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…
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