Penelope Fitzgerald Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 [1978]) and the time that she, her husband, and their three children could only afford to live on a barge docked on the Thames (Offshore [1979]). 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Richard Eder (review date 12 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Bruce Bawer (essay date March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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William H. Pritchard (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Gabriele Annan (review date 15 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Michael Ratcliffe (review date 17 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Jane Gardam (review date 23 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Frank Kermode (review date 5 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Richard Eder (review date 13 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Michael Dirda (review date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Richard Holmes (review date 17 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Julian Gitzen (essay date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Dagmar Herzog (review date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Dean Flower (review date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 304 words.)

Mona Knapp (review date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Philip Hensher (review date 11 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Mallay Charters (review date 17 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Jonathan Raban (review date 2 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Edward T. Wheeler (review date 10 September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 182 words.)