Penelope Fitzgerald ought to be to the novel of the next two hundred years what Jane Austen was to the last two hundred. Her irony is better, her observations sharper and she writes with the wisdom of age and misery not youth and precocity. Having initially squandered her gifts and then suffered hard luck she was able to choose more ambiguous moral stories then she might have done if she’d flourished earlier on.
Her moral vision was enhanced because she was an underdog. Her husband was an alcoholic who lost his career. They lived on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She had to move into a small council estate flat and teach undergraduate entry to Oxbridge. She was, briefly, homeless. Her old-world snobbery and upper middle class upbringing were less than useless to her in these conditions.
Her unworldliness was extensive. Her children said she didn’t know what a mortgage was. This was part of the reason for her deep imagination. Her research for The Blue Flower (US link) involved reading the eighteenth century records for German salt mines, untranslated. There were hundreds and hundreds of pages.
And she was old fashioned. Her novels are timeless not just because of her astonishing ability to find and choose and place details, but because she was writing about things that were not always specific to her time.
Her politics were old-fashioned liberal, without the feminism of many women of her generation, and this gave her a perspective on history that isn’t possible for people who are too much of the here-and-now. The Gate of Angels is a classic boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy find girl story, a genre which she thought was ‘very important’.
As well as adults, she writes accurately about children, which means she has a range of characters most authors can’t match. Many men are bad at writing women characters, but she was excellent at writing men. The Beginning of Spring (US link) is primarily written from the view of a middle aged man whose wife has left him.
She was not narrow minded or limited about aesthetics, her knowledge of German, Russian, French and Italian and her deep learning in European culture show that. But nor was she a modernist, a Bloomsburyite or an experimentalist.
The ultimate argument in favour of modernism is that it produces the better work. When Philip Larkin put together his anthology of twentieth century British poetry he intended to make a new alternative to the break with tradition the modernists had brought in. But when it came to it, he admitted, there simply wasn’t anything like as much good work as he’d thought or hoped among the Georgians.
Penelope Fitzgerald shows us how the tradition carried on. She is not cheesy or twee; she has no silly ornate phrases or comfy clichés. She writes about broad European themes and culture, with a knowledge base to compete with Ezra Pound and a turn of phrase to put up against T.S.Eliot. She has a moral theory of life and applies it to her novels. She is also a social realist and a comic writer; she uses traditional narrative structures and doesn’t mess around with perspectives. She took the languid genre of historical fiction and made it into a pinnacle of literature. She smacks of George Eliot.
She was also an accomplished biographer, writing studies of the Knox brothers and the overlooked poet Charlotte Mew. She said, ‘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.’
Perhaps the way in which she was most out of step with her times is her religious sympathies. But that gave her a view of life that is long-term, fundamental and against the trend. No wonder she was able to write about the everyday mysteries we all experience so well.
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
This is the opening from The Gate of Angels and gives us so much of what she is good at. ‘They were still munching’!
In Offshore Nena and her husband are so emotionally separate, despite living in a boat, that whether he is there or not seems to make little difference to the state of their marriage. Fitzgerald tells us, ‘All distances are the same to those who don’t meet.’ What a simple sentence that is cruel and funny and true and sad and sensible and advice and tragedy.
She remains underrated.