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)...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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Fitzgerald, Penelope (Vol. 19)
Fitzgerald, Penelope 1916–
An English novelist and biographer, Fitzgerald deftly develops characters and situations in a compressed, economical style. The authenticity of Offshore, which won the 1979 Booker prize, derives from her actual experiences as a former member of the Thames houseboating community; similarly, her wartime involvement with the BBC inspired Human Voices. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
Penelope Fitzgerald's first novel [The Golden Child] is a small, benign thriller set in a London museum. It has an amiable, mostly baffled hero, who worries about his mortgage and his absentee wife, and an assortment of absurdities, excesses and enthusiasms which variously constitute and congeal into characters. There are traces throughout The Golden Child of a mildly sinister comedy about 'the pride and bitter jealousy which is the poetry of museum-keeping', where pointed references to the availability of conservation poisons, plaster-grinders and large incinerators spice the gloom of ancient inter-Departmental rivalries and enliven the damply cheerful crowds of visitors. Unfortunately, this aspect is under heavy siege from an over-inflated plot…. It brings in its wake a trail of recognisable grotesques, yet the book would have been neater and more credible with fewer obvious snipes and sparkier with fewer weighty intrigues.
Susannah Clapp, "Suburbanity," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2429, October 7, 1977, p. 483.
Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop is on any reckoning a marvellously piercing fiction. It is (of course) about a woman's resilience under stress. And the duress Florence Green is put under when she opens a bookshop in an islanded Suffolk seaside place is all the more harrowing because of its neighbourly, gossipy ordinariness, its roots in the well-intentioned but rival cultural aspirations of the genteel Mrs Gamart, the General's wife. What happens is sharply localized.
[There] are the small circumstances that give rise naturally to a Hardy-like gothic, complete with a rapping poltergeist, and to a fiction where character inevitably comes to "characters". And Penelope Fitzgerald's resources of odd people are impressively rich.
Further, and more seriously still, The Bookshop—fiercely, rousingly moral—analyses the operations of power. Mrs Gamart wants Florence's Old House bookshop for an Arts Centre and, frustrated, hectors and schemes until by dint of solicitors and connections and relations in government she finally winkles Florence out. There is a hostile class element in this—Mrs Gamart exploits the county network she's part of—but it's not simplistically analysed….
Above all, the story's refusal of sentiment will not let Florence off unblameable. She is a fighter, and her own belligerence draws Mrs Gamart's fire. More, Florence's innocence about Lolita, sales of which put her shop on the map and fuel local angers and envies, is made sharply unnerving. For tapping the powers of literature so naively—she has not read the book, does not know what she is selling, and too lightly quotes the old Everyman slogan about a good book being precious life blood, and so on—begins to look almost as dangerous as Mrs Gamart's wiles or Milo's supineness…. And though Florence's defeat leaves Mrs Gamart victorious in the field, her retirement to London broke, homeless, carless, bookshopless, has the kind of grimly ironic aptness for which this fetchingly orchestrated, indeed this "beautiful and blest nouvelle", has not left us entirely unprepared.
Valentine Cunningham, "Suffocating Suffolk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3998, November 17, 1978, p. 1333.
[In The Bookshop] Penelope Fitzgerald paints the bleak East Anglian coast in a verbal equivalent of the watercolours which a local artist tries to persuade Florence to exhibit in her shop. Against this background she draws some splendidly English eccentrics of all ages, from 11-year-old Christine, who helps in the shop after school, to the oldest inhabitant, Mr Brundish, who dies in the attempt to defend Florence's rights. There is also a poltergeist or 'rapper', but its antics do not much influence events…. The author has a wry humour and an easy, economical style, but the book peters out rather disappointingly; it is not unlike its protagonist, 'small, wispy and wiry'. (p. 690)
John Mellors, "War Wounds" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 100, No. 2587, November 23, 1978, pp. 689-90.∗
Like 'The Bookshop,' 'Offshore' deals with an odd environment, felt as both isolated and ephemeral, and located in place and time very precisely and effectively.
'The Bookshop' caught the tone (and the politics) of a 1950s Suffolk village with marvellous acuteness; 'Offshore' treats an even more idiosyncratic community of Battersea Reach houseboat-owners in the early 60s….
The novel evokes with beautiful stylish restraint the whole quality of living moored on the Thames, without degenerating into fictionalised documentary. It is particularly good at the alien relations of river to city. When the characters make excursions on shore, a Conradian distaste is felt for the shoddy, sinister materialism of land life. This isn't allowed to harden into a rigid opposition, but it does produce some splendid bursts of satire … and, carefully anchored to the quiet tone of the whole, some attractive lyric moments….
Individually, the boat-owner's are engaging…. The two 'river children,' girls of six and twelve, cunningly self-reliant and worldly-wise, are especially well done, with nothing predictable about their dialogue.
When their mother tries to woo back her husband, or falls for the masterful Richard, the novel loses some of its crisp originality. Penelope Fitzgerald is not as interested in marriages, love or quarrels as in people existing on their own, in relation to things and places. But that in itself is an admirable preoccupation, and makes for a distinctively lucid and expressive novel.
Hermione Lee, "Down by the Thames," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9810, September 2, 1979, p. 37.∗
Set in a houseboat community on Battersea reach in the 1960s, Offshore is full of richly eccentric characters who are terrifically English: a terrifically English estate agent trying to sell a leaking barge, a terrifically English layabout, a terrifically English male prostitute, and, so on. For them there is simply nothing like messing about in houseboats. But it's not all mudlarks and Whistler nocturnes down on the waterfront; behind the brass-bound portholes holds are leaking and hearts are breaking…. Ms Fitzgerald has a wayward touch with metaphors. Do boat-dwellers really go around saying 'I won't go down without a struggle'? And she has a distracting didactic streak…. Some of the scenes in Offshore are as affecting as they are intended to be, but there are rather too many characters in the book and not enough people. It was Ronald Knox, the subject of an admirable biography by Ms Fitzgerald, who wrote 'biographies should be made about people you love, novels about those you dislike'. Ms Fitzgerald seems to be too fond of her people for them to come fully to life in her novel.
John Ryle, "New Music," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2529, September 7, 1979, p. 349.∗
[Penelope Fitzgerald] writes fluent poetic prose; yet [Offshore] leaves an impression of sharpness and shortness. Only in writing about the river does she let the words flow. The compression of her characterization is extraordinary; she can sum people up in a single sentence that begs as many questions as it answers but is worth pages of analysis. Of Nenna's twelve-year-old daughter: "The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long ago been passed by Martha." Of Maurice the prostitute, who has an unsavoury friend hoarding stolen goods in his barge: "The dangerous and ridiculous were necessary to his life, otherwise tenderness would overwhelm him."
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The characters in Offshore are all friendly with each other, with good inter-boat relationships; which is fortunate, as they are all just a little odd….
Their interwoven story is slight. What is memorable about it is the delicacy and wit with which Mrs Fitzgerald handles their dilemmas and mild adventures. We see most of Nenna, whose very inadequacy is endearing…. But by far the best bits of the book are those dealing with Nenna's two children, Tilda and Martha, who are of an astonishing precocity and as resourceful as their mother is not…. The scene in which they sell two de Morgan tiles to a dealer is a delight, and the perfect model of How to be Successful in Antiques. They, and the...
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Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore is deft, ironic, original and enjoyable, but it is hard to see how it came to win the Booker Prize. It is in no sense a 'big' book nor is it intended to be, and those who buy it because it won a major award will, one imagines, be disappointed by the modesty of the writer's ambitions…. Offshore vividly catches the life of Thames river-dwellers who retain their self respect by seeing themselves as voluntary exiles, members of the same club. (p. 92)
The plot isn't very important, even though one man is nearly murdered and drownings occur, but the book ends with disappointing abruptness when the male tart's barge, laden with stolen electric guitars, hair...
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[Penelope] Fitzgerald's new book, Human Voices, is about the BBC in the early days of the war…. She attempts to be exact; she offers authorial summings-up and judgments; but she guarantees nothing, neither justice, happiness, nor even an end to all the stories she imparts to us….
Penelope Fitzgerald's precise prose and brief comic set-pieces have some relation to the more flamboyant and apparently merciless proceedings of both Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon, but she lacks both their acidity and their high-handed moral certainties—Catholic in Muriel Spark's case, feminist in Fay Weldon's…. Human Voices is comic, and sometimes extraordinarily sad….
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[Penelope Fitzgerald's] Human Voices is about the BBC in the summer and autumn of 1940, when French troops camped in London parks, the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House was turned into a dormitory and the Blitz started. But anyone who has read her earlier novels, The Bookshop and Offshore … will know that the matter may be important but the manner is even more so. She is an individual, witty and trusting writer—trusting because she assumes that readers are as alert as she is. The tone of voice is important. In a conversation about music one of her characters is told that emotion must never intrude…. This sounds something like the discipline Penelope Fitzgerald herself writes under, and it...
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Penelope Fitzgerald's latest book, Human Voices, makes use of her experiences in the BBC during the war to give us another exercise in the fiction of economy and understatement. It is a very English kind of writing, backing away from emotional and stylistic excess; if one had to suggest a literary antithesis I suppose it would be Lawrence Durrell. For my part, give me Mrs Fitzgerald every time….
Penelope Fitzgerald brings off her effects through neat dialogue and a deft hand with the descriptive phrase that nails a place or situation in a way that pages of painstaking description would have failed to do; the BBC as a "cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur...
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