her fourth novel, Human Voices.

She married Desmond Fitzgerald in 1942 and the couple ran the internationalist high literary magazine, World Review, from 1950 to 1953, when it folded. It is from this time that one can date the beginning of the Fitzgeralds’ years of adversity. The family – they had three children by now, Valpy, Tina and Maria – moved from Hampstead to Southwold in 1957. Desmond began to drink heavily and his career in the law petered out. They had no money and they moved again, in 1960, back to London, to live offshore in a barge, Grace, moored on Chelsea Reach. She began working as an English tutor in crammers; this was to be her job and main source of income for many years. Things got unimaginably worse – Desmond was discovered stealing from his Chambers and was disbarred; Penelope never spoke to anyone about this chapter in her life. Six months after this, Grace sank, taking with her most of the Fitzgeralds’ possessions. For the next 18 months they lived in a series of squalid homeless centres and temporary housing until the very end of 1964, when they moved into council housing in Clapham; this was to be their home for eleven years. These pages on her poverty are unsentimental, clear-eyed and heartbreaking.

She was never to become a home-owner: after Desmond’s death in 1976 she lived, variously, with her daughters’ families and in a rented attic-room in St John’s Wood. The books started coming, one after another: two biographies; five novels, written from the material of her own life, stored up for so long; then those four late novels, touched by the sublime, from the mid-eighties. From 1988 until her death she lived in the coach-house adjoining the house of Maria and her husband, John Lake, in Highgate.

It may appear, at first glance, that the biographer’s ordinary cradle-to-grave chronology provides the spine of this Life but look closely and you’ll see that the armature is a preternaturally finely tuned literary criticism. I read the ‘finding’ in the epigraph as Fitzgerald’s books, the ‘searching’ as uncovering what it was in her life that gave rise to them. It’s a Life of great and harmonious intellectual unity, its metaphorical structure bringing to mind what Benjamin saw in Klee’s angel: a creature blown backwards into the future while its gaze is fixed on the past. This artfully looping backward-and-forward investigation into how Fitzgerald’s inner life up to the 1980s can account for and be predictive of the late work gives the Life its magnificent internal coherence. It is easy to find correspondences between her life and the first five novels – Lee does this with extraordinary sympathy yet rigour – but the later fiction resists this (auto)biographical mapping, calling for a different kind of illumination. Accordingly, Lee traces Fitzgerald’s reading, her intellectual and emotional affinities, producing a superbly cogent account of Fitzgerald’s famous research, so compressed and buried within the work that the worlds the books bring forth feel entire and lived and utterly truthful. And the sustained pursuit of Fitzgerald’s central interest in failure and losers – ‘exterminatees’, as she called them – gives the biography its great empathetic resonance.

The two-and-a-half-page ‘Preface’ alone is a wealth of such condensed, almost epigrammatic, thoughts that several could be pulled out into monographs. She writes, ‘Her life is partly a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style.’ Those last two words proudly insert both Lee’s biography and her subject’s work into the Adorno-Beethoven-Mann-Said conversation. A book is waiting to be written on how Fitzgerald’s oeuvre dents Adorno and Said’s meditations on the subject and presents an altogether different shape. There’s no getting away from it – Fitzgerald was a genius.

And then there’s the gleam of those gem-like details: Fitzgerald’s compulsive cheating at games, even with her little grandchildren; the lunchtime sausage roll warming on the radiator in one of the crammers where she taught, filling the classroom with its smell; cutting down her clothes to make Valpy’s dungarees; dyeing her hair with tea-bags … Here is the heart of the meaning of life-writing: to bring the dead back to life.

‘Magisterial’ can be a forbidding word; it can imply distance, loftiness, even perhaps a touch of arrogance. But Lee’s magisterial work is inseparable from warmth, intimacy, humaneness, and love for the subject of her biography and the sui generis work Fitzgerald left behind.