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.”