The Gate of Angels

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As in OFFSHORE (1979), her prizewinning novel about barge dwellers on the Thames, in THE GATE OF ANGELS Penelope Fitzgerald assembles a cast of highly individual characters and lets them interact. The novel begins with a reference to one of those juxtapositions. Even though Fred Fairly is proceeding with his staid, scholarly life as a junior tutor in the smallest of Cambridge’s colleges, his life has been changed forever by an encounter with a working-class girl, Daisy Saunders. The two of them happened to be bicycling along the same road when a cart careened into them; they were introduced only when they came back to consciousness in the bed where their rescuers had placed them, assuming that they were husband and wife.

The impossibility of such a match is soon made clear, as the author describes their vastly different past lives. Even after they begin to see each other, the road is not smooth. It seems that revelations about Daisy which come out during the trial of the carter will doom their relationship. At the end of the novel, however, coincidence or a benevolent deity reunites the lovers.

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those rare authors who always finds the right word or the right phrase to sketch a character or to point out the irony in a situation. This classical precision is evident throughout all of her novels; combined with her sense of the irrationality of human life and her compassionate good humor, it accounts for the fact that THE GATE OF ANGELS is more delightful and more memorable than most books three times its length.