A Writer's Life

Penelope Fitzgerald didn't start writing until the age of 60, and over the next 20 years she would establish herself as a literary force. Jo Durden-Smith looks back on the writer and her work.

When Penelope Fitzgerald at the age of 81 became the first foreign writer to receive the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1998 with The Blue Flower, a slim novel of 226 pages) she was asked by a reporter from CNN how she intended to celebrate the event. "Well," she answered hesitantly, surprised that anyone would want to know, "today I probably won't do the ironing."

This remark, I thought as I sat opposite her last April in the tiny apartment that she occupied in her daughter and son-in-law's north London home, was vintage Fitzgerald—considered, short, truthful, yet at the same time both self-deprecating and almost hilariously unexpected: Can you imagine how her fellow nominees, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, would have answered the same question? The difference, though, between DeLillo, Roth, and Fitzgerald was that Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child, at the astonishing age of 60. After that—quietly, without fanfare—she wrote another eight.

In each of Fitzgerald's novels, all of which are short, she more and more confidently stripped away what might be called show-off literary behavior. Her books were full of surprising collocations and collisions, silences, things left unsaid; her chapters were sometimes less than a page long. Yet her research was always so painstaking and exact that she could seduce us into taking for granted a totally unfamiliar physical and intellectual world (a Britain without television, Russia before the First World War) by inhabiting it totally and lighting it up—with a carefully chosen detail, a small scrap of dialogue—before moving on, like a director with a tight schedule, to the next scene.

It was as if, in fact, as book followed book, Fitzgerald was able to disembarrass herself (and us) from all the busy complications of life and traditional narrative methods. Her idiosyncratic humor and knowing, merciful eye—her ability to be both inside and outside her characters—remained firmly in place, having been established in The Golden Child, a tale about a young museum official and an exhibition of fakes at an institution not unlike The British Museum. But her style over the years became as deliberate and spare as the room that she worked and slept in: a bookcase stacked high with books, some chairs, a single bed, and an old typewriter on a table that looked out over a basketball hoop in the garden. There was something modest and at the same time priestesslike both about this place andher work of the past decade, I thought as she talked over a cup of tea about her admiration for those who were able to write at greater length—"Just think of the application!" And I was suddenly reminded of something that Sir Walter Scott (an author of long and weighty work if ever there was one) once wrote in his diary about Jane Austen: "[She] has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me."

Three weeks after I saw her, Penelope Fitzgerald died. She had recently finished putting together her first book of short stories. The collection, entitled The Means of Escape, was published last month by Houghton Mifflin.

Before ringing the bell at the side entrance of the gaunt Highgate house (which once belonged to the playwright Arnold Wesker), I'd prepared myself to meet Fitzgerald in two different ways. First, I'd reread as many of her early books as I could lay my hands on, including the two biographies she published before writing The Golden Child (initially as a private entertainment for her terminally ill husband, Desmond). Her first biography was of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, whose stained glass in what is now Birmingham Cathedral she had admired as a child. The second, The Knox Brothers (recently reissued by Counterpoint), chronicled the lives of her father, Edmund Valpy Knox, and his three brothers. They were an immensely gifted foursome who between them, as one critic has pointed out, took up most of the sides in the early-20th-century battle between religion and scientific rationalism. (Two became famous High Churchmen, one Catholic, one Anglo-Catholic, while the other two turned their backs on Anglicanism, the faith that they'd been brought up in: One would become a celebrated Greek scholar and cryptographer; the other, Fitzgerald's father, was the editor of that very secular British institution, Punch magazine.)

I'd also read some profiles of Fitzgerald—of which there were remarkably few. But I'd learned enough from them, by the time she greeted me at the door of what the British call a "granny flat," to know that she had a delicate but decided aversion to talking about her life before she became a full-time writer. It was as if she believed that it was already out there, accessible, publicly contained in her early autobiographical novels—she had gone through it, confronted it, taken what was useful or meaningful from it, and now there was simply nothing more to add—about the menial positions she had held, for example, as a gofer in BBC radio (Human Voices), as an assistant in a rural bookstore (The Bookshop), and as a teacher of English literature in a London academy for young actors (the hilarious and tragic At Freddie's).

As for the rest of her preauthorial life, it was by all accounts—including her own, when forced—both difficult and poor. Her husband, who had been a major in the Irish Guards when they met, had had—like Edward in Offshore (her third novel, which in 1979 won the British Booker Prize)—no talent for success in the postwar world; and like Offshore's Nenna, Martha, and Tilda, she and her three children were reduced to living on an old barge that she rented on the Thames. It sank in 1963 (as one—or perhaps two—of the boats do in the book); she was moved to public housing; and it was another 14 years before she finally discovered her true gift as a writer of fiction. Some nine years after that—after taking time out to write a biography of the exquisite but little-known English poet Charlotte Mew, who poisoned herself in 1928—she launched herself in a brand-new direction. "Most writers," she told me slowly when I inquired about her new path, "draw on their own work experience, and I was no exception. Well, I had run out of that—or of the things I wanted to write about in it. So I had to look elsewhere." The result was Innocence—a book set in Florence in the 1950s—followed by three others placed in quite different but totally achieved milieux: pre-Revolutionary Moscow in The Beginning of Spring, early-Georgian London and Cambridge in The Gate of Angels, and, most astonishingly, what is now eastern Germany during the early Napoleonic period in The Blue Flower.

We began by talking about The Blue Flower, since that was the book that first brought her to large numbers of American readers—and because it is a clear demonstration of the spell Fitzgerald still casts over those who come to her work for the first time. The Blue Flower was originally printed in a paperback edition of no more than 8,000 copies. But within two years, due to word of mouth, uniformly excellent reviews and the Critics Circle Award, it sold more than 100,000. The end result is that all of Fitzgerald's novels are currently in print in the United States—"Yes, well, thanks to Houghton Mifflin," said Fitzgerald. "Before then I'd been through heaps of American publishers, all of them eccentric—I don't know what they lived on. But after Houghton Mifflin, everything changed. I'm very surprised," she added, throwing her hands wide and shrugging her shoulders, "but there you are."

The Blue Flower tells the true story of how the Romantic philosopher-poet Friedrich "Fritz" von Hardenberg—later better known as Novalis—fell in love with a young girl described by his brother in the novel as "not beautiful . . . not even pretty. I say again that this Sophie is empty-headed, moreover, at twelve years old she has a double chin." Sophie, though—whom Fritz calls his Philosophy, his Guardian Spirit—dies of tuberculosis before she is old enough to marry him; and it's not long before Fritz and several of his siblings, as we are told in a terse and intensely moving final chapter, succumb to the same disease. Even the youngest member of Fritz's family, "the Bernhard"—one of many magical children in Fitzgerald's novels—dies by drowning in the same river from which he has been rescued in an early scene. "I think the Bernhard may well have committed suicide," Fitzgerald said laconically.

Now this tiny, dour fragment of literary history might seem unpromising material for a late-20th-century novel. But in Fitzgerald's hands it achieved an intensity and a total believability that make it one of the most astonishing tours de force in modern fiction. The title of the book was taken from an unfinished story of Fritz's, in which a young man becomes obsessed by a traveler's tale of a mysterious blue flower. As the novel unfolds—almost as a film does, in a series of brilliantly illuminated "shots"—the blue flower (as Fritz and others contemplate its meaning) appears and disappears, along with what feels like a huge cast of characters, each with his or her own concerns and visions and hoped-for futures. There are accidents and misunderstandings along the way. (Laughter is always at the elbow in Fitzgerald's novels.) But there are also scenes of great pathos, and even horror—as when Fritz matter-of-factly stuffs into his mouth the two severed fingers of a student-duelist (to keep them warm), or when we learn, just after Sophie has been introduced to Fritz's family for the first time at their engagement party, that by now she has lost all her hair.

I asked Fitzgerald how she could have come to the idea for the novel. "Well," she said, sitting upright in her chair, "before I ever knew Novalis' story, I was interested in the blue poppy. I wanted to trace its history, and I saw one up in Cumbria. It's extremely difficult to grow, you know; and even then, after about the third year, it goes to pieces—it changes color."

At this, I myself sat up. For the Chinese blue poppy, rare in the West, dies as soon as it flowers. Only if raised very carefully and slowly can it be persuaded to flower more than once. And then I remembered something I'd read: that the oddly named Annie Asra in Fitzgerald's Human Voices—a BBC gofer who's in love with the foolishly innocent head of her department—has the same name as the Asra, a tribe of slaves in a poem of Heinrich Heine's "who die when they love." Love, flower, death. The connection between these three, reaching back over nearly 20 years of Fitzgerald's work, seemed to hint at the source of the sorrow which—along with laughter, comedy, even farce—permeated so much of what she wrote: the way in which her characters so often fail to recognize one another, and so miss or are thwarted of love and the neatness of happiness.

"Anyway," she went on, "my brother was working as a correspondent in Bonn, and we went to this wonderful church there, where Novalis' hymns are still sung. By that time, I think, I did know his story of the blue flower. But I became very attracted to him because he belonged to perhaps the last period in which people believed that one person could know everything. In a sense he did know everything; he studied everything; he believed there was a pattern."

A pattern is what I was after too, of course: in my case, a pattern knitting Fitzgerald's books to her life. So I offered the idea that The Blue Flower's Novalis—for all his blithe visions of the world spirit and the coming of a second Golden Age—was in many ways another of those destructively naive men who seemed to inhabit her work. He's heartbreakingly unaware, for instance, of the fact that he is loved by another woman, and oblivious to the affectionate mockery with which he is treated by his prospective sister-in-law. "Your women," I said, "seem in general to have a built-in ability to cope—for better or worse they live in the present. But your men have the sort of muddled decency that dogs have."

She laughed. "But I like that sort of man, the sort who wants to be left in peace, who wants to escape from heavy emotional situations," she said. "In the old days, men smoked pipes. Finding the pipe, filling it, cleaning it—the whole paraphernalia—could be used to escape from such situations. Now, of course, they've been induced to give up. Women are much more capable. Otherwise, I think, things would go worse than the faltering way in which they do."

"And children?" I persisted. I mentioned the knowing, gifted children in her books: the Bernhard in The Blue Flower, the child actors Mattie and Jonathan in At Freddie's, and, above all, perhaps, Martha and her sister Tilda in Offshore. (Fitzgerald wrote of Martha: "The crucial moment when children realize that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha.") "Are they recollections," I asked, "of your own children as they were growing up?"

"Well, I like having children in the books," she answered. "They provide different standards, an acute sense of justice that they've been taught by their parents and then apply back again." And then, after a rather lengthy pause, she added quietly, glancing upwards, as if to no one in particular: "I ama novelist, you know. You shouldn't read fiction for truth."

It was the gentlest possible rebuke, but unequivocal: She wouldn't, except in the vaguest way, talk about the connection between her books and her family, her life. It seemed, in fact, that she had a moral distaste for talking—or even writing—about the living at all. She said of a biography of her friend L.P. Hartley (the author of The Go-Between), which she had started to write but then shelved: "I simply stopped doing it. There were things. . . Well, I simply never got clear enough permission to go on from Leslie's surviving sister. Did she know about these things? Did she pretend? I don't know. But I think that if you give pain to the living, then you shouldn't continue with it—you don't have to write a book, after all, do you?" She refused, by the same token, to discuss what she was then working on, as if that too were in some sense living.

So, as the shadows in the garden lengthened and our tea grew cold, we talked about her fictional dead: Maurice in Offshore and the brilliant child-waif actor Jonathan, who at the end of At Freddie's, abandoned in a locked yard, practices his death fall as Prince Arthur for a production of King John, "climbing and jumping, again and again and again into the darkness." It's clear, but not explicit, that this final scene must end in death; Jonathan may be based (once more Fitzgerald was inexplicit) on "the only pupil I had as a teacher who made it—as a pop star: He burned down his house and died inside." As for Maurice, the male prostitute who in an odd way stands at the moral center of Offshore, his houseboat breaks free from its moorings in a storm and starts floating out to sea (with both Maurice and Nenna's ineffectual husband, Edward, on board); it is as if Maurice, in an unlikely apotheosis, were finally setting sail toward the paradise that has eluded him on earth. The real Maurice did indeed commit suicide, she said."He went down to Brighton and walked into the sea. He couldn't swim. I always wondered after that why he didn't drown himself in the Thames, but I was told by someone that he'd behaved perfectly—he didn't want to involve his neighbors. He had beautiful suits, I remember, beautifully hung up." Then, as so often, she paused and looked down at her hands, the white nimbus of her hair contradicted by the flickering, watchful intelligence of her gray eyes. "I don't know," she said finally, "he was just a tragedy of the boats, I suppose."

Perhaps there are no great revelations here. But then show-up-and-get-them revelations could hardly have been expected from a woman who for more than two decades doggedly went her own way, offering nothing by way of explanation beyond her extraordinary books. (She no longer went, she remarked, to literary gatherings or festivals: "Anita Brookner showed me that you don't need to. She never has." Nor did she ever read her own, rare interviews—"They're either true or false, and if they're true, well, they're off-putting. I can't explain it. But it's a mug's game.") Besides, Fitzgerald was the product of a generation that was historically leery of introspection, of talk of personal feelings, or the self. Living in a world without television (and, for a long while, radio), it was engaged in the world, dutiful and truly well-read. "People," she said, speaking of her father and uncles and their contemporaries, though she might have been describing herself, "were cleverer then. Now, women like Virginia Woolf and Rose Macaulay are thought of as being very clever, but there were heaps of people as clever as they."

Before I left, we discussed for a while what she needed to have before she could start writing. "A title, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph," she answered promptly. "I'm afraid I don't write according to the right specifications," she added with a slight laugh. "The majority of writers say there's a point when their characters take over, and for me that's the moment to stop. They have no business doing that. I never allow my characters to get away from me, gain their own life." And what did she find difficult? "Dialogue with more than two people," she said. "And endings, happy endings—any endings at all—I find it very hard to produce. On TV," she added, "they don't bother with endings much; the credits just roll."

About the shortness of her novels, their distilled concentration, she said: "I don't want to be insulting to the reader, so I tend to cut what I write. I get a lot of complaints about it. I suppose a lot of people borrow books from the library, and they want something fatter, better value for their money—they don't want to go back to the library too often. Perhaps too much gets left out sometimes," she added, slightly wistfully. "There's silence in the work, and it does require some application from the reader. Sometimes I find a whole chapter that can go—though Kipling threw out a chapter of Kim, which is most vexatious for the reader. We need that extra chapter."

Only once, as I gathered my notes together, did she let her guard slip, when I asked her the question every stranger must have asked her: Why did she begin writing so late in life? She looked down at her hands and said in a quiet voice: "I would have liked to have been a writer, but it was a long time ago." Then she looked across at me and said almost challengingly: "I was a scholarship girl, and it was very hard work." (She was awarded a merit scholarship to Oxford University the same year her mother died. Without it, her father would not have been able to send her there.) "And I was all too aware that it could be taken away," she continued. "It was very much a hint in the air, and I didn't want that; I worked for my scholarship. I have three grandchildren here in this house, and I sense that there's no pressure on them as there was for us, or indeed on children at university in general. My nine grandchildren simply don't have to work in the same way; they get to a particular place without thinking." And then, once more, she looked down at her hands and said slowly: "I didn't know what happiness consisted of, perhaps."

Did she mean that it was only after her children had grown up and her husband had died—when all the complications of poverty and having to work for her place in the world (as at Oxford) were behind her—that she finally understood "what happiness consisted of"? That only then could she come to terms with the wayward passions and disappointments of the past and transmute their tragedies (in a crucible filled with irony) into the comedies that they were simultaneously? I don't know. But I remembered, as we were saying goodbye, her description of one of her older characters, Maddalena, from Innocence: "Her memory worked for her without the inconvenience of regret." And as I made my way down the hill I recalled another scene, one in which Offshore's Nenna, who inhabits a barge at Chelsea Reach with her children, as Fitzgerald did, is interrogated by a fellow boat-dweller, a man called Richard who doesn't realize that he is in love with her:

" 'Let's say that matters hadn't gone quite right with you, I mean personal matters, would you be able to find words to say exactly what was wrong?'

'I'm afraid so, yes I would.'

'That might be useful, of course.'

'Like manufacturers' instructions. In case of failure, try words.' "

The last piece of Fitzgerald's writing I have been able to find since she died is a review of Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein, with the title "When I Am Old and Gay and Full of Sleep." In it Fitzgerald had written: "Old age, on the whole, is not a time to be recommended, but very old novelists are allowed to write about what they like. . . . If they have things left to do, that will be a way of keeping themselves alive." She had recently finished putting together her first book of short stories; perhaps she had no more things left to do. (Maybe that explains why she declined to speak about what she was working on.) It's possible, though, that this extraordinarily wise and gifted woman may have left behind her one final manuscript. One can only selfishly hope, with the passionate anticipation familiar to those who know her work, that she did.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about Art Nouveau in the September 2000 issue of Departures.