Tara Heinemann/Camera Press/Redux

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1986

Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong. She’d come to Oxford expecting poets and orgies, and had seen few of the one and none of the other. She said she’d taken part in “the first Spelling Bee against America,” in which Oxford had lost by four points to a team from Radcliffe and Harvard, and that she had spoken in the Union “with the result that there were only two votes for my side of the motion.”

This was the wry self-effacement of a star student. Isis readers knew that Penelope herself had shone in the bee, and that her spelling of “daguerreotype” had been “loudly applauded by both teams”; but she wasn’t going to boast about that. She finished her remarks: “I have been reading steadily for seventeen years; when I go down I want to start writing.”

There would be no biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, of course, if she hadn’t done so, and it’s part of the unusual interest of her story that the promised start was deferred by nearly forty years. She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, when she was fifty-eight; her first novel appeared when she was sixty. She was, as she said, “an old writer who had never been a young one.” How different it would have been if, like her close contemporaries Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, she had started publishing fiction in the 1950s, if she’d moved in the shifting currents of influence and allegiance and left her mark on the literary history of those decades. But as it happened she made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody. In America she achieved fame at the age of eighty with The Blue Flower, her finest and most demanding book, and also her last. She died, aged eighty-three, in 2000.

This triumph of late productivity is unavoidably tied to loss, the paradoxical freedoms of bereavement. Edward Burne-Jones was written immediately after her father died. Dedicated to her children, it reaches back into the cultural world of the generation before her own that she had always found so fascinating: it is a passing on of knowledge. Her first novel, The Golden Child, a “joke” as she called it, was written to amuse her gravely ill husband Desmond Fitzgerald, and is dedicated, posthumously, to him.

Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood. And as a widow, she had at last a room of her own. Hermione Lee describes how from 1960 until her husband’s death in 1976, Fitzgerald always slept on a daybed in the sitting room, which was also where she worked. She went to bed last and got up first, the untiring if sometimes desperate motor of a family of three children and a war hero husband who had fallen to pieces on civvy street. She supported her family by teaching and continued to teach, at a posh crammer’s, until she was seventy. But after Desmond’s death she lodged with the family of one or other of her daughters, Tina and Maria, and for a period of seven years in the attic of a friend in Maida Vale, in the unprecedented liberty, and occasional loneliness, of the writer’s life.

At first there was a torrent of writing. Lee reveals that in 1977 Fitzgerald was writing five books at the same time, though three of them were to be abandoned. She produced a novel a year for four years, each drawing on a period of her early and middle life, so that there was a quick retrospective using up of personal material that in a more conventional career might have been worked through at the time. The Bookshop and Offshore found fictional form for a difficult phase in her married life, when she lived first in Southwold on the East Anglian coast, and then in a leaky barge on the Thames. Human Voices went back to her time at the BBC during the war, and At Freddie’s to the period when she taught at a children’s acting school in the early 1960s. Then came her biography of the vividly subjective poet Charlotte Mew, published in 1984, a further exploration of a world she just remembered, the other Bloomsbury, of shabby lodgings, stifled feelings, and Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, which had been a beacon of Fitzgerald’s own childhood.


Thereafter her novels were set in times and/or places she had not herself known, and sometimes involved real historical figures, as in the unforgettable visit to Antonio Gramsci in prison in Innocence. Her pace of production halved as she moved into her seventies, but is no less astonishing in view of the complex research that went into each of these last four novels: Innocence (set in Florence in the mid-1950s), The Beginning of Spring (pre-Revolutionary Russia), The Gate of Angels (1913 Cambridge), and The Blue Flower (late-eighteenth-century Germany). At the same time she came to prominence as an acute and profoundly knowledgeable reviewer and essayist.

At the age of seventy-eight, suffering from an irregular heartbeat, she tried what was clearly a novel experiment for her, “a day’s absolute laziness…. But the laziness makes me feel guilty for that is how I was brought up.” She was a Knox to the end; and proud to be one. Her second book, The Knox Brothers, is a portrait of her father and her three uncles, written with the keen wit, contained feeling, and cultured insiderliness that were to be features of her later novels. Children of an Evangelical bishop, the brothers formed a remarkable quartet (there were also two sisters, barely seen in their niece’s account).

Penelope’s father, Edmund, known as Evoe, was the editor of Punch and a celebrated writer of “civilized” light verse, “able to treat serious things gracefully.” Dillwyn Knox was a textual scholar and a brilliant cryptographer who worked on the Enigma code; Wilfred and Ronald both became priests, one an Anglo-Catholic who took a vow of poverty and devoted himself to prayer and to the poor, the other a Roman Catholic who favored the other end of the social spectrum, but also had a mass readership. He published a new translation of the New Testament, dozens of books on religious subjects, and best-selling detective novels.

All reacted in different ways to their upbringing. Dillwyn was from his student years an unwavering atheist. Evoe married the daughter of another Evangelical bishop. Such an upbringing, Fitzgerald said in old age, was something one “never, never, ever” escaped from. Its high principles and work ethic drove all of them, as they drove her until the end of her life.*

There were things about the code of the Knoxes that she knew she hadn’t said in her book. Members of the family were clever, playful, competitive, morally rigorous, honest—even if “honesty can scarcely…be counted a virtue in them; it was simply that they never felt the need for anything else.” But they were also prone to terrible rages, insufferable superiority, paralyzing silences of disapproval and inhibition. These silences, inscrutable evasions, recur throughout Hermione Lee’s absorbingly interesting biography of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Some are typical of their time and occasion: when Penelope’s brother Rawle returned to England after three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp, he told their father that if he asked him he would talk of his experiences, but “no one in the family ever asked him anything.”

Others seem more pathological. When Penelope’s mother died, her father never spoke of her again, and thus offered no support to the grieving daughter. For Christians (and faith remained central to Penelope’s life) they were oddly hopeless at consolation. When her own daughter lost a ten-month-old child, Penelope “was unable to give Tina any comfort,” though she felt the loss keenly. Penelope herself recalled how when she had had a miscarriage, her stepmother’s father E.H. Shepard (illustrator of The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh) had turned up with a bunch of flowers, but had been unable to say a word.

These were class inhibitions too, no doubt. But Knox esprit de corps could be brutal. When Dillwyn’s son failed to get the top scholarship at Eton, Bishop Knox said he was “appalled.” Rawle too “knew he was a disappointment to his father; he missed his [unspoken-of] mother deeply; his stammer and his reticence had settled in.” It’s saddening to read that in due course Penelope’s son Valpy, a successful economist, became prone in his forties to panic attacks, whose source was found to be “a fear of being seen as a failure in his mother’s eyes.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, writing of Dillwyn Knox, described “the long Knox silences, during which one strained to hear what conceivably might be another remark”; and one could say that brevity, tending to silence, was at the heart of Fitzgerald’s work. It is a slight surprise, but then makes perfect sense, to read of her love of Beckett. At Oxford she had annoyed more laborious students by presenting very succinct essays. “Everyone else wrote at length, but Penelope Knox wrote one paragraph, and that was enough.” Fifty years later she would say, “I deeply believe that ‘less is more.’” Just as her Uncle Wilfred thought no sermon should last more than ten minutes, “I, too, feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle, and economical.”


Many readers have found Fitzgerald an elusive writer—though the elusiveness may be as much a fascination as a barrier. From the life of Burne-Jones on we see her moving confidently within a large field of reference, feeling no need to explain, for instance, who Mazzini was, or Paul Bourget, or where one part of London lies in relation to another. Lineaments of the talk and assumptions of a large cultured family seem to survive onto the page—and may have survived too into her teaching (Lee has spoken to a number of her pupils, who included Anna Wintour, Edward St. Aubyn, and Helena Bonham Carter, and prints extracts from a bored schoolgirl’s diary: “May 4 1965. Morning went to a vague Mrs. Fitzgerald lesson. Onerstly [sic] she’s wasted here, should be doing something better than teaching.”) Yet as the notebooks for her biographies and her later novels show, she had a passion for details, facts, connections.

Hers was very much the art that hides art, and she had besides a horror of explanation. She can introduce characters in the most glancing way, so that it is as if we were put in a room with them, alert for any signal of who they might be. “I try to make everything quite clear,” she said, “but then I think, this is an insult to the reader…I shouldn’t like to have all this explained to me, and so I begin to cut out, whole chapters go.” She bore in mind D.H. Lawrence’s dictum that, in her words, “if you try and nail anything down in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.” “Must I explain this?” she asks herself of Daisy’s religious faith in The Gate of Angels. For the unexplained in Fitzgerald is sometimes the inexplicable, and anyone who reads all her novels will be struck by the recurrence of the uncanny, from the raucously restless poltergeist in The Bookshop to the nocturnal vision in the Russian birch woods in The Beginning of Spring, to the miracle at the close of The Gate of Angels, which is in fact the opening of a never-opened gate. How this happened she will not say, but there is no doubt that she believes it did.

If she hated explanations, she was wary too of conclusions, which are a form of explanation. Her biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, ends with the stark facts of Mew’s suicide in 1928. She drank a bottle of Lysol, a powerful disinfectant. “For a short while she recovered consciousness, and said, ‘Don’t keep me, let me go.’ This was her last attempt to speak to anyone, this side of silence.” There is no summing-up and no looking forward to the longer history of her reputation. It was part of her fascination with Mew that her “sad life…refuses to be quite explained.” The last scene of Innocence is, as Lee says, “superbly inconclusive,” in its Beckettian way:

“What’s to become of us? We can’t go on like this.”

“Yes, we can go on like this,” said Cesare. “We can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.”

The Blue Flower describes events in the early twenties of Fritz von Hardenberg, who went on to become the German visionary poet and novelist Novalis. It ends just before the inevitable death of the tubercular Sophie, his fifteen-year-old beloved. In endings, as elsewhere, there is a danger of sentimentality, which Fitzgerald never countenances—here the novel ends on a broken greeting to his brother Erasmus (“‘I could not stay—’ Fritz told him. ‘Best of brothers—’”) perhaps more moving in its abruptness than a deathbed scene, with all its conventional hazards of accuracy and taste. We realize with astonishment too that Fitzgerald has broken off some years before Fritz’s emergence, after his own early death, as a central figure of European Romanticism. The sense of genius in waiting, which we might say was the deep story of Fitzgerald’s own life, is dramatized with great poignancy and tact.

In her own oblique and lightning-quick way, Fitzgerald pays us the great compliment of trusting our active intelligence in construing and connecting. She is, as Candia McWilliam says in a new introduction to The Blue Flower, “a novelist who elevates her readers through teaching them how to read her.” Throughout this novel, formed of fifty-five short chapters, the keenest emotion is crystallized in brief moments. Every detail requires and rewards the reader’s close attention. In 1995, as now, historical novels laid waste to a lot of trees; Hilary Mantel’s nine-hundred-page French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety, published three years earlier, is a distinguished example of a genre that in lesser hands could reflect an uncontrolled appetite, in writer and reader, for the heaped-up spoils of research.

Fitzgerald’s sure aesthetic instinct is all the other way. Lee shows how protracted and intensive her research into this same period of European revolutionary ferment was, but Fitzgerald’s gift for selection and distillation, always acute, reaches a new, paradoxically generous refinement. Places, families, seasons, relationships are given specificity and life by momentary but telling detail, in which a lifetime’s observation is condensed, and a hundred things she can’t have known vividly imagined. “Every minor character,” as Lee observes, “has a whole life furled inside them, even if only just glimpsed.”

Fitzgerald called The Blue Flower “a novel of sorts,” and it is indeed a new kind of book, astonishingly generated at the very end of a career: a fusion of novel, history, and biography that has something of the overall effect of a poem, a constellation of images and ideas. In doing so it reacts sympathetically to the fragmentary nature of Novalis’s own writings. The blue flower itself is described in his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen; it is something that can be sought after but never found. In it Fitzgerald seems to have found an enduring image for what is most precious and most elusive.

A biography of course allows us to interrogate the elusiveness with which Fitzgerald herself concealed the more painful or shameful truths. About her husband she never said anything except that he was a brave Irish soldier—which he was. Lee describes for the first time what happened to the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. Desmond had been an Oxford contemporary of hers, though they didn’t meet until 1940, when he was reading for the bar, and had enlisted with the Irish Guards. He was handsome, charming, clever, athletic. They were married in 1942, and six months later Desmond’s regiment was sent to North Africa. He won the Military Cross in the Libyan campaign, for “the highest degree of personal courage,” “gallantry,” and “doggedness and tenacity”—all qualities that in the common bewilderment of postwar life he seemed unable to show again. He came home after one and a half years a changed man.

In what is perhaps her first masterpiece, Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, Fitzgerald came as close as she ever did to describing the period in which her married life went wrong. In the novel, Nenna, a young mother in her thirties, is living on a leaky old Thames sailing barge called Grace on Battersea Reach. Her husband has deserted her and their two girls, and Nenna repeatedly defers getting back in touch with him, since she likes to preserve the last frail possibility that they might be reunited. In a nightmarish sequence at the center of the novel she goes onto dry land to visit him, confronts him, and comes away with the inevitable bleak answer; she finds as she flees that she has left behind her purse and her bus ticket, and her journey home is one of nightmarish disorientation and loss.

The impoverished Fitzgeralds had indeed lived on a Thames barge called Grace, and the exploits of the two little girls Tilda and Martha, which are such a captivating element of the novel, prove in Lee’s account to have been modeled very closely on what must have been a rather grimmer reality. Tina and Maria were rarely in school; they scavenged and mudlarked: “For days on end they went unwatched and unsupervised, often cold and on the edge of hungry, but taking this ragamuffin life for granted.” The boat itself was “rough, cold, grim, wet,” “insanitary, bleak and unsafe.” There was a dip in the living-room floor where water collected at every high tide and had to be bailed out. One day Fitzgerald turned up late for teaching and looking more than usually disheveled. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she told her class, “but my house sank.” Grace had gone down with all their possessions, books, and family papers, many of which were never recovered. It was towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.

In Offshore this fate is awarded to another of the boats in the little community of river-dwellers, bobbing between land and water, a collection epitomizing Fitzgerald’s devotion, as a writer, to those who “have been born defeated or even profoundly lost.” Nenna’s loss of purse and ticket seems to sum up the awful collapse of means and prospects that afflicted the Fitzgeralds at this time. In the early 1950s they had lived in some style in the Hampstead of her childhood, and she and Desmond had coedited a remarkable magazine, World Review, where J.D. Salinger’s “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” had made its first British appearance, alongside Malamud, Mailer, and Moravia, and where Penelope herself wrote on a wide range of cultural topics—literature, music, sculpture. Now they were homeless, living for four months in a homeless people’s reception center, then in temporary housing, then for eleven years in a council flat.

Why did it come to this? Desmond’s return to the law had not been successful; he was drinking heavily and spending much time away from home. He was sometimes drunk in court, and remembered by their son Valpy at this time as being “alcoholic and rambling”; one night he returned drunk to the boat, lost his footing, and fell into the river, injuring his head. Then he got into trouble at his barrister’s chambers, forging signatures on checks that he cashed at the pub. He was found out and taken to court himself; nine offenses were listed, and it was asked that seventeen others be taken into consideration: it was a late exposure of a well-established routine. He pleaded guilty and got off with two years’ probation—a light sentence, though the larger cost was that he was disbarred, and his legal career terminated at the age of forty-five.

In the family this professional disgrace was, of course, never mentioned. Desmond’s brother Eamon agreed to pay his debts, but adopted a Knoxian condition: he would never speak to him again. At first Desmond sold encyclopedias door to door, for £10 a month. Then he got a position as a travel agent’s clerk, working in a back office issuing train tickets. This lowly job had its perks—cheap travel, which led to a long sequence of foreign holidays, all over the world, visits that would nourish Penelope’s fiction. She had always had the travel bug—Lee describes, though can’t quite get to the bottom of, an impetuous trip she made to the US and Mexico in 1952, with her six-year-old son, and pregnant with her second daughter. She was insatiably curious but also clearly felt, and on occasion yielded to, the need to escape.

In later life she and Desmond settled into what Lee calls “an affectionate, forbearing companionship.” The protracted crisis must have been hard to bear, but it seems also to go to the heart of Fitzgerald’s concern, when she turned to fiction, with the losers, the unlucky, the hard-up, the “exterminatees,” as she called them, in life’s battle. For a long time it seemed they couldn’t possibly win. The last quarter of her life showed her furious determination to do so.

Lee’s book is a championing critical biography giving richly illuminating consideration to each of Fitzgerald’s undefinable books, and it can be forgiven for its refusal to find any fault with them. I’m not sure if calling her a “great” writer is any more helpful than other epithets one could suggest. Hers is a distinction that seems to make the adjudication of greatness rather beside the point. But it is justly enough the banner under which Lee fights her case against the condescending sexists and agists of yesteryear, as well as those fallible champions who can still describe much of Fitzgerald’s work as “novellas written by an old lady for other old ladies.”

Penelope Fitzgerald, with her clothes “curiously constructed I think out of curtains,” dying her hair with tea bags, and eating blackboard chalk to make up a calcium deficiency, is a very far cry from the plutocratic Edith Wharton, Lee’s previous biographical subject. Yet they share an indefatigable energy, which finds its match in Lee’s tireless curiosity and enthusiasm.

Lee understands the importance of the life of ideas, of intellectual curiosity and imaginative obsession that are as much a part of the novelist’s life as love affairs, parenthood, and moving house. She makes frequent use of the terms “full of” and “link”—her book, for all the problems and penuriousness of its subject, is a study in imaginative abundance and in connections, of body, mind, and spirit. It is, very movingly, a picture of a whole past life, abounding no doubt in secrets Fitzgerald herself would have liked untold, but telling them with a reverence for her subject that is felt on every page.