(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Afterlife is a collection of essays and reviews by Penelope Fitzgerald published after her death in 2000. The essays are usually short, many being only a page or so, and deal primarily with novels and novelists. Fitzgerald was a novelist who began her career at the age of sixty with the publication of The Golden Child in 1977, although she was a reviewer and contributor of essays to a number of important journals for most of her adult life. The Afterlife was edited by Terrence Dooley, Fitzgerald’s son-in-law and literary executor. The editor has chosen the essays, indexed the work, and provided an editor’s note. In the essays, the place and date of first publication is not provided, so the reader is forced to refer back to the editor’s note for this information, often to find that the date of publication is not included. In addition, the classification of the essays into groups is very loose and sometimes misleading.

The first large group, called “Master Spirits,” includes not only essays on Jane Austen, William Blake, and George Eliot but also one on the nineteenth century novelist Margaret Oliphant and others on a number of minor figures. “Emma’s Fancy” is an introduction to Austen’s Emma (1815) for the Oxford World Classics series. The essay is primarily an analysis of Emma’s character, and it guides the reader toward a deeper understanding of the themes and contexts of the novel. For example, Fitzgerald notes that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was Emma’s contemporary and that she shared some of his pride at defying the world. Fitzgerald also comments that Emma’s recognition that she has been guilty of a “sin of thought” comes directly from the “Evangelical examination of conscience.” The essay is very brief (Fitzgerald is an economical writer), but it contains more perceptive readings than many full studies of the book.

The essay on Blake was first published in The New York Times Book Review as a review of Peter Ackroyd’s 1995 biography of Blake. Fitzgerald touches on a few important episodes of Blake’s life to give the reader a sense of the visionary poet. She praises Ackroyd for his treatment of his subject, especially the way he resists turning the poet into a “primitive Marxist.” Fitzgerald had little sympathy for hypermodern literary criticism.

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge essay is a review of the biography of the poet by Richard Holmes, and it was published in The New York Times Book Review. Fitzgerald shows how the biography deals with the last part of Coleridge’s life, which was very bleak. The poet was old, ill, and addicted to opium for much of this time. Publication of his great poems was behind him. He did writeBiographia Literaria (1817) during this period, but it was a hurried job and resulted in the infamous plagiarism of a number of German philosophers. Holmes focuses on Coleridge’s poverty and problems, but Fitzgerald comments that Coleridge still managed to find patrons among a number of people. She wryly wonders if readers in the twentieth century would have been as kind.

There are two essays on Eliot. The first is an introduction to Middlemarch (1871-1872) that was published in a Folio edition of the novel. The second is a review of the biography of Eliot by Frederick R. Karl, and it appeared in The Observer. In the introduction, Fitzgerald comments on Eliot’s technique in the novel and traces the development of Dorothea’s character. Fitzgerald is a little impatient with Karl’s plodding presentation of Eliot’s life, and she adds a few critical comments of her own. She quotes Frank Kermode on how Eliot’s novels are either “given” or “calculated.”Middlemarch is “calculated” in its design, while Silas Marner (1861) is directly “given.”

The essay on Oliphant is the longest one in the book, and it is an expert analysis of the setting and themes in the novels of one of the most popular novelists of the nineteenth century. In her analysis of “The Rector,” Fitzgerald observes that the garden functions as an Edenic setting. Those who are admitted—and are allowed to stay—are in a Victorian Eden, while those who are sent away, because they are too poor or not socially adept, are sent east of Eden.

There is an interesting conflict in Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate (1864) when Frank Wentworth becomes influenced by the Oxford movement and wants more ritual in church. This conflicts...

(The entire section is 1844 words.)