Fitzgerald, Penelope (Vol. 143)
Penelope Fitzgerald 1916-2000
English novelist and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Fitzgerald's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19, 51, and 61.
Fitzgerald was a traditional English novelist of manners with an understated style. Her novels are carefully plotted, written in spare, witty prose, delineating interactions and subtle tensions among groups of characters who work together or reside in a small community. She utilized varied settings of time and place, vividly evoking period detail as well as peculiar issues and customs. Her diverse, eccentric characters are often forced to cope with sudden conflicts in their lives and relationships. Although her career began late in life, Fitzgerald's style has garnered her critical praise, awards, and a loyal readership.
Fitzgerald was born in 1916 in Lincoln, England. She was raised in a notable family: one uncle was a cryptographer and two others were eminent Roman Catholic priests. Her father moved the family to London when he became the editor of the magazine Punch. Fitzgerald received a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied literature with such notables as J. R. R. Tolkien. She graduated in 1938 and took a wartime job with the Ministry of Food. In 1939 she began working at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a time which she later recounted in her novel Human Voices (1980). More of Fitzgerald's past experiences made their way into her literature, such as her work as a clerk in a bookshop (The Bookshop ) and the time that she, her husband, and their three children could only afford to live on a barge docked on the Thames (Offshore ). Fitzgerald's writing career started late in her life. She published her first book when she was fifty-nine and her first novel when she was sixty-one. When Fitzgerald's husband became ill with cancer in the 1970s, she made her first foray into fiction with a mystery novel she wrote to entertain him during his illness. Her husband died in the early 1970s. Fitzgerald was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize with The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990) and won the Booker prize for fiction with Offshore in 1979 and The Blue Flower (1995) in 1995. She also received the National Book Critics' Circle Award for The Blue Flower in 1997. Fitzgerald died on April 28, 2000.
Early in her career, Fitzgerald wrote several biographies, including The Knox Brothers (1977) about her famous uncles and her father. Fitzgerald's first novel, The Golden Child (1977), is a mystery set in an art museum where a prized exhibit is discovered to be a forgery, a well-known explorer is murdered, and human foibles and deception (resulting from struggles for power and authority) among museum staff members are exposed. In Offshore, Fitzgerald drew upon personal experience to detail the camaraderie and conflicts among members of a community of houseboat dwellers on the Thames River. Fitzgerald also wrote about her personal experience in Human Voices, which revolves around activities at the BBC during the 1940 Nazi air offensive against England. The novel examines the importance of truth in public communications. It also deals with private relationships, as it depicts the BBC staff members as individuals who must provide moral uplift to their beleaguered listeners. Fitzgerald's concern for a sense of place and its effect on character are important elements in her next two novels, Innocence (1986) and The Beginning of Spring. Innocence, which is set in Florence, Italy, chronicles the lives of the Ridolfis, a decaying aristocratic family, and the Rossis, a working-class family. Through the courtship and marriage of Chiari Ridolfi and Salvatore Rossi, Fitzgerald examines various themes relating to innocence and the influence of family history, as she develops allegorical implications through allusions to fables and legends. The Beginning of Spring is set in an English community in Moscow during the early twentieth century. While describing customs and period detail to recreate the social atmosphere prior to the Russian Revolution, Fitzgerald focuses upon the confusion and unhappiness experienced by an Englishman abruptly abandoned by his wife. Typical of Fitzgerald's fiction, The Beginning of Spring is a comedy of manners with an ambiguous conclusion, as a small group of characters experience conflict, tensions, and change while reacting to unexpected and perplexing events. In The Gate of Angels, Fitzgerald tackles the insular world of the university, intersecting the lives of a bachelor professor and an independent working-class woman who raised herself out of poverty to become a nurse. In The Blue Flower, Fitzgerald combines imagination and biography in her fictionalization of the life of German poet Fritz von Hardenberg, recreating the world of eighteenth-century Germany and the love affair Fritz had with the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn.
Fitzgerald has earned a fine reputation in her native England, being compared to such writers as Martin Amis and Evelyn Waugh. While not well known in America, Fitzgerald developed a small but loyal following among readers and notable critics alike. Her work is often described as “spare,” and reviewers note her ability to pack rich detail into concise novels. Julian Gitzen commented, “Fitzgerald's gift for pinpointing or encapsulating character or situation in a few apt and incisive phrases constitutes one of her most engaging methods of achieving both intensity and compression.” Critics also appreciate her ability to evoke the essence of a time and place with what appears to be firsthand memory, rather than a recitation of historical research. Reviewers often cite her use of precise and convincing detail as one of the author's unique gifts. Many reviewers have additionally praised Fitzgerald's light comic touch. Richard Eder asserted, “Far from being bland, [Fitzgerald] is almost sentence by sentence, thrilling and funny and, I have come to believe, the finest British writer alive.” Some critics complained of Fitzgerald's use of characterization, often arguing that she presents too many characters to fully develop them. Others have found her style too understated for American audiences. Philip Hensher summarized, “Fitzgerald has been widely and justifiably praised for the excellence, discretion and solidity of her historical imagination, which brings unlikely periods of history to life with unarguable, strange rightness.”
Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography (biography) 1975
The Golden Child (novel) 1977; U.S. publication, 1977
The Knox Brothers (biography) 1977; U.S. publication, 1977
The Bookshop (novel) 1978; U.S. publication, 1997
Offshore (novel) 1979; U.S. publication, 1987
Human Voices (novel) 1980; U.S. publication, 1999
At Freddie's (novel) 1982; U.S. publication, 1985
Innocence (novel) 1986; U.S. publication, 1998
The Beginning of Spring (novel) 1988; U.S. publication, 1989
The Gate of Angels (novel) 1990; U.S. publication, 1992
The Blue Flower (novel) 1996; U.S. publication, 1997
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SOURCE: “Two Bicycles, One Spirit,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1992, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder praises Fitzgerald’s deft use of details to evoke a sense of possibilities in her Gate of Angels.]
High wind and drenching rain lash the flat fenlands [in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels]. Branches blow down; leaves tangle in the horns of grazing cows; partly blinded, they stumble. “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.”
Along the road, a covey of Cambridge University dons on heavy iron bicycles—it is 1912—struggles against the wind, black gowns flapping. Nature may be in an uproar, but each academic teeters forward in his own abstraction and at his own rate of speed. When one pedals ahead or drops behind, it is not his legs but a burst of speculation or a mental impasse that is responsible.
Fred Fairly overtakes a Lecturer in the Physiology of the Senses who lags because he is trying to recall whether it is cows that can’t get up once they fall over. A moment later, the Lecturer surges past. It’s sheep, he whoops. “The relief of it!” Fred whoops back.
Fred, who lectures in physics, is the hero of Penelope Fitzgerald’s powerfully bewitching new novel. He is also the...
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SOURCE: “A Still, Small Voice: The Novels of Penelope Fitzgerald,” in New Criterion, Vol. 10, No. 7, March, 1992, pp. 33–42.
[In the following essay, Bawer traces the distinctive characteristics of Fitzgerald’s fiction and asserts that these features are most prominent in The Gate of Angels.]
Among the many symptoms of the American literary scene’s current infirmity is that stateside publishers have been slow to take on, and readers on these shores slow to discover, the English novelist of manners Penelope Fitzgerald. Though British critics have justly compared her to such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Barbara Pym, and Anita Brookner—all of whom have long enjoyed sizable readerships here—and though back home she has received one Booker Prize and been nominated for three others, two of her eight novels have yet to appear in U.S. editions and her name is nowhere near as well-known hereabouts as that of Pym or Brookner.1 Why is this so? The answer is not simply that Fitzgerald, now in her seventy-fifth year, is decidedly English in setting and sensibility (so, after all, are Pym and Brookner); nor is it merely a matter of her novels’ temperate tone and modesty of scale. (To read through the reviews of her books is to find, time and again, such words and phrases as “slight,” “delicate,” “unpretentious,” “economy and understatement,” “an impression of...
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SOURCE: “Tradition and Some Individual Talents,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 488–89.
[In the following excerpt, Pritchard lauds Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels as a “delightful entertainment.”]
For some reason I’ve failed to read Penelope Fitzgerald, thus know her only by the latest The Gate of Angels. It is a delightful entertainment, set in 1912 in a mythical Cambridge college, St. Angelicus, where Fred Fairly is a junior fellow, and in London, where Daisy Saunders is a nurse at Blackfriars Hospital. The novel charts their meeting, separation, and coming together again; but its real interest is the offbeat sensibility of Penelope Fitzgerald who ranks right up there with the eccentric English fictionists of this century. The time period is perfect Ivy Compton-Burnett; the dialogue sometimes sounds straight out of Evelyn Waugh, as when Fred visits his family at the Rectory (by train to Blow Halt with a stop at Bishop’s Leaze), is greeted by two dogs named Sandford and Merton, and embraced by his little sister Julia:
“Is there anything to eat?” Fred asked.
“There’s some rook pie and sago pudding left over for tonight. They’re very nasty, but you remember that we’re poor and have to eat nasty things.”
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SOURCE: “Death and the Maiden,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4824, September 15, 1995, p. 20.
[In the following review, Annan discusses the amount of detail Fitzgerald manages to put into The Blue Flower.]
The German Romantics were drunk with ideas, and Novalis was the drunkest. He is the hero or anti-hero of this biographical novel. He died in 1801, aged twenty-eight, leaving a few beautiful religious poems which many Germans know by heart because they read like hymns and are sung in church. His mystical poems can be as bizarre and embarrassing as anything written in the seventeenth century; one of them imagines a kind of Eucharist in which the sea turns into heavenly blood and the rocks into delicate palpitating flesh and the universe embraces and eats itself up in a voracious orgy of love. Those who partake of the feast, the poem concludes, appreciate the food. Novalis’s love lyrics and occasional poems are conventional, but his mystical-philosophical essays and fragments made a great impression on his own and later generations. His unreadable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen is about a medieval knight who dreams of a blue flower and sets out to seek it. He doesn’t find it, for one thing because the novel is unfinished. But that in itself is symbolic, and the blue flower became and remains the symbol of the Romantic movement.
Novalis’s real name was Friedrich von...
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SOURCE: “Seen and Unseen,” in Observer, September 17, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review, Ratcliffe complains that while Fitzgerald has provided a well-drawn setting and several memorable characters, she has not given all of her heart to The Blue Flower.]
Penelope Fitzgerald has long mastered the high comedy of optimistic free spirits being forced to fight the unscrupulous to prove they are really free. In her earlier novels, battle was joined on native institutional soil—the British Museum, the BBC, a children’s acting school. More recently, the campaign switched to Tuscany and Russia and, most rewarding of all, to the early twentieth century which continues to inform our lives: Moscow (The Beginning of Spring, 1988) and Cambridge (The Gate of Angels, 1991) on the eve of the First World War. These are probably her best books: they are positive and inspiring.
The Blue Flower—no less ambitious but rather more detached—takes place 200 years ago at another moment when the world was picking up speed. In the so-called Golden Hollow of Saxony and Thuringia, as the French Revolution and Napoleon thunder distantly, poets sniff the air of the woods and fields for the enriching presence of coal, copper, silver or lignite. Heartland of the German classical and Romantic movements—Goethe, Herder and Jean-Paul are in Weimar; Schiller, Fichte, Novalis and the...
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SOURCE: “The Professor and the Flower,” in Spectator, Vol. 275, No. 8724, September 23, 1995, p. 38.
[In the following review, Gardam praises Fitzgerald’s ability to draw a convincing setting and set of characters in The Blue Flower.]
‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history’ is the epigraph by Fritz von Hardenberg of this biographical tale about his love affair with his muse and passion, 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn. Whether by history he means ‘History’ or ‘Biography’, or simply ‘life’, The Blue Flower is not only a beautiful book but a beautiful example to use in debate about whether biography is fiction or fiction biography run wild.
Von Hardenberg was born in 1772 and died at 29. He was contemporary with Goethe and Schiller, who make brief appearances in the story, but his distinction came after the book ends in the last burning years of his life when he began to call himself ‘Novalis’. Novalis became ‘a great romantic poet and philosopher’ who nevertheless ‘wished that he was dead’. This book is based on papers, diaries, letters and public and private documents that were finally published only in 1988. ‘The Blue Flower’ is the name Hardenberg gave to one of his early folk-tales written as a student about a chosen spirit who was sent out upon a quest he did not understand but yearned to fulfil. It still haunted him on his...
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SOURCE: “Dark Fates,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 19, October 5, 1995, p. 7.
[In the following review, Kermode asserts that Fitzgerald’s skillful use of detail in The Blue Flower convincingly renders the historical moment.]
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is a historical novel based on the life of the poet, aphorist, novelist, Friedrich von Hardenberg, a Saxon nobleman who wrote under the name of Novalis and lived from 1772 to 1801. He figures largely in all accounts of the German literature of the time, and Georg Lukács is not much more extravagant than other critics in calling him the only Romantic poet. He spoke of the need to romanticise the world by the action of intellect and imagination; in this novel he parodies his teacher Fichte, crying: ‘Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!’ He also dwelt on self-annihilation, and in his last years made a cult of death.
In this country his reception has been less than tumultuous. Carlyle, liking the idea of self-annihilation, and also finding in him a sympathetic tendency to worship heroes, thought it his duty as a Germanist to introduce Novalis to British readers, and wrote an essay about him in 1829, treating him as a mystic and comparing him with Coleridge. This is held to have been a mistake, to be explained...
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SOURCE: A review of The Blue Flower, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 13, 1997, p. 5.
[In the following review, Eder describes the mosaic quality of Fitzgerald’s writing in The Blue Flower.]
It is not certain that God makes a distinction between Beethoven’s writing the Waldstein sonata and a parent’s folding the baby’s diapers. Not because there is no difference but because God, if I can interpret, may reason that a certain equipment (genius) went to Beethoven and that a certain equipment (a washing machine) went to the parent and that each made full and perfect use of each.
Further, it is always possible that the clean diapers will wrap some infant Beethoven of the future, who otherwise would perish from an infected rash, or that the parent was lifted out of suicidal tedium by hearing the Waldstein on FM radio.
This may sound pious and bland, but it is an attempt to get at the elusive quality of Penelope Fitzgerald, an author who is in no way pious, though in some sense religious. Far from being bland, she is, almost sentence by sentence, thrilling and funny and, I have come to believe, the finest British writer alive.
Deceptively small in size, The Blue Flower is a fictional evocation of the Romantic movement that revolutionized Europe’s sensibility at the beginning of the 19th century and of the contrast between the...
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SOURCE: “Petals on the Wind,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 14, June, 1997, pp. 3, 13.
[In the following review, Dirda recounts the virtues of Fitzgerald’s Blue Flower.]
Penelope Fitzgerald brought out her first novel in 1977, when she was past 60; in the two decades since then her books have appeared regularly every other year or so; three titles—The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988) and The Gate of Angels (1990)—made the shortlist for Britain’s distinguished Booker Prize, and Offshore (1979) took home the award. Many readers felt that at least one of her other books, Innocence (1986), was as good as or even better than these four. When The Blue Flower came out in England in 1995 it was chosen as “the book of the year” more often than any other by a score of distinguished writers and reviewers. In fact, Fitzgerald’s public admirers range from novelist A. S. Byatt (“How does she do it?”) to the eminent scholar Frank Kermode. On these shores Richard Eder, book critic of the Los Angeles Times, has called her “the best English writer who is at present at the prime of her power.” That phrase may be a little awkward, but there’s no mistaking the enthusiasm.
So why, one cannot help but wonder, is The Blue Flower appearing here as a paperback?
Doubtless our American...
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SOURCE: “Paradise in a Dream,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 44, No. 12, July 17, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, Holmes traces the course of Fitzgerald’s career that eventually led her to write The Blue Flower.]
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...
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SOURCE: “Elements of Compression in the Novels of Penelope Fitzgerald,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XXVI, October, 1997, pp. 1–14.
[In the following essay, Gitzen studies Fitzgerald’s use of compression in her novels, tracing common features including a short time span, a restriction of plot, and a minimum number of prominent characters.]
Despite more than a decade of lavish critical praise, the fiction of Penelope Fitzgerald has as yet been the subject of little if any sustained commentary or analysis. This neglect is all the more difficult to understand in light of the award to one of her novels, Offshore (1979) of the Booker Prize and the shortlisting for the same prize of three others, The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990). As a useful beginning, critical attention might focus upon the methods adopted by Fitzgerald to achieve that remarkable compression which constitutes the most distinctive feature of her narratives. The Blue Flower (1995), her longest novel to date, occupies 226 pages, while the average length of her volumes is 160 pages. The author wittily describes herself as a writer of “microchip novels,” and the critic Valentine Cunningham has adopted the term nouvelle in acknowledgement of both the intensity and the brevity of Fitzgerald’s best work.1
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SOURCE: “Love in the Time of Tuberculosis,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 1, October, 1997, p. 6.
[In the following review, Herzog asserts that the spareness of Fitzgerald’s style and her ability to capture setting in The Blue Flower create a powerful effect on the reader.]
The late eighteenth century is fascinating not least because it was the era of the American and French Revolutions as well as the birth of modern notions of democracy. It was also the age when the modern ideas about heterosexual romance that still move, suffocate, inspire and torment women and men to this day were first fully elaborated and worked out. As Penelope Fitzgerald’s absorbing novel The Blue Flower makes clear, there were then—as now—winners in the game of hetero-love, people whose lives seemed effortlessly to fit the cultural ideal. There were also casualties.
Based on the early life of Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, who later became prominent as the Romantic poet Novalis, The Blue Flower is about a few of those casualties. Its organizing mystery centers on why Fritz would suddenly plunge into head-over-heels infatuation with a young girl of twelve, Sophie von Kühn, whom he has only met for fifteen minutes, but has already asked to marry him.
Fritz, in his early twenties, son of an aristocratic (but not wealthy), pious Protestant...
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SOURCE: “Looking Backward,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 245–46.
[In the following excerpt, Flower states that The Bookshop is “clearly one of [Fitzgerald’s] best.”]
Another backward glance must be made at the amazing career of Penelope Fitzgerald, who has published nine superb novels in England since 1977, when she was sixty-one. Although Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979 and three other works of hers were short-listed for it, Fitzgerald’s novels are hard to find in this country, except for The Blue Flower (1996) and The Bookshop (1978),1 both recently reissued in paperback. The Bookshop is Fitzgerald’s second novel, and clearly one of her best. Its protagonist, kindhearted Florence Green, attempts to run a bookshop in her soggy little East-Anglian village. But Hardborough discovers, in its provincial wisdom, that it does not want a bookshop, neither one that sells new fiction like Lolita (the date is 1959) or one that sells Every Man His Own Mechanic. Florence has spent ten years in this place, after her husband’s death, trying to survive, “wanting to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” But everyone in the community cooperates, most of them without guile or intention, to defeat her purposes. Her clear intelligence, practicality, and...
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SOURCE: A review of The Blue Flower, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1998, p. 371.
[In the following review, Knapp delineates the positive and negative features of Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.]
Penelope Fitzgerald’s ninth novel The Blue Flower, sets out to retell the tale of Friedrich von Hardenberg and Sophie von Kuhn, one of literary history’s most poignant love stories. The effort is timely, since the book was published on the two-hundredth anniversary of the couple’s first meeting.
Hardenberg, who assumed the pen name “Novalis” after Sophie’s death, was a member of an aristocratic family in Saxony. He studied philosophy with Fichte in Jena and left behind, in his brief creative years before an untimely death at age twenty-nine, a work that defines the philosophical and literary heights of German romanticism. In his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen he created the symbolic “blue flower,” the essence of romantic longing that goes beyond all limits of time and space: “I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the Blue Flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else.”
Fitzgerald’s depiction of Hardenberg is historically accurate. His love for Sophie, who is all of twelve years old when they meet, is instantaneous and unshakable. He gradually persuades her, then the...
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SOURCE: “The Sweet Smell of Success,” in Spectator, April 11, 1998, pp. 33–4.
[In the following review, Hensher argues that Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower finally solidifies the author’s reputation.]
A little national pride has been restored, in the aftermath of the much-lamented failure of any Briton to win anything much at the Oscars, by the triumph of a short English novel in gaining the most prestigious of American literary prizes. Penelope Fitzgerald’s ninth novel, The Blue Flower, beat the widely fancied chances of three enormous and ambitious American novels to walk off with the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Well, the captains and the kings depart; prizes are more quickly forgotten even than the members of the Critics’ Circle; and what, in the end, will be left will be this great novel, a masterpiece.
Fitzgerald has been widely and justifiably praised for the excellence, discretion and solidity of her historical imagination, which brings unlikely periods of history to life with unarguable, strange rightness. We know exactly from The Beginning of Spring the wattage of lightbulbs permitted in Moscow in 1911 (25 watts); we learn from The Blue Flower that livestock were forbidden to cross the bridge at Weissenfels in the 1790s. Perhaps even more impressively, she has a marvellous sense of what was regarded in a particular time and...
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SOURCE: “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Voice amidst the Blitz,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 20, May 17, 1999, p. 51.
[In the following review, Charters provides a brief overview of Fitzgerald’s life and career and how the author’s experience working at the BBC during World War II provided the basis for Human Voices.]
On June 14, 1940, four days after the fall of Paris to Hitler, the British public learned of the successful escape to London of General Georges Pinard, writes Penelope Fitzgerald in Human Voices, a novel about her job as an assistant at the wartime BBC. Pinard, “a romantic, a Dreyfusard, and a devotee of the airplane,” was famous as the commander of the last counterattack against the German advance. When he offered to give a radio address, the BBC quickly accepted. Once behind the microphone, however, Pinard urged the British to surrender, thundering, “ne vous faites pas aucune illusion, you have lost your war.” But even as the show’s producer frantically rang the Prime Minister for advice, he learned that the station was not broadcasting. Acting on a hunch, the Director of Programme Planning had quietly censored the speech before it even began.
Such close scrapes (Pinard is a fictitious character, but the anecdote is based on a real event) were routine in those turbulent years at the BBC, an employer Fitzgerald describes as “a cross between a...
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SOURCE: “The Fact Artist,” in New Republic, Vol. 221, No. 4,411, August 2, 1999, pp. 39–42.
[In the following review, Raban lauds Fitzgerald’s ability to write as if from first-hand memory instead of historical research, especially in her Human Voices.]
If Penelope Fitzgerald has ever fossicked in the stacks of the London Library in order to research the background for her novels, there is no trace of her labors in the books themselves. She always writes as if from first-hand memory. She cannot actually have lived in Germany in 1792, in Cambridge in 1912, in Moscow in 1913. Born in 1916, Fitzgerald still appears too young to have acquired the abundant, cosmopolitan knowledge of the world that irradiates her best work. She may well have been in Florence in 1955, and she probably worked for the BBC in 1940; but whether she is treating the recent past or the distant past, in England or elsewhere, she seems able to recollect it, effortlessly, with all the random, off-center details that memory alone can usually supply.
It is instructive to see what she admires in other writers. In the current issue of the new British quarterly Books and Company. Fitzgerald is to be found singing the praises of The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett:
In a few pages Jewett establishes forever the substantial reality of Dunnett’s...
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SOURCE: “A Listener’s Guide,” in Commonweal, September 10, 1999, p. 32.
[In the following review, Wheeler states that the central paradox of Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is between human truth and the lies of war.]
The trouble with memory “is that it develops its own defenses, against truth telling and in consequence against history”—so writes the eighty-three-year-old Penelope Fitzgerald, an adult witness to the Battle of Britain, in reviewing a recent book on London during the Blitz. Fitzgerald faced these problems, truth telling and memory’s defenses, as a novelist in Human Voices, published almost twenty years ago in Britain and issued in the United States this spring for the first time. The novel, set in the BBC’s Broadcasting House, attempts to record the truth of human voices against the lies of war, those “consolations” by which government radio hides or distorts what is happening. In the process, the book cannot but also raise the paradoxical relationship between fact and fiction: how can fiction be true? So heavy a philosophic weight might seem too much for so brief a work to bear, but its extraordinary style turns the tension in the paradox into a genuine aesthetic pleasure—even if the paradox itself goes unresolved.
But first, who is Penelope Fitzgerald and why is her twenty-year-old novel being reprinted? Much honored in Britain (Booker...
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Annan, Gabriele. “Letting Go.” New York Review of Books 46, No. 10 (10 June 1999): 28.
Praises Fitzgerald's comic voice in her Human Voices.
Dee, Jonathon. “The Reanimators.” Harper's 298, No. 1789 (June 1999): 76.
Lauds Fitzgerald's light touch in The Blue Flower.
Duguid, Lindsay. “In Faery Lands Forlorn.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4988 (6 November 1998): 10.
Discusses a resurgence of interest in the work of Edward Burne-Jones, including Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of the artist.
King, Nina. “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” Washington Post Book World 22, No. 8 (23 February 1992): 1.
King praises Fitzgerald for her ability to infuse so many ideas in such a brief novel while maintaining the novel's leisurely pace in The Gate of Angels.
Leivick, Laura. “Love and the Poet.” Wall Street Journal 99, No. 68 (8 April 1997): A20.
Discusses Fitzgerald's recreation of eighteenth-century Germany and the birth of the Romantic movement in The Blue Flower.
Additional coverage of Fitzgerald's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series,...
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