Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

The sensibility of early German Romanticism seems infinitely distant to us now. The very name Novalis, the pseudonym of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), sounds like an astronomical explosion on the edge of some remote galaxy. The symbol of the Blue Flower, which he created in his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, was never successfully transplanted into the English-speaking world. As the epitome of German Romantic longing, it was naturalized most convincingly in a delphic entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks.

If a man could pass through Paradise in a Dream, & have a Flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that Flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye! and what then?

Novalis’s whole life seems something like that dream. A member of the minor German aristocracy in Thuringia, he fell in love with a twelve-year-old girl (like Dante falling for Beatrice or Petrarch for Laura) who died shortly after their engagement, and having written a mass of philosophic and poetic fragments partly inspired by her (notably the “Hymns to the Night,” 1800), he himself died from consumption at the age of twenty-nine. The five volumes of his Letters and Works (edited by Richard Samuel and Paul Kluckhohn, 1988) have never been fully translated,1 and it is characteristic that perhaps the most beautiful version of the “Hymns to the Night,” by the 1890s poet James Thomson, was only issued in a limited edition in 1995.2 His Fragments, some of them collected in Pollen, give a glimpse into a visionary world, strongly influenced by the extreme idealism of Fichte, and the poetic science or Naturphilosophie of Schelling. “Philosophy is really Homesickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” “The Sciences must all be made Poetic.” “Man is metaphor.” “Poetry heals the wounds given by Reason.” “Space spills over into Time, like the Body into the Soul.” “Death is the Romantic principle in our lives.” “The World must be romanticized, only thus will we discover its original meaning.”

When Thomas Carlyle first introduced Novalis to English readers in a famous essay of 1829, he excused him as a “Mystic,” and remarked that though his writings showed wonderful depth and originality, Novalis’s mind was “of a nature or habit so abstruse, and altogether different from any-thing we ourselves have notice or experience of, that to penetrate fairly into its essential character, much more to picture it forth in visual distinct-ness, would be an extremely difficult task….”

The attempt to bring back Novalis—or rather young “Fritz” von Hardenberg—into a world of recognizable human feelings and “visual distinctness,” across that great gap of historical time and sensibility, is the subject of a truly remarkable novel by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald. She puts as her epigraph another of Novalis’s aphorisms: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And she steps back into that lost, transcendental, German world with a scene so striking and utterly surprising that one is enthralled from the outset.

A young friend from the University of Jena has arrived at Weissenfels to visit Fritz and his extensive and rather alarmingly clever family. He plunges headlong into laundry (rather than poetry), having fallen by mistake upon the aristocratic annual Washday.

…Here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows of the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. The underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.

The description in its wit and confidence, its knowledge of eighteenth-century domestic customs, its slight hint of Germanic diction and accent, its evocation of a whole bustling household, and its final suggestion of visionary destinies about to “take flight,” shows a master hand immediately at work. The novel that follows, in fifty-five short chapters, structured almost like some Schubertian song cycle, bears out this promise to an extraordinary degree, in a work of exquisite, crystalline intelligence and angular polish.

How did Penelope Fitzgerald come to this ambitious subject with such formidable confidence? Her career is intriguing. Having taken a First Class Degree at Somerville College, Oxford, she did not begin writing until her sixties. She worked in journalism, the BBC, the Ministry of Food, a bookstore, and a theatrical school. At one point she lived with her husband and family on a Thames barge at Battersea, “which sank.”

All these experiences gave her the material for her early novels, which are short, affectionate, lyrical satires on human folly. Her characters are small, eccentric people within large, conventional institutions, who are marked out by a moral vision of the world often hopelessly at odds with its ordinary, material values. Their stories are told with a dry, elliptical wit and a highly compressed prose style, often running to less than two hundred pages, and having the intensity of moral fables. The bookselling episode emerged as The Bookshop,3 set on the bleak East Anglian coast, peopled with quirky, hostile customers and a comparatively friendly poltergeist. It is really a study in courage. The Thames barge experience produced Offshore, which in turn is really about generosity, and which won the Booker Prize in 1979. Since then her work has won exceptional praise from many of her peers, including Doris Lessing, A.S. Byatt, and Professor Frank Kermode, and in 1996 she was awarded the Heywood Hill Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to literature. In interviews she is unfailingly modest, calling herself “a depressive humorist” and revealing the sadness that belies her lightness of touch. “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”


Something of the source of this vision can be found in a wonderful, anecdotal biography she wrote of her father, Edmund Knox (the celebrated editor of Punch), and his three brothers, including Ronald Knox, the Roman Catholic translator of the Bible. “They were a vicarage family and the vicarages were the intellectual powerhouses of nineteenth century England.” Their taste for literature, for strenuous intellectual endeavor, and for the Edwardian wit of understatement, has evidently remained with her. They had “an inborn melancholy, and natural relish for disaster.” Her father thought that real humor was found “not in ingenuity but incongruity, particularly in relation to the dignified place which man has assigned to himself in the scheme of things.” Much of their genius, she says, “lay in their fondness for quiet understatement. ‘One gets so little practice at this,’ said my father gently when in 1971 he lay dying. I too feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle and economical.”

One story she tells of uncle Dillwyn Knox, a brilliant scholar of ancient Greek texts in the Housman tradition, and also one of the eccentric band of cryptographers who broke the Enigma code at Bletchley during the Second World War, shows her fictional style in the making. Referring to herself in the third person as “the niece,” she recalls how, as “the kindest of visiting uncles,” Dillwyn would faithfully take her out for weekends from her detested boarding school, and as frequently bring her back late after roll call. “Agitated at having brought her back late in the baby Austin, which seemed to spring and bounce along the roads like a fawn, he bravely entered the precincts, blinking in the bright light, confronting the outraged housemistress, who said ‘Rules are made to be kept’ with the answer: ‘But they are only defined by being broken.”‘ Many of her themes—love, loyalty, defiance, unconventional intelligence—are caught in that oddly touching snapshot.

Perhaps responding to changes in her own life, the domestic English focus of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work suddenly began to alter and expand, to breathe more exotic air, in 1986 with the novel Innocence, a slightly baroque and deliciously bizarre picture of postwar Italy. Two years later, she was even deeper into Europe, with The Beginning of Spring (1988), a startlingly effective re-creation of Moscow in 1913. This is a story of the emotional rebirth of a middle-aged Englishman, Frank Reid, who has come to work in Russia. Though brilliantly detailed in historical setting (the snow, the samovars, the Tsarist chaos), it has strong metaphysical undertones, partly drawn from Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It contains a mysterious heroine, the peasant girl Lisa, who in a wonderful passage is identified with the myth of the Russian birch forest carrying the cycles of seasonal regeneration.

As soon as the shining leaf-buds split open the young leaves breathed out an aromatic scent, not so thick as the poplar but wilder and more memorable, the true scent of wild and lonely places…. The leaves, turning from bright olive to a darker green, were agitated and astir even when the wind dropped. They were never strong enough to block out the light completely. The birch forest, unlike the pine forest, always gives a chance of life to whatever grows beneath it.

This is already closer to the European dream of Novalis and his child bride, and it singles out a powerful but hitherto latent Fitzgerald idea about the moral necessity of imagination. One of Frank’s friends, an eccentric poet and accountant called Selwyn (who is a suitably crazed Tolstoyan, and printing a volume entitled “Birch Tree Thoughts”), upbraids him with his failures of imagination, “I mean of picturing the sufferings of others.” The scene hovers characteristically between the lyrical and the tenderly absurd. If the kindly Frank has a fault, “it’s that you don’t grasp the importance of what is beyond sense or reason. And yet that is a world in itself. ‘Where is the stream,’ we cry with tears. But look up, and lo! there is the blue stream flowing gently over our heads.” One might suppose that Selwyn’s strangely haunting quotation, about the blue stream inverted overhead like the flood of distant stars, comes from Tolstoy. It is never identified. But in fact it comes from Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen.


The Blue Flower is so powerful, it seems to me, because it draws on a long and deep accumulation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s most distinctive concerns. What appears so distant is in fact—by a wonderful process of assimilation—already a familiar universe. The ability to recreate the family life of the Hardenbergs (with its strict Moravian religious background) is already foreshadowed in the lost Edwardian world of the young Knoxes in their vicarage. The steady expansion of moral and metaphysical themes—the great questions of love, loyalty, imagination, suffering—arise naturally from the earlier novels. When young Fritz falls in love with the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, the beauty and absurdity of it strikes a perfectly recognizable Fitzgerald note. All great historical fiction, one might suggest, is a form of homesickness.

The picture of Sophie is a marvelous, tender, ironic creation. To Fritz she looks like this: “Sophie was pale, her mouth was pale rose. There was the gentlest possible gradation between the color of the face and the slightly open, soft, fresh, full, pale mouth. It was as if nothing had reached, as yet, its proper color or its full strength—always excepting her dark hair.” But to Fritz’s friend, the painter Hoffmann, she is merely “a decent, good-hearted Saxon girl, potato-fed, with the bloom of thirteen summers, and the coarse glow of thirteen winters.” To Fritz’s beloved younger brother, Erasmus, she is as “empty as a new jug,” and moreover has a slight double chin. When Fritz reads her the opening of his novel, and asks her about the meaning of the Blue Flower, her response is naive. “Why should he care about a flower? He is not a woman, and he is not a gardener.” He concludes, “she doesn’t want to be embarrassed by my love…. She cares more about other people and their feelings than about her own. But she is cold through and through.” Yet in their conversations, Fitzgerald captures again and again what enchants him and makes him love her. When he talks of Schlegel’s theories of the transmigration of souls, she agrees that she would like to be born again—“if I could have fair hair.”

Sophie’s figure is offset by several more mature women who love Fritz, but to whom he remains almost cruelly indifferent. Notable among these is Karoline Just, the niece of his first employer at Tennstedt. (Fitzgerald makes brilliant use of the surprising circumstance that the poet is training as a mining engineer, and is fascinated by science and mathematics.) Fritz writes a poem to Karoline’s eyebrow, but does not return her love. Yet he and Karoline can discuss Romantic philosophy together, and these debates show wonderfully well the formation of that “abstruse” imagination which will transform Fritz into the poet Novalis. (The name, incidentally, was taken from an ancestral estate—like the French poet Gérard de Nerval’s—and refers not to stars, but to something more earthly—“the clearer of new land.”)

Karoline, like the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, regards mining as a violation of Mother Nature, and cannot see how a Romantic poet could condone it. Using passages from Novalis’s letters and his novel (as she does throughout, with extraordinary skill and delicacy), Fitzgerald constructs a wonderful and weirdly poetic reply to Karoline, which catches all the heady, metaphoric alchemy of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

Fritz cried—“No, Justen, you have not understood. The mining industry is not a violation of Nature’s secrets, but a release. You must imagine that in the mines you reach the primal sons of Mother Earth, the age-old life, trapped in the ground beneath your feet. I have seen this process as a meeting with the King of Metals, who waits underground, listening in hope for the first sounds of the pick, while the miner struggles through the hardships to bring him up to the light of day. Release, Justen! What must the King of Metals feel when he turns his face to the sunlight for the first time?”

All this is anchored, or earthed, within a superbly realized picture of social life in late eighteenth-century Thuringia, among the proud but penniless aristocracy, the intellectuals of Jena University, and the greedy bucolic peasantry of the rural communes. Goethe and Schlegel have walk-on parts. There are many striking set pieces—a provincial fair, Fritz’s engagement party, a student duel, a Christmas party with its pagan candle-lit fir tree. “Inside the library the myriad fiery shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the high walls and even across the ceiling. In the warmth the room breathed even more deeply, more resinously, more greenly.”

The descriptions of Germanic feasting are rendered with particular gothic virtuosity, as if to counterbalance the delicate idealism of Fritz’s poetic dreaming. “The servants had already brought in the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbagewater, one of cows’ udders flavored with nutmeg. There was dough mixed with beech nut oil, pickled herrings and goose with treacle sauce….”

In one scene, which prefigures Sophie’s tragic death, Fritz enters a country churchyard at dusk, and sees the mysterious vision of a youth standing above an open grave. This moment of mystic contemplation is rendered with extraordinary assurance and simplicity, as if bringing a Caspar David Friedrich landscape to external life, and then dissolving it back into a wholly interior world, in exact accordance with Romantic doctrines. (The source here is the famous sixteenth Fragment from Novalis’s Pollen.)

It was by now the very late afternoon, pale blue above clear yellow, with the burning clarity of the northern skies, growing more and more transparent, as though to end in revelation….

The creak and thump of the pastor’s cows could still be heard far into the burial ground where the graves and the still empty spaces, cut off from each other now by the mist, had become dark green islands, dark green chambers of mediation….

He said aloud, “The external world is the world of shadows. It throws its shadows into the kingdom of light. How different they will appear when this darkness is gone and the shadow-body has passed away. The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards.”

But in a perfect Fitzgerald peripetaeia, the full tragic irony of this calm pantheistic vision only becomes clear when Sophie’s “shadow-body” is subject to an appallingly physical operation at the hands of the surgeons of Jena, from which she dies an agonizing and lingering death. (Some of the medical details are taken from Fanny d’Arblay’s horrifying and unforgettable account to her sister Esther Burney of her mastectomy operation undertaken in 1811 without anaesthetic.)

This swift and constant play of extremities and “incongruities,” of light and dark, love and misunderstanding, imagination and foolishness, idealism and gross physicality, gives The Blue Flower its distinctive power and narrative conviction. At times it reads like a satire, at others like a folk tale, at others like a pure Romantic lyric. The pungent shifts of tone, and compressions of style, are amazingly assured. As an act of historical re-creation it achieves what Carlyle had thought nearly impossible, and makes Novalis—and the world that produced him—recognizable, memorable, and indeed movingly intimate.

For all its research, it is still of course a fiction. We would not guess, for example, that Fritz’s brother Erasmus would die of consumption just three weeks after Sophie. Nor can we take account of the fact (which so exercised Carlyle) that Friedrich von Hardenberg soon after became engaged to another woman, Julie von Charpentier, the daughter of the Professor of Mathematics at the Mining Academy of Freiberg. (Fitzgerald places this, mischievously perhaps, in a postscript.)

But these are the shortcomings of history, and The Blue Flower leaves us free to meditate on them, and perhaps to try Novalis for ourselves. As it stands, this seems to me the book that Penelope Fitzgerald (now in her eighties) was born to write, and I can think of no better introduction to the rest of her wonderfully accomplished and original work. As Fritz says to Sophie, “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”

This Issue

July 17, 1997