Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career late in life, but left a trail of letters six decades long. Peter Terzian considers the personality illuminated.
A little bit of writing
So I Have Thought Of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald Edited by Terence Dooley Fourth Estate Dh180
"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," Penelope Fitzgerald once wrote to an editor. She wrote three of the former, including one of her father, an editor of Punch magazine, and his three brilliant brothers. But it was for her slender, diamond-sharp novels - including Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, and The Blue Flower, which won an American National Book Critics Circle award in 1997 - that she was acclaimed as one of the greatest British writers of the late 20th century.
Fitzgerald's "sadly mistaken" characters try, with little success, to get a purchase on life. In The Bookshop, a well-intentioned widow opens the title establishment in a provincial coastal town, only to be steamrollered by the greedy machinations of powerful locals. In The Blue Flower, a historical novel based on the life of the 18th century German poet Novalis, the visionary hero finds inspiration in a plain, giddy twelve-year-old girl, who soon succumbs to tuberculosis. Offshore ends as two characters, "whom in the end nobody particularly wants", as Fitzgerald told Frank Kermode, are swept out to sea. "It seems to me," she continued, "that not to be wanted is a positive condition." The only way that tragedy could be borne, she believed, was through comedy. Her novels are funny, but you laugh while your heart sinks.
If Fitzgerald's fiction is populated by underdogs, it may be because she was something of an underdog herself. Her career began late, after a strenuous period of marriage and child rearing. We don't know, from So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, which collects her correspondence for the first time, whether writing was an aspiration long thwarted or something that she decided to try her hand at once her children had grown. From her earliest books, though, she was in full command of her writing voice - omniscient, compassionate, a little rueful - and her fiction betrays a lifetime of wisdom and desperation. The reading public was slow to catch on to her work, and her importance wasn't widely acknowledged until her final years and after her death in 2000 at the age of 83.
"One of the troubles about collecting letters is that before the writer becomes famous no one is likely to keep them," she once wrote in a book review. It is likely to be especially troublesome when the writer doesn't even begin publishing books until age 60. Very few of the letters Fitzgerald wrote in her youth survive, and there is only a smattering from her middle age. The majority are business, research and bread-and-butter correspondence from her later years as a novelist and biographer. Perhaps because of the chronological unevenness, the book's editor, Fitzgerald's son-in-law Terence Dooley, has organised the letters, somewhat unconventionally, by recipient. The reader has to piece the chronology together; the same events pop up in different tellings many pages apart.
Fitzgerald was as economical a correspondent as she was a novelist, and most of her letters are shorter than a page. But her wit, modesty and grace are in evidence throughout. If the letters do little to explain the creative alchemy that went into her fiction, they do, as Dooley explains in a thorough, sensitive introduction, give "a rounded picture of what she was really like, a sense of the passage of her days". And, until a biography appears, they shade in periods of her life that have previously only been documented in outline.
There is a brief, tantalising glimpse of the young Fitzgerald in a series of messages written to her friend Hugh Lee (he is "Ham," she is "Mops"). She is in her early twenties, living in London as the war begins, stealing time from her office jobs at Punch and at the Ministry of Food. The letters are forcedly blithe; reports of bombings and the whereabouts of scattered friends are mixed in with sparkling chatter about jam-making and "a new type of doughnut". "It's necessary to talk about serious things," she writes, "but also quite impossible."
The next batch of letters, to Fitzgerald's daughters Christina and Maria, begins 23 years later, in the mid-1960s. Over that great gap of time, Penelope had married Desmond Fitzgerald, a fellow Oxford graduate and a soldier in the Irish Guards. Their marriage was sometimes thorny; Desmond, writes Dooley, "found it difficult to adapt to civilian life". They had three children, some literary success - they co-edited a journal during the 1950s - and a good deal of financial misfortune. At one point, the family moved onto a converted barge docked on the Thames, which sank twice, drowning all of their possessions, including letters exchanged between the young Penelope and Desmond. (The barge years became the subject of Offshore.) They moved to Clapham; one letter from this period is datelined "Squalid Council Estate" - a far cry from the "Georgian world" of Hampstead that Fitzgerald had grown up in, of "muffin men, autumn leaves, Peter Pan at Christmas".
The letters she wrote to her daughters when they left home for study abroad, summer jobs and Oxford are full of affection, worry and advice, and they report news of errands, housecleaning, "the Sales" and Cliff Richard losing the Eurovision song contest. Meanwhile, she began "my Little Bit of Writing" - her first book was a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones - while holding down two teaching jobs. Despair over the family's grinding poverty pipes out like steam from a kettle: "The flat is filthy, and all Daddy's clothes in rags!" She economises by dyeing her hair with tea-bags, "like Death in Venice". Desmond hovers in the background, a grumpy, comical figure - "Poor Daddy couldn't manage the paint-spray" - who is sometimes jobless and, she hints, a drinker. Despite their troubles, he was supportive of her research and writing. He died in 1976, just as Fitzgerald's first books were being published. "The truth is I was spoilt," she wrote to her lifelong friend Maryllis Conder, "as with all our ups and downs Desmond always thought everything I did was right."
The first half of the book, letters to friends and family, is wrenching to read, capturing an intelligent but frustrated budding writer at her lowest ebb. The second half, letters to editors, fellow biographers and fellow novelists, traces her belated rise to literary and financial success. A reader would be forgiven, however, for thinking that Fitzgerald was primarily a biographer with a sideline in fiction. "I've had to take to writing novels at the moment to finance trips to Texas where all the world's mss [manuscripts] seem to be gradually collecting!" she writes to biographer Mary Lago. Many of the letters here relate to Fitzgerald's research for an aborted life of novelist LP Hartley and her unsuccessful attempts to interest publishers - who "continue to say that they would prefer a novel" - in a history of London's Poetry Bookshop, which attracted a circle that included Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Edward Thomas and Charlotte Mew. (She eventually converted the Poetry Bookshop project into a biography of Mew.) Perhaps it was easier, at this point, to hide her talents behind the talents of others.
Soon, however, biography and fiction merged. After four novels drawn from personal experience - The Bookshop (1978), based on a period living in an oyster warehouse in Suffolk; Offshore (1979); Human Voices (1980), set at the BBC, where she worked during the war; and At Freddie's (1982), about a theatrical school similar to one where she had taught English - Fitzgerald began to set her fiction in other places and times. Her next four books carried her downtrodden characters to 1950s Florence in Innocence (1986); to pre-Revolutionary Russia in The Beginning of Spring (1988); to turn-of-the-century Cambridge in The Gate of Angels (1990); and to Romantic-era Germany in The Blue Flower (1995), her greatest critical and commercial success. But little of the study that must have gone into the writing of these books is reflected in Fitzgerald's letters. The few words she offers her correspondents on her novels and novel writing will likely have prospective fiction writers gnashing their teeth. She wrote The Bookshop in "rather a few weeks". Anyone can write a single-consciousness novel, she writes to an editor, "if they can find a pen and a bit of paper". Her tendency toward self-effacement - "My whole life is spent in apologising to someone or other, I'm afraid" - may have been a mask for her ambition and persistence. She must have been aware of, and fiercely protective of, the mysterious source of her creativity.
Fitzgerald's letters are never malicious or gossipy. Still, it's a pleasure to read her privately expressed opinions. Born into a clerical family, she was as intolerant of bad behaviour or impoliteness - "the dread Malcolm Bradbury seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands" - as she was impatient with bad books: "Trying to conceal an absolute conviction that Salman Rushdie's new novel is a load of codswallop." She is generous with praise, of people ("Sybille Bedford a tower of strength") and writing ("Ishiguro yes!").
In her last decade, Fitzgerald lived comfortably in a converted carriage house attached to Maria's home in suburban Highgate, surrounded by the grandchildren she treasured. The letters from this period form a harrowing portrait of physical ageing; Fitzgerald suffered from heart problems, back pain, arthritis, asthma and memory loss. "Expeditions to the shops getting rather painful and I always drop some money and feel people are laughing at me," she wrote to Christina. It's not clear that she had another novel to write after The Blue Flower, the book in which she had perfected her art. But her grim view of human nature - of a world divided into, as she described it in The Bookshop, "exterminators and exterminates, with the former, at any given moment, predominating" - and her dogged faith in human courage never left her. "Baby Alfie," she wrote of one of her grandchildren, in a letter to a friend, is "wreathed in smiles at the sight of anything resembling another human being -
"Little does he know!" Peter Terzian has written about books for Bookforum, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.