Penelope Fitzgerald

Start Free Trial

Richard Eder (review date 12 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1286

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 hinge, as that obliging but faintly disenchanted whoop may hint. The novel itself is a series of hinges, gleaming and disconcerting ones that keep opening out unexpectedly.

The Gate of Angels encompasses Fred’s liberation by passion from a careful, kindly bachelorhood. It touches on the breaching of the manners and assumptions of the stuffy Edwardian world—in this case, the university world. It suggests the windstorm of scientific thought that was upsetting the tenets of the Newtonian era as if they were so many cows.

It does these things with a lightness whipped up in unequal parts of comedy, irony and the fantastic. It attaches the lightness to the stoical gravity of time’s wheel. The mix is uniquely Fitzgerald, though it has a connection in one sense to Evelyn Waugh; in another to Iris Murdoch.

The Gate of Angels is about the crossing of two lives: that of Fred, the Cambridge scholar, and that of Daisy, a nurse who has struggled from a background of poverty and social oppression to become a woman who is not only independent but a sunburst as well. It is a prodigious encounter, like atomic bombardment with its terrific release of energy. In this case, the release takes the form of a miracle that come at the end and puts a tangled story right. To reveal nothing, it consists of the opening of the gate in the title.

“Angels” is the nickname for St. Angelicus, the fictional Cambridge college in which Fred is lodged. It is the tiniest of the colleges, and the purest exemplar of 600 years of eccentric institutional inbreeding. Like Oxford’s All Souls, it has no resident students; its tradition is even more sublimely dreamy, and it is smaller. Its wine cellars, in fact, are larger than its buildings.

It consists of a Master who is blind and dispatches a perpetual stream of notes; the purpose of each is to refine even more precisely the nuances of the previous one. It consists of six Fellows. And it consists of Fred. As Junior Fellow, he is also Assistant Bursar, Assistant Steward, Assistant Organist and custodian of the Medieval instruments which the Fellows play in excruciating dissonance after their lavishly irrigated evening meal.

(This entire section contains 1286 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

It consists of a Master who is blind and dispatches a perpetual stream of notes; the purpose of each is to refine even more precisely the nuances of the previous one. It consists of six Fellows. And it consists of Fred. As Junior Fellow, he is also Assistant Bursar, Assistant Steward, Assistant Organist and custodian of the Medieval instruments which the Fellows play in excruciating dissonance after their lavishly irrigated evening meal.

Planted in this dream world, Fred carries out its rituals. He lectures, attends the meetings of the Disobligers Society—where you argue against whatever position you believe in, and interrupt continually—and makes gingerly visits to his clergyman father and suffragette mother. The visits are gingerly because he has lost his faith.

He is, in fact, torn, and ripe for change. He thinks of working under Ernest Rutherford and other physics pioneers; instead, he chooses Flowerdew, a redoubtable mystic who believes the new age of quanta and subatomics is a delusion and will collapse. Fitzgerald is lucid about science, but her heart, ultimately, seems to be with the mystics. Flowerdew’s witty and melancholy warning about the revolution in physics is one of the book’s most arresting and engaging passages.

Fred’s collision with Daisy is literal. Both are cycling at night, both are hit by a drunken carter. They come to, undressed and in the same bed. The accident takes place in front of the house of Wrayburn, another Cambridge don; thinking deductively, he assumes that since they seem to be together, they must be married; hence the joint bedding.

Daisy is unembarrassed; she gets up and goes back to London. Fred is horribly embarrassed and totally smitten, and devotes himself to finding her. It doesn’t take long; she was in Cambridge to apply for a job at a local clinic. Not only does she get the job, she also takes up lodging with the Wrayburns. Mrs. Wrayburn has intellectual aspirations; she is crushed by the demands of an Edwardian household and an Edwardian husband—Fitzgerald takes us wonderfully into these demands by listing all the items of tableware a husband of the time requires for his lunch. Daisy can give her a hand.

If the book’s first part brings out Fred and his world, its second part brings out Daisy and hers. As a child, she and her mother regularly had to move at night to avoid paying rent. She grows up to take business courses, and to have her employers regularly offer her a choice between sex and discharge. She is too alive to give in; instead, she convinces the matron of Blackfriars Hospital to train her as a student nurse. An act of irregular charity toward a patient gets her fired; hence her presence in Cambridge.

Daisy is utterly determined and utterly open. Her courage, her independence, her absolute readiness to be delighted makes a shining and complex portrait. The matron warns her—again, the author reminds us of the abusive conditions for women at the time—that “A grown woman must expect to spend one-quarter of her life in actual pain”—and cautions her against “a weekly habit of constant complaint.” Daisy, whose health and beauty grow out of her resistant spirit, “felt her physical self-respect extend and stretch itself like a cat in the sun.”

The book’s ending has its complications but no true surprises. Even the miracle is no true surprise; it is as much a matter of course as everything else. Fitzgerald is both the most down-to-earth and magical of writers, as well as one of the funniest. She is an animist; there are ghosts of possibility in each concrete fact: in the upside-down cows; the crowded arrangement of bicycles at St. Angelicus; the horse that once, but no longer, pulled the cart that ferried passengers from the village railroad station, and that still backs away in its paddock every time a train comes in.

The story of Fred and Daisy in a time of revolutions is told largely in particular details and with a deceptive matter-of-factness. It can take us a moment to realize how oddly and suggestively the details are wielded. They do not fill a picture in; they open up windows through which we see a world of possibilities. They are not always easy possibilities; many are very sad and one or two, terrifying. But having these windows is so beguiling, so like flying, that while we are not deluded, neither are we oppressed. We are freed.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

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.”

Bruce Bawer (essay date March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6690

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 sharpness and shortness,” “in no sense a ‘big’ book”; more than one critic has compared her novels to watercolors.) Nor is it that, like Pym and Brookner, she is a writer of unsensational stories. For Fitzgerald’s novels are not only unsensational: they are elliptical, elusive, episodic, at times exasperating in their deliberate slenderness of plot and lack of resolution; their most essential relationships, pivotal incidents, and intense confrontations tend to happen offstage or to be rendered very concisely.

Instead of action, what Fitzgerald often gives us are apparent digressions, among them conversations in which trivial matters may receive as much attention as important ones—but in which her characters, in one way or another, tellingly reveal themselves. She is less interested in storytelling, per se, than in the qualities that draw people together and the differences that estrange them, in the abiding and numinous mystery that the world is to human beings and that human beings are to one another, and in the disjunction between what they are and what they pretend to be (or imagine or hope themselves to be). She celebrates those who defy mean self-interest in the name of some higher cause—art, truth, love, or even a vague longing for something better—even as she is acutely aware of the hurtful ways that people can treat their nearest and dearest in the name of such causes, and of their often less praiseworthy underlying motives: a fear of losing independence, a need to control, a craving for power. She is fascinated by the dynamic of romantic love and family devotion, but never yields to anything that might be taken as a sentimental impulse; in book after book she reminds us that good and bad can coexist in one heart, and that otherwise unimpressive—and even somewhat ridiculous—people can display remarkable qualities of character. At their best, her dramatis personae exhibit those most English of virtues: decency, honesty, quiet fortitude, a sense of duty, an uncomplaining acceptance of one’s role and responsibilities in life.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel appeared a mere fifteen years ago, when she was nearly sixty. (It was preceded by two biographies, one of Edward Burne-Jones and the other of Fitzgerald’s father, an editor of Punch, and her uncles, the cryptographer Dillwyn Knox and the priests Wilfred and Ronald Knox; she has since published a third biography, of the English poet Charlotte Mew.) Though now chiefly notable as the fictional debut of a writer whose artistry has since grown in leaps and bounds, The Golden Child is a competent whodunit, the sort of mystery that is set mostly in a single institution and whose success depends largely on the author’s ability to make that setting interesting. In this case the institution is an unnamed London museum, obviously modeled on the British Museum; and the characters—many of whom might have been plucked out of an Evelyn Waugh novel—are mainly museum officials who, almost to a man, care less about art than about their own careers. During a mega-exhibition of the Golden Treasure of Garamantia, an ancient African civilization, there takes place a series of odd and troubling incidents, chief among them the murder of the distinguished resident archeologist, Sir William Simpkin. Whodunit? Why? The solution turns out to be hidden in a message composed in Garamantian pictographs and carved on a clay tablet in an exhibition display case.

If The Golden Child falls short of being a first-rate mystery, it is because Fitzgerald’s artistic priorities clash head-on with those of the genre in which she has chosen to work. A murder mystery should be tidy and schematic; the characters may be shot through with ambiguities, and the mystery richly nuanced, but in the end there should be a firm sense of order restored, of pieces falling neatly into place. But to Fitzgerald one of the important points about life is that the pieces never fall neatly into place; she is less interested in devising jigsaw-like plots than in exploring the perplexities of the human condition. To be sure, in an apparent attempt to fit her characters neatly into their assigned roles in the mystery, Fitzgerald tries to reduce most of them to familiar comic-novel types; yet the very resistance to contrivance that makes her later novels feel so credible prevents her, in The Golden Child, from tailoring these characters as dexterously as a top-notch mystery writer would to the needs of her plot. Especially unsatisfactory is Waring Smith, the protagonist (and the first of Fitzgerald’s many innocents). He is a surprisingly sketchy creation; his motives are never clear, so one has less sympathy for him than one might otherwise—a state of affairs that is hardly unusual in Fitzgerald (who was once told by Ronald Knox that one should write biographies about people one loves and novels about people one dislikes) but is less than desirable in a mystery. What’s more, Waring is so terribly passive that it’s not even he who solves the case; again, such passivity might work in a literary novel, but not in this genre.

To be sure, Fitzgerald’s ironies of circumstance and temperament are far sharper than her plotting. Already in this book she is a forthright critic of manners and morals. The Garamantia exhibition is plainly an allusion to the King Tut extravaganza that helped usher in the age of the museum mega-show; and Fitzgerald captures perfectly the inanity of an era in which armies of people who wouldn’t cross the street to look at a Matisse can be persuaded by relentless publicity and media hype to line up in the freezing cold for hours to view a historically inconsequential exhibition of little artistic merit. In good English fashion, moreover, she gets in a few digs at Continental art and scholarship. We learn, for example, that Waring and his wife frequently “go out … to see films by leading French and Italian directors about the difficulties of making a film.” Fitzgerald skewers both the oppressive seriousness of Germans—a Heidelberg Garamantologist’s book is entitled Garamantischengeheimschriftendechiffrierkunst—and Gallic silliness: a pretentious impromptu oration by Rochegrosse-Bergson, a French scholar, includes a trendy nihilistic flourish to the effect that “[o]ur art—for every man, let us admit it, is an artist—is to achieve absolutely nothing!” The audience for this “arrant nonsense” consists of a pair of British journalists, of whom Fitzgerald offers a sardonic description: “exquisites for whom life could hold no further surprises, and removed by their foreign educations from crass British prejudices, [the journalists] sat in their Italian silk shirts and deerskin jackets, waiting, in a kind of energetic idleness. …Trained in French lycées, they were unable to resist [Rochegrosse-Bergson’s] rounded sentences which now dropped a couple of tones to announce the coming peroration.” These few words provide the reader with a veritable beginner’s catalogue of qualities (all of them somewhat connected to Continental ways and means) that Fitzgerald holds in disesteem: pretension, foppishness, “energetic idleness,” overassurance, a snobbish attitude toward middle-class bigots, a fashionably nihilistic or grotesquely scholarly approach to art. Though The Golden Child is far from a masterwork, then (alongside her later novels it looks decidedly primitive), it has wit and personality, and one comes away from it with a clear sense of Fitzgerald’s impatience with shabby contemporary values and with the wretched prospects for Western civilization in an age of hype, self-seeking, phoniness, and philistinism, high and low.

The Golden Child is the first of several Fitzgerald novels to focus on a cultural institution and on a cast of characters who are, shall we say, not all devoted in equal measure to the good, the true, and the beautiful. In her second novel, The Bookshop (1978), set in 1959, a widow named Florence Green buys the Old House, a centuries-old building in her sleepy East Suffolk village, and turns it into a bookshop. Like Waring Smith, she is something of an innocent—a well-meaning, quietly plucky, but rather naïve adult with commendable moral and artistic instincts but an insufficient awareness of the degree to which other people are driven by selfishness, jealousy, and power-hunger. In place of the self-seeking museum officials in The Golden Child, The Bookshop gives us Mrs. Gamart, a society matron who, seeing her role as the local doyenne of culture threatened by Florence’s shop, resurrects a plan to turn the site into an arts center and proceeds to use all her influence to have the building confiscated by the government. How does Florence react? If one expects her to be yet another mild-mannered, virtuous underdog who triumphs over the villainous powers-that-be, one will be disappointed. Nor should one expect her motives to be overly clear: as it is not entirely obvious why Waring Smith works in a museum and not, say, in some civil-service job, neither can one understand why Florence Green, of all people, has decided to go into the book-selling business. Confronted with the newly published Lolita, after all, she can’t even decide whether to stock it—“I haven’t been trained to understand the arts,” she explains, “and I don’t know whether a book is a masterpiece or not”—and has to turn to the well-read village recluse for an opinion. How, one cannot but wonder, did such a woman fasten upon the idea of opening a bookshop?

Here, as in The Golden Child, Fitzgerald contemplates with a jaundiced eye the rampant popularization of culture. An entire wall of Florence’s shop is covered by paperbacks: “cheerfully coloured, brightly democratic, they crowded the shelves in well-disciplined ranks. They would have a rapid turnover and she had to approve of them; yet she could remember a world where only foreigners had been content to have their books bound in paper. The Everymans, in their shabby dignity, seemed to confront them with a look of reproach.” A whole cultural outlook—the sort that some might call elitist and xenophobic—is conveyed in this brief passage. Nor is this the only time that Fitzgerald weighs in one such issues. When Mrs. Gamart tells Florence that she and others in the village have long wanted to turn the Old House into an arts center, Florence at first thinks it possible to have both a bookshop and an arts center in the building and innocently decides that, in order to run the latter efficiently, “she herself would have to take some sort of course in art history and music appreciation—music was always appreciated, whereas art had a history.” The aged village recluse, meanwhile, is unimpressed by Mrs. Gamart’s plans: “How can the arts have a centre?”

The Bookshop was followed by the Booker Prize-winning Offshore (1979), which has less in common with Fitzgerald’s other early efforts than with her later works, and which I shall discuss in connection with them. It was succeeded by Human Voices (1980), a novel about wartime London—or, to be specific, about the BBC in 1940, a place where, as in the museum of The Golden Child, some officials are identified not by name but by title (a device which nicely underscores the importance to Fitzgerald of roles and responsibilities). A temperate, lightly plotted book, Human Voices covers a few months in the lives of two programming directors, the Director of Programme Planning (DPP) and the Director of Recorded Programming (RPD), and of several young men and women who serve as assistants. Most important of these assistants is Annie Asra, a Birmingham piano tuner’s sensible daughter, who falls senselessly in love with the eccentric, middle-aged RPD. Given the promising situation—inside BBC headquarters during the Blitz!—a reader may well find himself frustrated at the lack of high drama in these pages. But the frustrations he will experience are those of life itself: Fitzgerald reminds us that heroism is not necessarily glamorous and is often, indeed, a matter of quiet dedication to monotonous tasks. She reminds us, too, that heroes, like saints, can be selfish and stupid, maddeningly quirky and abundantly flawed: though the Beeb’s employees “bitterly complain[ed] about the shortsightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the newsreaders, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon,” the Corporation’s loyalty to the truth (despite temptations to conceal unpleasant facts for purposes of national morale) filled them with “a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.” In the end, the book is a tribute to the unsung and quintessentially English heroism of imperfect people.

At Freddie’s (1982) is something of a tribute as well. Like Human Voices, it is an account of several months in the lives of several people; this time around, though, we’re at the Temple School, a.k.a. Freddie’s, an ever-destitute but widely revered London academy for child actors whose elderly founder and leader, Frieda Wentworth, a.k.a. Freddie, is a legendary figure in the theater world. Among the principal characters are two young teachers, one of whom falls in love with the other, and a pair of students, a brilliantly gifted nine-year-old named Jonathan and a vain, showoffy type (and future movie star) named Mattie. As Florence’s bookshop is threatened by Mrs. Gamart, so Freddie’s is endangered by a vulgar entrepreneur who wants to change it into a school for television-commercial actors; but, surprisingly, the real joker in the deck turns out to be Freddie herself, who, in her heart of hearts, proves to be devoted not to the theater but to the perpetuation, at any cost, of her own power. (Meanwhile, the school’s talentless, lovestruck young teacher—whom Freddie hired only because he would accept low pay—proves to have great strength of character.) As if to emphasize that what ultimately matters is not fame or power but art, the novel concludes with a memorable glimpse of the one true artist in the place, Jonathan, who, interested not in celebrity but in the perfection of his craft, remains past dusk in the schoolyard, repeatedly practicing a leap from a wall for his role in King John.

Jonathan, we are told, “was born to be one of those actors who work from the outside inwards. To them, the surface is not superficial.” The surface has never been superficial to Fitzgerald either, though there are times in The Golden Child, The Bookshop, Human Voices, and At Freddie’s when her meticulous portraits don’t communicate quite as much as she presumably wants them to. This is far less true of her other four novels, in which Fitzgerald, though no more than ever inclined to engage in extensive mind-reading, manages with far greater success to convey, for all her concision, a phenomenally rich sense of place and character and moral tone. These later novels (though they are not all strictly “later,” since I include among them the third, Offshore) are more ambitious and ambiguous than those already discussed; Fitzgerald’s vision seems larger, subtler, more complex. She focuses less on institutional than on family relations, and even reaches beyond England for her main settings; while infatuations figure in Human Voices and At Freddie’s, moreover, such later books as Innocence and The Gate of Angels examine full-fledged romances and marriages.

Fitzgerald is also more explicit, in these later novels, about her interest in matters of the spirit. The niece of two eminent priests, she takes what might be described, to an extent, as a Christian view of her creations: she notes their transgressions and names them bluntly, even bitingly, but if she scorns the sin she has compassion for the sinner. Such words as “soul” and “saint” crop up frequently in her pages, though one might miss them because of the casual, colloquial way in which they are generally introduced. (In Innocence, for example, she describes the perturbed young hero as rushing out of a room “like a lost soul.”) Fitzgerald is preoccupied, moreover, with the nature of innocence—its assets and liabilities, moral and practical, and the myriad forms it takes, whether in small children or in supposedly sophisticated adults—and emphasizes that innocence and righteousness do not necessarily go hand in hand. Sometimes her innocents are people who lack sufficient knowledge of the world; sometimes they are very worldly folk indeed—scientists, physicians, and journalists—who possess an overweening confidence in the ability of rational investigation to determine objective truth, and about whose smug, unquestioning reverence for such things as behaviorism and the scientific method Fitzgerald can be trenchantly sardonic. Surely one reason why she shrinks from directly rendering her novels’ climactic events is that she is intensely aware of the difficulty of pinning down the precise truth of a human situation.

This is not to suggest, of course, that Fitzgerald’s position is that of many a contemporary academic theorist who claims that nothing is knowable. On the contrary, she patently believes in truth, and believes, too, that fundamental human truths are worth pursuing. Yet she is hesitant to delve too deeply into the human soul. So heavily, indeed, does she rely on dialogue and physical action to convey character that at times one almost gets the impression that there is, to her, something unseemly about rummaging around too much inside a protagonist’s head. In any event, her emphasis is invariably not on exploring her characters’ souls but on examining their conduct in the company of others. When she makes general statements, accordingly—some of which are attributed to the narrator, others to various characters—they tend to be commentaries not on psychological but on social verities: “Morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.” “Total approval is never convincing.” “Honourable men are rare, but not necessarily interesting.” “Politics and business can be settled by influence, cooks and doctors can only be promoted on their skill.” Manifestly, these aphoristic remarks are the work of someone who is clear-eyed but funny about human failings, someone who has firm and unromantic convictions about art, life, and civilization. Yet her best novels are characterized by a reflectiveness, a probing curiosity, an acute awareness of the contingency of the human condition that separates her dramatically from the callow certitude of many a glib, solipsistic contemporary novelist.

Such is the case, certainly, with Offshore. Set in a community of Thames barges on London’s Battersea Reach during the early 1960s, the book focuses on thirty-two-year-old Nenna James, a former music student who lives with her daughters, Martha and Tilda, on a barge named Grace. Nenna bought the barge, we learn, while her engineer husband, Edward, was in Central America on a construction job; Edward, now back in London and unwilling to join them in their unorthodox new residence, has instead taken a room in a drab-sounding neighborhood that Nenna can’t even bring herself to visit: “In Christ’s name, who ever heard of such a place?” Fitzgerald doesn’t offer a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on all this. Nor does she tell us, in so many words, precisely why Nenna decided to move onto a barge and why she now obstinately refuses to give it up. (There are, significantly, no flashbacks to the marriage, of which we are offered the skimpiest, most objective record.) Doubtless the explanation is not a simple one, for Nenna is not a case study out of a textbook but a character who feels at every moment perversely, perplexingly, and poignantly real. By way of dialogue and gesture, however, and the occasional brief flashlight glimpse beneath Nenna’s edgy, stubborn, and confused surface, Fitzgerald delicately plants in one’s mind the notion that marriage has been for Nenna a string of failures and disappointments, including the frustration of her musical ambitions, and that the approach of middle age and the absence of Edward have combined to bring to a head her long-suppressed fears and resentments and to propel her into extreme, perhaps even reckless, action. In moving offshore, Nenna has moved away from the mainstream of middle-class existence, to experiment with a life on the margins that may, in her mind, provide a gratifying tie to her musical ambitions of yore and to her passing youth.

In addition to bringing Nenna and her daughters to vibrant life in very little space, Fitzgerald affords us engaging glimpses of the other lives on the Reach—those of Willis, an old man whose leaky boat finally sinks; Maurice, a sad, aimless gay man; and Richard, a married business executive with whom Nenna has a brief fling. Though the sometimes protracted episodes involving these other characters cannot be defended on strict grounds of dramatic structure, they don’t feel superfluous: on the contrary, they all help to fill in the picture of life on the Reach, to illuminate the odd little corner of the world into which Nenna has chosen to withdraw. It should be noted that the Thames functions here in several ways: not only as a symbol of sexuality (especially female sexuality) and of the unremitting flow of time, but also as an image, paradoxically, both of life (it is, note well, a river of life on which the heroine and her children are kept afloat by a boat named Grace) and (as in Huckleberry Finn) of escape from life and its responsibilities. A number of events here might be interpreted symbolically: for instance, when a priest comes to ask why the girls haven’t been attending school, he slips on Grace’s deck. But Fitzgerald isn’t insistent about such symbolic implications, and the novel’s details are presented so realistically that a reader might well overlook their possible figurative significance.

Much the same might be said about Innocence (1986), which chronicles the romance and marriage of two bullheaded young Italians in 1955. Salvatore Rossi is a peasant boy from a rural village who has grown up to be a brilliant and successful “nerve doctor” in Florence. Excitable, antireligious, and devoted to science, he is the son of two parents with their own strong attachments: his mother (who named him for the Savior) was a devout Christian, his father an equally devout Communist. Indeed, it was a traumatic boyhood visit to his father’s hero, Antonio Gramsci—who, by that time, was a hideous, broken-down old jailbird—that made Salvatore resolve never to risk his life, health, or freedom for his principles or to be emotionally dependent on anyone. His beloved is Chiara, a beautiful student at an English convent school who is the daughter of an ancient and noble Florentine family, the Ridolfi.

In the novel’s opening pages, we are vouchsafed an anecdote from Ridolfi history. In the sixteenth century, the Ridolfi were midgets; a beloved daughter, kept within the walls of the family estate so that she would be protected from the knowledge of her difference from others, had a mute midget playmate who unexpectedly began to grow to normal size; whereupon the Ridolfi child, to protect her friend from the knowledge of her apparent differentness from others, had the girl’s eyes put out and her legs amputated at the knees. Neither Fitzgerald nor any of her characters ever spells out a moral to this anecdote, or explains the implied thematic link between it and the story of Salvatore and, Chiara; but over the course of the novel the anecdote resonates frequently, the pitch changing ever so slightly every time. Part of the point, certainly, is that innocence, far from being a guarantee of virtue, can be a wellspring of cruelty and horror; that people are capable of doing foolish and even wicked things to those they love in an attempt to improve them, to make them conform to some vision of normality or rightness; that the innate differences between people, whether of stature or sensibility, can form insuperable barriers between them; and that, in some way or another, the attributes of one’s parents remain ineradicable, perhaps even disfiguring, elements of one’s own identity. Family is character; family is fate.

The lovers’ first encounter in Innocence might well be an episode from a romance novel. Introduced during an intermission at the Teatro della Pergola after a crude performance of Brahms’s Third Violin Sonata, Salvatore asks Chiara politely whether she enjoyed the music; she replies: “Of course not.” He falls for her immediately, and she is so taken with him that she lets him lead her out into the rain before returning to the auditorium. (Like Forster’s A Room with a View, this novel is about a capable, experienced young man of humble origins who, amid picturesque Italian settings, introduces a sheltered, well-to-do girl to sensuality in Italy.) But nothing else here is remotely reminiscent of a romance novel. Obsessed with Chiara, Salvatore makes no effort to see her. Months pass; finally she appears at his office, only to be upbraided by him for coming. She flees; he writes her a letter, then tears it up. Perplexed by his behavior, Chiara invites Barney, a no-nonsense English schoolmate, to Italy and asks her advice. At Barney’s suggestion, she arranges for herself and Salvatore to be invited to lunch by mutual acquaintances, but they both hesitate to go; the vacillations that precede their meeting are recounted in elaborate detail.

Not so, however, the ensuing affair, which begins offstage and is recounted very succinctly. Ditto the first months of Salvatore and Chiara’s marriage: instead of seeing them together, we hear about their relationship in conversations between Chiara and Barney (who tells her: “You’re just an innocent who hopped into bed with the first man you saw when you got out of the convent”) and between Salvatore and his friends. The narrator sums up the marriage in businesslike fashion: “Chiara and Salvatore quarrelled, but not so successfully as they made love. Chiara had no gift for quarrelling at all and could scarcely understand how it was done, nor, really, had Salvatore, since his argument was with himself, and he was therefore bound to lose. … They loved each other to the point of pain and could hardly bear to separate each morning.” The main problem with the marriage, as this quotation suggests, lies with Salvatore, who is unable to enjoy the blessing of his and Chiara’s love; insecure, irrational, and suspicious, he comes to feel that he was unwise to tell Chiara everything about himself, and is sure that she doesn’t need him, that she must be unhappy, that she’s a dilettante when it comes to romance, and that she’s secretly arranging to regain the family property that he sold in order to afford to marry her.

A friend opines that Salvatore has “a sickness and craziness about him because he has cut himself off from the place where he was born.” (Note the words cut off—a reminder of the story of the leg amputation.) Salvatore, for his part, feels “that both Marta [his ex-mistress] and Chiara took advantage of him by attacking him with their ignorance, or call it innocence. A serious thinking adult had no defence against innocence because he was obliged to respect it, whereas the innocent scarcely knows what respect is, or seriousness either.” But who’s the innocent here? At one point Salvatore says that the only thing he hopes to be spared is “to know exactly what kind of man I am”: what is he hoping for here, after all, except to retain a kind of innocence? One of the things that this novel is about, ultimately, is the ways in which people deprive themselves and others out of innocence—an innocence that, paradoxically, may generate guilt, and that may take the form of deficient self-knowledge or a lack of worldly experience. Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale” poses the question: “Which was the mooste fre?” Perhaps one question that Innocence seeks to pose is: which is the more innocent, Salvatore or Chiara? “What’s to become of us?” Salvatore asks a cousin of Chiara’s in the novel’s closing pages. “We can’t go on like this.” “Yes, we can go on like this,” comes the reply. “We can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.” And that’s part of the point in this novel, which concludes on a note of hope but intimates that, people being the troubled and troublemaking creatures that they are, the very notion of a happily-ever-after ending—or, for that matter, of an innocence without unsavory repercussions—is a patent absurdity.

What with its sumptuous settings, its colorful cast of aristocrats, politicians, and Vatican priests, its Latin outbursts of temper and its torrid passions (which run several degrees hotter than the passions in any previous Fitzgerald novel), Innocence differs significantly from its predecessors. Some reviewers seem to have thought it odd for so English a writer as Fitzgerald to set a story in Italy, but it makes a certain kind of sense: there’s something in a pure English temperament that just naturally assumes a tempestuous, irrational romance of this sort should be set in hotter climes. (Think of Romeo and Juliet.)

Fitzgerald’s Italian novel was followed by her Russian novel. The Beginning of Spring (1988) is set in Moscow on the eve of revolution. It is 1913, and Frank Reid, the Russian-born English owner of a printing firm, has been abandoned by his wife, Nellie, for reasons that are apparently a mystery to him. Hiring a taciturn young woman named Lisa to take care of their three children, he asks her to cut her hair, presumably because he finds her attractive and wants her to look less tempting (shades of the Ridolfi mutilation!). More than ever in Fitzgerald, there are abundant references here to God and the soul: if Fitzgerald seems, at least in part, to have set Innocence in Italy so that she could write about extravagant passions, she seems to have set The Beginning of Spring in Russia so that she could allow certain of her characters to converse at length, and with relative unrestraint, about spiritual matters. Frank, who does “everything quickly and neatly, without making a business of it,” considers himself a rational being, but isn’t sure: “Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.” More openly meta-physical-minded than Frank is his accountant, Selwyn Crane, a religious poet and Tolstoy disciple who is described by Frank’s servant as “a good man, … always on his way from one place to another, searching out want and despair.” “If you have a fault,” Selwyn tells Frank, “it is that you don’t grasp the importance of what is beyond sense or reason.” Yet, as the beloved Freddie turns out to be the resident demon of At Freddie’s, so it is the seemingly righteous Selwyn who proves to have been the reason for Nellie’s disappearance: as he confesses remorsefully, they were having an affair and arranged to run off together—a plan that he did not repudiate until after Nellie had already deserted Frank.

The Beginning of Spring is set in the year before the outbreak of World War I; Fitzgerald’s most recent novel, The Gate of Angels—which, though published in England in 1990, did not appear in America until this winter—takes place a year earlier. (One can well understand why Fitzgerald would want to set two novels in that period, which marks the boundary between the British Empire-dominated world of the Victorians and Edwardians and the modern era.) Like Innocence, it follows two strong-willed young people down their separate paths to each other and through a romance marked by disagreement, misunderstanding, and estrangement; as in both Innocence and The Beginning of Spring, it is not until the very last sentence that Fitzgerald, in the most matter-of-fact way, introduces the possibility of reconciliation.

Fitzgerald gives us straightforward accounts of both these young people’s lives. Fred Fairly, a former choirboy and the son of a provincial rector, has been appointed a Junior Fellow at the fictitious Saint Angelicus, the smallest college at Cambridge; known colloquially as Angels, the college is a sort of secular monastery whose charter forbids its fellows, all mathematicians and scientists, to marry. Like Salvatore, Fred is basically a good sort, a well-educated man of science with a callow reverence for rationality. “These are wonderful years in Cambridge,” says Fred; science is in its glory days, and he has decided to clear his mind “of any idea that could not be tested through physical experience.” Since this includes, to his way of thinking, the idea of God, he has decided that he is no longer a Christian. Informed of this decision, his father is not surprised: “When you told me that you wanted to study Natural Sciences at university, which led, fortunately I suppose, to your present appointment, I took it for granted that you would sooner or later come to the conclusion that you had no further use for the soul.” To be sure, like any good scientist, Fred is willing to keep an open mind about these things: “He had no acceptable evidence that Christianity was true, but he didn’t think it impossible that at some point he might be given a satisfactory reason to believe in it.”

The young lady for whom Fred falls is also something of a rationalist. A lower-class girl from the south of London, Daisy has studied to be a nurse because she wants to know how the body works. She is at once hard-nosed and sympathetic: “Hating to see anyone in want, she would part without a thought with money or possessions, but she could accept only with the caution of a half-tamed animal.” Dismissed from a London hospital for violating professional bounds to help a patient, she travels to Cambridge in search of a job and is followed by a sleazy middle-aged newspaper reporter, Kelly, who seeks to take advantage of her helplessness. The two of them are bicycling to the hotel where he plans to rob her chastity when they—and Fred, who happens to be directly behind them on his Royal Sunbeam—are knocked unconscious in a road accident caused by a carter named Saul (which, if one choose to notice it, may be taken as an allusion to Saint Paul, Saul of Tarsus, the transfiguring event of whose life also took place on a road). Awakening next to Daisy in a strange bed, Fred is smitten as quickly as Salvatore is with Chiara.

Several of the signal characteristics of Fitzgerald’s fiction are more pronounced in this novel than in any of its predecessors. For one thing, if her books have always tended toward brevity and directness—their chapters short, their style plain, crisp, and unadorned—the tendency is even more manifest in The Gate of Angels. Also, though her protagonists have often been quite calculatedly ordinary, Fred and Daisy, with their humble backgrounds and almost parodically down-to-earth names, could hardly seem less exotic—to an English reader, anyway. (They may seem especially so to readers who come to the new novel with vivid memories of the foreign settings and characters of Innocence and The Beginning of Spring.) Moreover, Fitzgerald’s powers of selectivity and compression are at their zenith here. Finally, if Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with spiritual matters has been increasingly evident in her last few novels, such matters figure even more prominently in The Gate of Angels, and her apprehension of that which lies beyond sense and reason is communicated with greater force and beauty than ever before in her oeuvre. Partly because her description of each homely particular is well-nigh allegorical in its simplicity—and partly because the place names that she chooses to include (e.g., Jesus Lane, Christ’s Pieces, Bishop’s Leaze) serve to remind us, in an unaggressive way, that everything around us is a part of the divine creation—the reader of The Gate of Angels begins to feel, before too long, as if the novel’s very landscape is gently but unmistakably aglow with its own miraculousness. And what is the significance of the wind that stirs up in the first line of the novel, and then again at the very end, when, after having resolved to part forever, Fred and Daisy meet once more by what may or may not be purest chance? This is, let it be said, the rarest of novels in which an eleventh-hour coincidence, because it is in perfect figurative harmony with all that has gone before, feels not at all like an authorial contrivance but like a genuine moment of grace, a gentle brush with the hand of providence—a still, small voice in the madding crowd.

One of the things that figure importantly here is a historical anecdote. Early on, Fitzgerald tells us that Saint Angelicus “had no real existence at all, because its foundation had been confirmed by a pope, Benedict XIII, who after many years of ferocious argument had been declared not to be the Pope at all.” Obstinately, Benedict refused to accept the verdict and spent the rest of his very long life holding papal audiences. Fred, we are told, is also obstinate: “Like Benedict XIII himself, he might be asked to admit defeat, but would never recognise it as legitimate, or even respectable.” This story of Saint Angelicus’s founding, like that of the Ridolfi ancestors at the beginning of Innocence, resonates throughout the book. By suggesting that the college has “no real existence,” Fitzgerald is playing something of an ontological game with the reader: for the college doesn’t exist, of course, outside the world of the novel; but it does exist within the novel, Pope or no Pope. But what does it mean to say that it exists when the narrator says that it doesn’t? Fitzgerald’s game forces the reader to attend throughout the book to questions of reality and unreality, and, in particular, to the delicate intimations of another reality—one of spirit—with which Fitzgerald permeates her narrative. This is all very effectively done, and indeed it points to what may be this author’s most distinctive achievement: namely, her ability to combine, in one novel, a convincingly detailed realistic surface with a sublime sense of the transcendent. In none of her novels has this been quite as elegantly and affectingly accomplished as in The Gate of Angels.


  1. Only four of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are currently in print in America: Offshore (141 pages, $7.95), Innocence (224 pages, $7.95), and The Beginning of Spring (187 pages, $8.95) are in paper from Carroll & Graf; The Gate of Angels (167 pages, $19) is newly out in cloth from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

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

William H. Pritchard (review date Autumn 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

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.”

One recalls William Boot’s ancestral home at Boot Magna (nearest rail stop, Boot Magna Halt) and its collection of lovable antiquities in Waugh’s Scoop. Fitzgerald is a performer: when Daisy tries to convince the wife of a Cambridge scholar named Wrayburn to take her on as hired help, Mrs. Wrayburn (who spent four action-packed years at Newnham) looks down at the sink, “loaded down with all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals at the house”:

Like most of her friends, she had prayed not to marry a clergyman, a general practitioner, or a university lecturer without a fellowship. All these (unlike the Army or the Bar) were professions that meant luncheon at home, so that every day (in addition to cups, plates and dishes) demanded toast-racks, egg-cups, egg-cosies, hot water jugs, hot milk strainers, tea-strainers, coffee-strainers, bone egg-spoons, sugar-tongs, mustard pots manufactured of blue glass inside…

It continues for thirty-five or more items without which luncheon is inconceivable, concluding with “compotiers, ramekins, pipkins, cruets, pots,” most of which items we assume are “in the sink at the moment, waiting, in mute reproach, to be washed and dried.” You get the picture: an essential English wit.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182


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, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 56; Contemporary Novelists;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14 and 194; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 2.

Gabriele Annan (review date 15 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593

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 Hardenberg. Penelope Fitzgerald calls him Fritz. He was born in 1772, the second of eleven children. All of them died before their father, an impoverished Saxon country gentleman who tried to make ends meet by running the Prince’s salt mines in the little town of Weissenfels. He was a convert to the Herrenhut Brotherhood, a mystically oriented Puritan sect. Fritz was sent to the Brethren’s boarding school when he was nine and expelled when he was ten, because “he insists that the body is not flesh, but the same stuff as the soul”. That is what Fitzgerald tells us. The Blue Flower is closely based on the German edition of Novalis by Samuel, Mähl and Schulz, which includes not only all his correspondence, but also every contemporary reference to him that they have been able to trace. Fitzgerald uses this material with cunning, mixing verbatim chunks with invented descriptions and conversations.

It was customary for young men to attend several universities. Fritz went to Jena, Leipzig and Wittenberg, and studied history, philosophy, natural science and law—pretty well everything on offer. Jena was where it was all happening in the 1790s. Fritz heard Schiller and Fichte lecture. Everyone admired his intellect and particularly the speed with which he absorbed knowledge. The scientist Johann Ritter spotted that he was a mystic: “For him there is no barrier between the seen and the unseen. The whole of existence dissolves itself into a myth.” His fellow student Friedrich Schlegel, soon to become the chief theoretician of the Romantic movement, was bowled over by him: “a young man from whom everything may be expected. He is thin and well made, with a beautiful expression when he gets carried away. He talks three times as much, and as fast, as the rest of us.” A portrait in the museum at Weissenfels shows that beautiful expression, “the brilliant, half-wild gaze”. The sitter looks like a fawn, not startled so much as prepared to be, probably by some new intellectual insight or spiritual revelation. It’s a shame the publisher didn’t use it on the dustjacket, instead of the portrait of a Symbolist lady.

Fritz needed to earn his living, and after Wittenberg his father sent him to learn business administration with an acquaintance of his. Coelestin Just was a magistrate and inspector of taxes in Tennstedt, another small Saxon town. Fritz was industrious and just as quick to pick up practical procedures as philosophical concepts. He boarded with the Justs, and made a confidante of their niece Karoline, who kept house for them. She was five years older than he was, and when he fell in love he told her all about it.

It was love at first sight, and the object of it was twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn. Fritz met her when Just took him to see the Rockenthiens, another huge family like his own, but richer, jollier and less aristocratic. Sophie and several sisters were the children of Frau von Rockenthien’s first marriage. Punning on her name, Fritz called Sophie “my Philosophy”, and he seems to have looked on her as a cross between a Platonic other half and a spirit guide. He also confessed to erotic thoughts about her in his diary. Fitzgerald does not mention them. Sophie was not particularly enthusiastic about getting engaged; she wanted to go on romping with her friends. Eventually she accepted his ring, and wore it round her neck because the engagement had to be kept secret from old Hardenberg, who thought the Rockenthiens inferior socially.

Sophie was lively but not very bright. She could barely write a letter. What she liked were presents and fun. “She had”, as Fitzgerald beautifully puts it, “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.” She wasn’t even particularly pretty. Two miniatures of her show a double chin, and Fitzgerald has Fritz’s favourite brother Erasmus point it out to him. In her account, Fritz’s love for Sophie horrifies Erasmus and breaks Karoline Just’s heart. But Sophie developed tuberculosis. After several operations without an anaesthetic, she died two days after her fifteenth birthday. That was in March 1797; in April, Erasmus died of the same disease, and Novalis followed four years later. By that time, he was engaged to a professor’s daughter. The deaths are listed with the deaths of three more Hardenberg siblings in an Afterword. The novel itself ends in 1797 with Sophie’s death.

It is fastidious, funny, sad, clever, and very engaging. The tragic tale is told with a dryness that has humour built into it, as though Jane Austen instead of Mrs Gaskell were writing about the Brontës. The tension between Fitzgerald’s cool and the alien turbulence of most of her characters adds piquancy. And yet she draws one right into the milieux she describes: at first, they seem uncouth, gothic and grotesque; but gradually, like a receptive au pair, one accepts the strange scene and customs, and comes to care very much for the weird foreign families among whom one finds oneself at Weissenfels, Tennstedt and the Rockenthiens’ estate at Grüningen. The Blue Flower is like Anna Karenina (though only in this respect) in being a novel of households.

Fitzgerald never lets the sense of foreignness go. She puts in a lot of German words, even when there are adequate English equivalents. For instance, because the Hardenbergs are poor, Fritz rides a sorry old nag. The German for nag is Gaul. Fitzgerald makes everybody call Fritz’s horse “the Gaul”, as though it were Asterix’s mount. She uses the opposite technique for the same purpose, translating German usage literally into English. So Fritz’s maverick little brother becomes “the Bernhard”, and Sophie’s married elder sister “the Mandelsloh”. These devices are amusing, but she could manage perfectly well without them. Her details are brilliantly chosen: the fees at the Herrenhut school, for instance, are eight Talers for a girl and ten for a boy, because boys eat more and need Latin and Hebrew grammars. Her descriptions, almost adjective-free except for a few colours, pull one into the scene: “By September carts were beginning to make their way into Jena from the pinewoods with logs for the coming winter. Branches from the tops of their loads scraped against the windows in the side-streets, which were littered with twigs like a rookery.”

As for the characters, each one, however briefly he or she appears (and the whole book is a miracle of concision, cramming three teeming households and a great deal of research into 224 pages), is as visible and audible as the twigs scraping the windows. Fitzgerald tells you what they eat (goose, eel, cabbage, plums), what they read (if they read), and what they think about the French Revolution. She is sympathetic towards all of them, even difficult old Hardenberg. As for Novalis himself, she acknowledges his gifts and his charm, and goes along with his mystic experiences: the apparition in the Weissenfels graveyard, and the luminous transfiguration of the Justs’ parlour. She lets him speak his manifesto a few days before Sophie’s death: “As things are, we are the enemies of the world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. … I love Sophie more because she is ill. Illness, helplessness is in itself a claim on love. We could not feel love for God Himself if he did not need our help.”

But I don’t think Fitzgerald loves Fritz. When Sophie lies dying, he decides he can’t bear it and leaves her to her practical, dull, staunch sister. The Mandelsloh has courage; she is the real hero along with the equally terre-à-terre and stoical Karoline, who finds Goethe’s Mignon “very irritating”. “She is only a child”, says Fritz, “a spirit or a spirit-seer, more than a child. She dies because the world is not holy enough to contain her.” “She dies because Goethe couldn’t think what to do with her next”, says Karoline. I wonder what Fitzgerald will do next. Her eclectic choice of subjects for fiction and for biography is always a welcome surprise.

Michael Ratcliffe (review date 17 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

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 Schlegel brothers in Jena—the Saxon principalities are honeycombed with mineral wealth, and Fitzgerald’s hero Fritz is training to be an Assistant Inspector of Salt Mines.

Eldest of seven children, with a patrician father who runs the house on a Moravian regime of prayer, and a mother who rarely goes out of doors, Fritz is Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772–1801), alias the mystic mining engineer and visionary poet Novalis, pupil of Schiller, contemporary of Wordsworth and Blake. Fitzgerald tells us that the name ‘Novalis’, which he chose for himself, means ‘newly cleared land’; and indeed her gentle Fritz is dismayed to find himself trapped in conventional perceptions of the world even as he stakes out his own new transcendental patch:

I say this is animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But … I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement.

‘For him,’ adds a colleague in Jena, ‘there is no real barrier between the seen and unseen’. He can, therefore, fall inappropriately but forever in love with the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn, and persist until he receives permission to marry her when she is 16. Long before then, however, Sophie has been winged by the dark angel of Romanticism, and is dying of TB.

The Blue Flower, fewer than 200 pages long, comprises 55 chapters, whose brevity sometimes unsettles the rhythm of the tale. Period and household are wonderfully well set up with a Brueghelesque laundry scene, and pretty soon we know how contemporaries could tell the Hardenbergs were skint, that members of the upper classes were not supposed to run in public (send a servant), and that in eighteenth-century Saxony you could take a glass of schnapps at the grocer’s but not at an inn. The magical onset of snow, the ceremonies of Christmas Eve, the mundane beauty of dawn after a morning duel: the novel is full of such sensuous occasions, precisely felt and seen.

There is an excess of characters, and the most memorable are not the lovers but those who mind and watch and stand on the side: among them a bookseller, a precocious child, Sophie’s fearless sister Mandelsloh, wiser than any man at 22, and Fritz’s mother, behind whose timidity lie strong feelings and a suppressed urge to speak out. The result is a meticulous, clever and often witty fiction of German cultural history, to which the novelist gives all her curiosity and intelligence but not, quite, all her heart.

Jane Gardam (review date 23 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

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 deathbed.

Von Hardenberg sounds a delightful fledgling. He had huge hands and feet. He entered a room like a thunderbolt. He rode excitedly about on a broken-down horse. He electrified his university teachers by his brilliance. He was compulsive and affectionate, innocent and guileless, comically insensitive to omen. After three universities his terrible old father sent him off to learn about being an inspector of saltmines which he seems to have enjoyed.

The family were devout, old-fashioned Moravians, ‘people of standing’ who made good sardonic jokes. They owned vast decaying properties here and there but were not rich except in bed-linen, of which they had so much they need wash but once a year. The book opens with a great cleansing, sheets ‘dropping in dingy snowfalls’ from high windows.

Fritz left this comfortable if peculiar set-up in search of ‘the meaning of the world’, which he thought redeemable, and of the ‘universal language’. There was a time, he believed, when plants and stones and sunlight communed with one another on equal terms with animals and man. He found instead, in a moment of timeless revelation, the child Sophie standing at the window, and within a quarter of an hour told her they would marry. Sophie was not interested in the meaning of the world or the conversation of stones. She wasn’t interested much in anything. She was very dull. Fritz’s family found her bourgeoise, plain, double-chinned, vacuous, with a dreadful laugh. A disaster of a wife for a burgeoning philosopher. She was also inarticulate about love.

But they need not have worried. Life in the soggy plains round Weissenfels was short. Children died like frosted buds. Sophie sickened. And as she faded her bravery astonished. The very account of her operations without anaesthetic is hard to bear, but Sophie bore them and survived. She endured for a spell in the heart of her rowdy loving family, laughing still although it hurt and listening for the sound of the broken-down horse’s hooves, which never came. The philosopher was not so brave as the flower.

How much of this short but widehorizoned book is true? The chapters, often only a page or two long, are sometimes straight extracts from the Hardenberg papers. One is the transcript of an hilarious reading-list for the student of the management of salt-mines. There are pathetic little scraps of Sophie’s diary (‘Today it was hot … Nothing happened. Hardenburch [she could never get his name right] did not come’) which must be quotations. There is An Incident of Student Life about Fritz the philosopher-to-be acting as referee in a duel and having to carry home in his mouth two severed fingers of one of the contestants to keep them warm enough to be stiched on again. This, one feels, could not have been made up.

But other things are tantalising. Was the love of Karoline for Fritz imagined? Was the terrifying escapade on the river true or put there because there is evidence—see appendix—that the child did in the end drown himself in the Saale? Were the von Kuhn family as described ‘born to be happy’? And the lovers’ two younger brothers, Fritz’s a demon angel who discussed the nature of death and Sophie’s who sat listening to him with a hard stare, munching pigeon pie?

I am prepared to believe a lot, and anything else Penelope Fitzgerald tells me about any of these people. She has total confidence in her characters, sees their ridiculousness as well as their pathos, sees them from within. Her sense of time and place is marvellously deft, done in a few words. She knows how they all walked, eased their old joints, watched each other. She knows the damp smell of decay of the ancient schlosses, I suppose all gone by now. Did she go and look? What happened to wonderful Schloben-die-Jena in its thick woods, its great clock set in its walls and all the workings ticking like hammers and defying sleep? She describes all classes from threadbare aristocrats to the middle-classes in their garden bowers smoking pipes and the peasants gathered for Christmas almsgiving, ‘vagrants, old soldiers, travelling theatrical companies, pedlars’, all ‘silting up like floating rubbish on the rivers’ banks.’ In a bare little book she reveals a country and an age as lost as Tolstoy’s Russia and which we seem somehow always to have known.

Frank Kermode (review date 5 October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1772

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 by Carlyle’s erroneous view of Coleridge as a mystic, and by Coleridge’s obsession with obscure German Idealist philosophy. Carlyle was right to describe Novalis as talented, poetical and philosophical, wild and deep, and right to compare his thought with ‘what little we understand of Fichte’s’, but again wrong, as Rosemary Ashton explains in her admirable book The German Idea, in failing to understand that Fichte and Fichteans differed fundamentally from Kant in rejecting the Thing in Itself. You were to think the Thing only as a preparation for thinking that that thought of the Thing.

In Fitzgerald’s book the student Novalis and his friends gather in order to fichtieren among themselves after the great man’s lectures, but Fichte wasn’t the only influence; there were others, possibly deeper. The Hardenbergs were a noble but not a rich family (the poet, though formally addressed as ‘Freiherr’, was short of cash, rode a nag and sometimes had to walk). They had a 16th-century reformer among their ancestors, and they were Moravians, interested in prayer, hymn-singing and simplicity of life. Although he was to find the disciplines of the sect too limiting, the poet retained a powerful strain of pietism, unaffected by his professional interest in the latest chemistry and geology. Familiar with modern philosophical idealism and the Romantic ‘organicist’ aesthetic, resistant to the rationalism of Enlightenment, Novalis can presumably be thought of as participating in what Isaiah Berlin named the ‘counter-enlightenment’.

As Berlin remarks, irrationalists such as J. G. Hamann could turn Enlightenment thought to their own purposes, and it is here slyly hinted that Novalis could have reconciled his interest in Jakob Boehme and Spinozan pantheism with an interest in Hume (for example: it is belief in miracles that is the miracle). Other leading ideas were that matter and spirit were continuous, and that all knowledge, from mathematics to poetry, was of the same basic stuff.

Like Goethe, though probably with more practical success, Novalis had a job in mining, and seems to have found a place in his philosophy for mineral deposits. And as Goethe wanted to find an Urpflanz in Sicily, Novalis had a vision of a unique blue flower as the goal of a quest. He admired Goethe, of course, though he found Wilhelm Meister artificial, a work of the understanding rather than of the imagination, and wrote his unfinished, posthumously published novel about the blue flower (Heinrich von Ofterdingen) to counteract what he regarded as the coldness of that work.

The above ragged and perfunctory account of Novalis is in sad contrast with Penelope Fitzgerald’s. She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit. Her first novel was a detective story set in a museum rather like the BM, and it was at once clear, though unobtrusively so, that she knew all about museum administration and its crises. Bookshop implied knowledge not only of bookshops but of book-keeping; Offshore not only of life on a houseboat in Battersea Reach but of William de Morgan. Human Voices unmistakably suggests an inwardness with life at the BBC, and Innocence a close familiarity with post-war Italy, Gramsci and various human deformities. Other novels hint at omniscience concerning Cambridge, and Russia in 1913.

All this is inside information, which never seems to be got up or stuck in for the occasion, as sometimes happens with historical blockbusters: and of this rare skill The Blue Flower is a remarkable further instance. ‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history,’ runs one of Novalis’s fragments, used here as an epigraph. It is a wise remark and explains why familiar ways of writing history acquire something like the narrative qualities of fiction. Fitzgerald, a superbly tactful novelist, has avoided a form of fiction that might be thought to resemble that kind of history. The method used here is episodic, discontinuous: the effect is rather tachiste, which enhances one’s sense that the book’s design or designs are for the reader to make or discern.

The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn. She is 12 years old when he meets her and at once designates her his future bride and his incarnation of Wisdom. Reluctant parental permission is obtained for their betrothal, but Sophie (as well as not being noble) is tubercular. Much of the story concerns this painful and destructive illness, which kills her when she is 15. Novalis himself, though he lived long enough to get engaged to somebody else, thereafter confessed a wish for death, and did not long survive Sophie, dying at 29 of the same disease. Their relationship, and Fritz’s dealings with his own family and Sophie’s, are the main business of the novel.

Sophie was, it seems, a perfectly commonplace young girl, neither intelligent nor particularly beautiful, but on Novalis’s view of the world nothing is commonplace because all when rightly seen is symbolic. There is no barrier between the seen and the unseen. He claims to love Sophie all the more because she is sick: ‘Illness, helplessness, is in itself a claim on love. We could not feel love for God if he did not need our help.’ His friends can understand neither his blue flower nor his passion for Sophie, though one of his brothers also falls in love with her, unlike Fritz, he is repelled to discover that because of her illness she has become bald. Only another brother, 17 years younger than Fritz, has an intuitive glimmering as to what the flower is all about; he doesn’t say, but probably guessed it had to do with death. This boy is the latest version of a type that Fitzgerald has used before, a sort of wise child figure, with a gift for shrewd, pert dialogue, rather like some children in Ivy Compton-Burnett. The Bernhard, as he is called, is sketched with great delicacy and humour, in spite of his dark fate; he died—before Fritz—by drowning, a fate he probably sought. His end is prefigured in the novel though outside its time scheme.

The main narrative is fragmentary and rather distanced. What is so impressive is the sureness and economy with which the setting is established. Great men—Goethe, the Schlegels, Fichte—walk on without seeming in the least intrusive. Allusions to contemporary university life (students could still ask Fichte questions only because he was not yet a professor), to contemporary philosophy, medicine, agriculture, have the same unobtrusive certainty, which also characterises more humdrum matters. If a piano is bought to replace a harpsichord the qualities of this newfangled instrument and the merits of rival makers are touched in with the same assurance as the domestic duties of daughters, the pious habits of a Moravian father, or the privileges and duties of the minor nobility.

The book opens with the confusions of washday in Fritz’s noble Saxon household, and we learn as it were by the way that washday was an annual event in establishments possessing enough linen to last out that time—a friend of Fritz’s, deriving from less exalted stock, feels ashamed that he has only 89 shirts, so that at his house there has to be a washday every four months. Fitzgerald, who delights in knowing this kind of thing, also knows how winter supplies of wood were delivered, how coaches were sprung, why the wrist-watch was invented and how Christmas was celebrated in pious homes (all confess the sins of the year to father; there is a Saxon variant of Father Christmas called Knecht Rupert). The cuisine of Saxony (rose-hip and onion soup, goose with treacle sauce, Kesselfleisch—the ears, nose and neck fat of the pig boiled with peppermint) seems too recherché to have been made up for the purpose, and is unlikely to have been included in the collected works of Novalis; but this curious and retentive writer has not confined her researches to them. She has always had a taste for detail.

Detail, expertly dabbed in, provides in the end a substantial background for the story of a poet which, it is subtly suggested, is also the story of a remarkable moment in the history of civilisation. There are echoes of the great disturbances in France; a brother joins the Army; the universities, notably, Jena, and the cities, Leipzig and Dresden, are just out of view, but the formation of the poet is largely domestic. He is naive and provincial, but innocently intelligent, which enables him to entertain with uncorrupted enthusiasm ideas of all sorts—about nature, its purity and its symbolism, about God and mineral deposits, about the epiphanies vouchsafed to the elect, about the new and the old ideas combining at the great moment when it was possible to proclaim that the world must be romanticised. It is hard to see how the hopes and defeats of Romanticism, or the relation between inspiration and common life, between genius and mere worthiness, could be more deftly rendered than they are in this admirable novel.

Richard Eder (review date 13 April 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214

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 intellectual passions of any such large movement and the humbler, more permanent truths of human nature.

Big subjects—and Fitzgerald does, in fact, start them in the laundry. A young man travels from Jena with his former fellow-student the Freiherr Friedrich von Hardenberg, later famous as the German Romantic poet Novalis. They arrive at the decrepit Hardenberg townhouse only to find themselves under a snowstorm of sheets, pillowcases, chemises and drawers pitched from the upper stories into the courtyard.

“The Freiherr is trampling on the unsorted garments,” shouts the housekeeper from a second-story window. Knee-deep in underthings, the two young men below discuss whether there can be said to be such a thing as a thing in itself. In The Blue Flower, laundry is philosophical, and philosophy and poetry exist as materially as the fact that the family wash is done three times a year and that a young man will therefore own 89 shirts, allowing for an occasional two-day stretch.

Novalis, a mystical poet, was the son of a strict and devout father, a minor noble and director of the state salt works in Brunswick. Taking part in the intellectual ferment at the university in Jena, with such figures as Fichte and Schlegel, he died in 1801 at the age of 29, a few years after the death of his teen-age fiancee.

Within the facts, Fitzgerald has woven a shimmering fictional garment. Instead of a running narrative, her brief chapters are a series of sudden illuminations, sharply juxtaposed. They range from family scenes, to a glimpse of the Jena circle, to a duel, to Fritz (as Novalis is familiarly called) riding through the countryside. They present Sophie Kuhn, whom Fritz meets when she is 12 and promptly dubs “my philosophy,” and a terrible glimpse of a surgical operation without anesthetic.

Fitzgerald is the most cosmopolitan of English writers. Her three best books—Innocence, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels—are set, respectively, in Italy, pre-revolutionary Russia and Oxford before World War I. Like any excellent writer she creates a world, but like only a very few—Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino come to mind—she creates a metaphysics as well.

There is a magical immanence in her world, but it has no hierarchy. It is found in the grand Romantic ferment but also in a family routine, a young woman concealing a sudden start of love, a child running down to the river after the mildest of scoldings.

Take that last one. Fritz’s angelic little brother, “the Bernhard” (Fitzgerald imparts the faintest of German locution with just “the”), hides on a river barge.

Fritz, no longer the dreamy poet but a panicked brother, runs to find him. “The Bernhard” is briefly defiant and then allows himself to be hoisted on his brother’s shoulders.

“How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility,” Fitzgerald writes. It is the finest of natural observations, but there is something more. Novalis’ poetry about the affinity between life and death has planted itself in the mischievous 8-year-old—years later he will drown in the same river.

Or take any of several scenes with Fritz’s autocratic, penny-pinching father. (The family’s penurious piety is such that Sidonie, the incandescent daughter who manages things, has to argue that providing a slop-pail for a visitor in no way breaches “a plain and God-fearing life.”)

The old Freiherr conducts an annual Christmas examination in which he proclaims a spiritual balance for each member of the family. One Christmas, looking shrunk, he cancels the ceremony. His Moravian Brethren preacher has told him he is too old to act as judge; his Christmas duty now is to be childlike and joyful.

“Anything less childlike than the leathery, seamed, broad, bald face of the Freiherr and his eyes, perplexed to the point of anguish under his strong eyebrows, could hardly be imagined.” The author adds that “the Brethren were experienced in joy, and perhaps sometimes forgot what a difficult emotion it is. …”

For the old man, it is conversion: a lofty event and also terribly funny. Fitzgerald’s writing is exquisite but not graceful: a choppy stream not a smooth one, a sublime current broken up by rocky absurdities. The episodes, some barely a page long, roughly converge around the motifs of love. Fritz is candid, awkward and sweet-natured, but he and his poetry are propelled by the abstract Romantic passion that is just beginning its historic reign. When it touches two particular women, it injures.

One is Sophie, whose childhood in a large and boisterous family, wonderfully evoked, is flooded out by Fritz’s prophetic tidal wave. She is unformed—her diary is a series of entries: “Nothing happened today”—but she responds as best she can. She keeps a poem of his with her list of dogs’ names.

Fitzgerald does not judge between art and life. But after Sophie dies, following an operation that in a few lines is the book’s most frightening scene—the author fulminates by withholding—we sense the emotional depth under the intellectual shallows.

Even more moving is Katherine, memorably human. She is the poet’s intimate confidant and too real for him to love. Her love for him is expressed through brilliant evasive strategies that are both comical and sad.

Fitzgerald has always been easier for British critics to admire than define (she has won the Booker Prize once and been a finalist twice), though the failures have produced some splendidly perceptive prose. I can do no better. It occurs to me, though, that closer than any literary comparison are the films of Eric Rohmer, their powerful emotional charge achieved, mosaic-like, by playful indirection and digression.

Like Rohmer, she has never quite caught fire in the United States—The Blue Flower appears only in paperback, which seems absurd—but it is hard to believe that a conflagration will never come.

Michael Dirda (review date June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449

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 publishers prefer to distribute only the truly timeless in hardcover, and a perfect work of art such as this one must naturally bow before the obvious superiority of the latest “Star Trek” tie-in. Perhaps, though, Mariner Books—a new division of Houghton Mifflin—hopes that a paperback edition may encourage readers, especially younger readers, to give Fitzgerald a whirl. Whatever the case, The Blue Flower is a bargain, a book to buy and salt away for vacation or to turn to gratefully at the end of a soul-destroying Washington workday.

Die blaue Blume, the blue flower—first imagined by the great German poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis—has long been a symbol of Romantic yearning, whether for easeful death or for some ineffable and transcendental ecstasy. In her novel Fitzgerald follows the general course of Hardenberg’s early life, providing cameos of his family, teachers, friends and employers. Even though there are 55 chapters (for a mere 225 pages) and nearly as many characters, the book never feels busy or hurried. Each character springs to life in a few sentences or a crisp turn of phrase. “Large though the house was, she always found guests a difficulty. The bell rang, you heard the servants crossing the hall, everything was on top of you before you could pray for guidance.” And so you have Fritz’s timid, always slightly bewildered mother, the Freifrau.

At the book’s heart lies the poet’s mystical, seemingly irrational love for the very young and rather plain Sophie von Kuhn—who will eventually die at 15. Although the novel touches on several aspects of German romanticism (the mystical, philosophical, folkloristic), the real pleasure of this text derives from its shrewd understanding of personal relations and from the elegant beauty of the writing.

Consider how deftly Fitzgerald suggests the Germanness of the setting with her very opening words: “Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday.” Note, first, the double use of “not” to convey a formality and exactness verging on pedantry. Yet the real feather touch of genius lies, of course, in the insertion of “the” before “washday”: Immediately, the whole sentence takes on a purse-lipped Teutonic accent. Such nuances recur periodically, just often enough to evoke another time, a vanished world.

Where some writers like to build their effects slowly, Fitzgerald prefers a quicksilver economy that may sound a little bare outside her pages. One picks up the rhythm of the sentences, though, and comes to value minute, telling details. When Fritz returns from visiting a sophisticated city uncle, his brother Erasmus asks what was talked about at the dinner table: “Nature-philosophy, galvanism, animal magnetism, and freemasonry”—precisely the right late 18th-century topics for fashionable intellectual discussion. After a friend’s two fingers are cut off in an early morning duel, young Dr. Dietmahler tells Fritz to put them in his mouth. “If they are kept warm I can perhaps sew them back on our return.” More than a few Washingtonians will ruefully recognize their own experience in this observation about a soiree for blue-stockings and their admirers:

“The musical evenings and conversazione at Jena were crowded, but not everyone said brilliant things, or indeed, anything at all. Some of the guests stood uneasily, certain that they had been invited, but not, now that they had arrived, that their names had been remembered.”

Fitzgerald brings to vivid, flashing life servants and salt mine bureaucrats, both the august Goethe and a precocious little brother named Bernhard. The bookseller Severin, we learn, “had been poor and unsuccessful, had kept himself going by working very hard, at low wages, for the proprietor of the bookshop, and then, when the proprietor had died, had married his widow and come into the whole property. Of course the whole of Weissenfels knew this and approved it. It was their idea of wisdom exactly.” That last sentence encapsulates an entire bourgeois mentality. By contrast, could anyone be more romantic than the serious young painter, hired to create a portrait of Sophie? “He had determined to paint Fraulein Sophie standing in the sunshine, just at the end of childhood and on the verge of a woman’s joy and fulfillment, and to include in his portrait the Mandelsloh, her sister, the soldier’s wife, likely to be widowed, sitting in shadow, the victim of woman’s lot.”

Ah yes, the Mandelsloh! What a woman! At one point she enters a room carrying a bucket and pauses to talk high-mindedly with Fritz for a while. “Sophie reappeared … It seemed that she had been playing with some new kittens in the housemaids’ pantry. ‘So that is where they are,’ said the Mandelsloh. She was reminded now that she had brought the bucket of water to drown these kittens. The servants were fainthearted about their duty in this respect.” It is yet another sign of Fitzgerald’s mastery that this seemingly coldhearted Valkyrie turns out to be the most admirable character in the book—at once competent, selfless and commonsensical. Following Sophie’s three barbaric operations, she alone cares for her sister with complete devotion, even when she knows it is all in vain. Near the end, she brusquely tells the annoyingly optimistic Fritz about the facts of death: “If you stayed here, you would not be wanted as a nurse …You would be wanted as a liar.”

Throughout The Blue Flower there are occasional longer chapters, carefully lit scenes of heartbreak and comedy: Karoline Justen’s aching realization that Fritz has fallen in love with an insignificant little girl; a Christmas feast at the Hardenbergs; Sophie’s engagement party; her first surgery without anesthesia. One watches with particular delight as Erasmus, who described Sophie as plain and empty-headed, slowly falls in love with his brother’s intended, eventually finding himself compelled to spend more and more time in her company because of one of the strongest motives “known to humanity, the need to torment himself.”

There is no waste in this apparently meandering, almost leisurely short novel. When young Dr. Dietmahler arrives on that memorable washday, he finds himself attracted to Fritz’s younger sister Sidonie. Two hundred pages later, the rising young surgeon again encounters Fraulein von Hardenberg, who smiles and claims to recall his visit. The doctor politely hands Sidonie his professional card. “That would bring his name to her mind, no doubt of it. But the few moments during which she had not been able to remember it confirmed Dietmahler in what, after all, he already knew, that he was nothing. What means something to us, that we can name. Sink, he told his hopes, with a kind of satisfaction, sink like a corpse dropped into the river. I am rejected, not for being unwelcome, not even for being ridiculous, but for being nothing.”

It is quite astonishing how much Penelope Fitzgerald packs into a little more than 200 pages. It is even more astonishing to realize that she is, past 80, writing better than ever. Perhaps such masterpieces as this, serene with wry wisdom, can only be achieved in later life. So seek The Blue Flower, and when you find it, rejoice. After a while, you’ll want to go out and look for The Beginning of Spring, Innocence, and The Gate of Angels.

Richard Holmes (review date 17 July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3221

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 Night,” 1800), he himself died from consumption at the age of twenty-nine. The five volumes of his Letters and Works (edited by Richard Samuel and Paul Kluckhohn, 1988) have never been fully translated,1 and it is characteristic that perhaps the most beautiful version of the “Hymns to the Night,” by the 1890s poet James Thomson, was only issued in a limited edition in 1995.2 His Fragments, some of them collected in Pollen, give a glimpse into a visionary world, strongly influenced by the extreme idealism of Fichte, and the poetic science or Naturphilosophie of Schelling. “Philosophy is really Homesickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” “The Sciences must all be made Poetic.” “Man is metaphor.” “Poetry heals the wounds given by Reason.” “Space spills over into Time, like the Body into the Soul.” “Death is the Romantic principle in our lives.” “The World must be romanticized, only thus will we discover its original meaning.”

When Thomas Carlyle first introduced Novalis to English readers in a famous essay of 1829, he excused him as a “Mystic,” and remarked that though his writings showed wonderful depth and originality, Novalis’s mind was “of a nature or habit so abstruse, and altogether different from anything we ourselves have notice or experience of, that to penetrate fairly into its essential character, much more to picture it forth in visual distinctness, would be an extremely difficult task. …”

The attempt to bring back Novalis—or rather young “Fritz” von Hardenberg—into a world of recognizable human feelings and “visual distinctness,” across that great gap of historical time and sensibility, is the subject of a truly remarkable novel, The Blue Flower by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald. She puts as her epigraph another of Novalis’s aphorisms: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And she steps back into that lost, transcendental, German world with a scene so striking and utterly surprising that one is enthralled from the outset.

A young friend from the University of Jena has arrived at Weissenfels to visit Fritz and his extensive and rather alarmingly clever family. He plunges headlong into laundry (rather than poetry), having fallen by mistake upon the aristocratic annual Washday.

… Here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows of the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. The underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.

The description in its wit and confidence, its knowledge of eighteenth-century domestic customs, its slight hint of Germanic diction and accent, its evocation of a whole bustling household, and its final suggestion of visionary destinies about to “take flight,” shows a master hand immediately at work. The novel that follows, in fifty-five short chapters, structured almost like some Schubertian song cycle, bears out this promise to an extraordinary degree, in a work of exquisite, crystalline intelligence and angular polish.

How did Penelope Fitzgerald come to this ambitious subject with such formidable confidence? Her career is intriguing. Having taken a First Class Degree at Somerville College, Oxford, she did not begin writing until her sixties. She worked in journalism, the BBC, the Ministry of Food, a bookstore, and a theatrical school. At one point she lived with her husband and family on a Thames barge at Battersea, “which sank.”

All these experiences gave her the material for her early novels, which are short, affectionate, lyrical satires on human folly. Her characters are small, eccentric people within large, conventional institutions, who are marked out by a moral vision of the world often hopelessly at odds with its ordinary, material values. Their stories are told with a dry, elliptical wit and a highly compressed prose style, often running to less than two hundred pages, and having the intensity of moral fables, The bookselling episode emerged as The Bookshop3, set on the bleak East Anglian coast, peopled with quirky, hostile customers and a comparatively friendly poltergeist. It is really a study in courage. The Thames barge experience produced Offshore, which in turn is really about generosity, and which won the Booker Prize in 1979. Since then her work has won exceptional praise from many of her peers, including Doris Lessing, A. S. Byatt, and Professor Frank Kermode, and in 1996 she was awarded the Heywood Hill Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to literature. In interviews she is unfailingly modest, calling herself “a depressive humorist” and revealing the sadness that belies her lightness of touch. “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

Something of the source of this vision can be found in a wonderful, anecdotal biography she wrote of her father, Edmund Knox (the celebrated editor of Punch), and his three brothers, including Ronald Knox, the Roman Catholic translator of the Bible. “They were a vicarage family and the vicarages were the intellectual powerhouses of nineteenth century England.” Their taste for literature, for strenuous intellectual endeavor, and for the Edwardian wit of understatement, has evidently remained with her. They had “an inborn melancholy, and natural relish for disaster.” Her father thought that real humor was found “not in ingenuity but incongruity, particularly in relation to the dignified place which man has assigned to himself in the scheme of things.” Much of their genius, she says, “lay in their fondness for quiet understatement. ‘One gets so little practice at this,’ said my father gently when in 1971 he lay dying. I too feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle and economical.”

One story she tells of uncle Dillwyn Knox, a brilliant scholar of ancient Greek texts in the Housman tradition, and also one of the eccentric band of cryptographers who broke the Enigma code at Bletchley during the Second World War, shows her fictional style in the making. Referring to herself in the third person as “the niece,” she recalls how, as “the kindest of visiting uncles,” Dillwyn would faithfully take her out for weekends from her detested boarding school, and as frequently bring her back late after roll call. “Agitated at having brought her back late in the baby Austin, which seemed to spring and bounce along the roads like a fawn, he bravely entered the precincts, blinking in the bright light, confronting the outraged housemistress, who said ‘Rules are made to be kept’ with the answer: ‘But they are only defined by being broken.’” Many of her themes—love, loyalty, defiance, unconventional intelligence—are caught in that oddly touching snapshot.

Perhaps responding to changes in her own life, the domestic English focus of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work suddenly began to alter and expand, to breathe more exotic air, in 1986 with the novel Innocence, a slightly baroque and deliciously bizarre picture of postwar Italy. Two years later, she was even deeper into Europe, with The Beginning of Spring (1988), a startlingly effective re-creation of Moscow in 1913. This is a story of the emotional rebirth of a middle-aged Englishman, Frank Reid, who has come to work in Russia. Though brilliantly detailed in historical setting (the snow, the samovars, the Tsarist chaos), it has strong metaphysical undertones, partly drawn from Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It contains a mysterious heroine, the peasant girl Lisa, who in a wonderful passage is identified with the myth of the Russian birch forest carrying the cycles of seasonal regeneration.

As soon as the shining leaf-buds split open the young leaves breathed out an aromatic scent, not so thick as the poplar but wilder and more memorable, the true scent of wild and lonely places. … The leaves, turning from bright olive to a darker green, were agitated and astir even when the wind dropped. They were never strong enough to block out the light completely. The birch forest, unlike the pine forest, always gives a chance of life to whatever grows beneath it.

This is already closer to the European dream of Novalis and his child bride, and it singles out a powerful but hitherto latent Fitzgerald idea about the moral necessity of imagination. One of Frank’s friends, an eccentric poet and accountant called Selwyn (who is a suitably crazed Tolstoyan, and printing a volume entitled “Birch Tree Thoughts”), upbraids him with his failures of imagination, “I mean of picturing the sufferings of others.” The scene hovers characteristically between the lyrical and the tenderly absurd. If the kindly Frank has a fault, “it’s that you don’t grasp the importance of what is beyond sense or reason. And yet that is a world in itself. ‘Where is the stream,’ we cry with tears. But look up, and lo! there is the blue stream flowing gently over our heads.” One might suppose that Selwyn’s strangely haunting quotation, about the blue stream inverted overhead like the flood of distant stars, comes from Tolstoy. It is never identified. But in fact it comes from Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen.

The Blue Flower is so powerful, it seems to me, because it draws on a long and deep accumulation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s most distinctive concerns. What appears so distant is in fact—by a wonderful process of assimilation—already a familiar universe. The ability to recreate the family life of the Hardenbergs (with its strict Moravian religious background) is already foreshadowed in the lost Edwardian world of the young Knoxes in their vicarage. The steady expansion of moral and metaphysical themes—the great questions of love, loyalty, imagination, suffering—arise naturally from the earlier novels. When young Fritz falls in love with the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, the beauty and absurdity of it strikes a perfectly recognizable Fitzgerald note. All great historical fiction, one might suggest, is a form of homesickness.

The picture of Sophie is a marvelous, tender, ironic creation. To Fritz she looks like this: “Sophie was pale, her mouth was pale rose. There was the gentlest possible gradation between the color of the face and the slightly open, soft, fresh, full, pale mouth. It was as if nothing had reached, as yet, its proper color or its full strength—always excepting her dark hair.” But to Fritz’s friend, the painter Hoffmann, she is merely “a decent, good-hearted Saxon girl, potato-fed, with the bloom of thirteen summers, and the coarse glow of thirteen winters.” To Fritz’s beloved younger brother, Erasmus, she is as “empty as a new jug,” and moreover has a slight double chin. When Fritz reads her the opening of his novel, and asks her about the meaning of the Blue Flower, her response is naive. “Why should he care about a flower? He is not a woman, and he is not a gardener.” He concludes, “she doesn’t want to be embarrassed by my love. … She cares more about other people and their feelings than about her own. But she is cold through and through.” Yet in their conversations, Fitzgerald captures again and again what enchants him and makes him love her. When he talks of Schlegel’s theories of the transmigration of souls, she agrees that she would like to be born again—“if I could have fair hair.”

Sophie’s figure is offset by several more mature women who love Fritz, but to whom he remains almost cruelly indifferent. Notable among these is Karoline Just, the niece of his first employer at Tennstedt. (Fitzgerald makes brilliant use of the surprising circumstance that the poet is training as a mining engineer, and is fascinated by science and mathematics.) Fritz writes a poem to Karoline’s eyebrow, but does not return her love. Yet he and Karoline can discuss Romantic philosophy together, and these debates show wonderfully well the formation of that “abstruse” imagination which will transform Fritz into the poet Novalis. (The name, incidentally, was taken from an ancestral estate—like the French poet Gérard de Nerval’s—and refers not to stars, but to something more earthly—“the clearer of new land.”)

Karoline, like the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, regards mining as a violation of Mother Nature, and cannot see how a Romantic poet could condone it. Using passages from Novalis’s letters and his novel (as she does throughout, with extraordinary skill and delicacy), Fitzgerald constructs a wonderful and weirdly poetic reply to Karoline, which catches all the heady, metaphoric alchemy of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

Fritz cried—“No, Justen, you have not understood. The mining industry is not a violation of Nature’s secrets, but a release. You must imagine that in the mines you reach the primal sons of Mother Earth, the age-old life, trapped in the ground beneath your feet. I have seen this process as a meeting with the King of Metals, who waits underground, listening in hope for the first sounds of the pick, while the miner struggles through the hardships to bring him up to the light of day. Release, Justen! What must the King of Metals feel when he turns his face to the sunlight for the first time?”

All this is anchored, or earthed, within a superbly realized picture of social life in late eighteenth-century Thuringia, among the proud but penniless aristocracy, the intellectuals of Jena University, and the greedy bucolic peasantry of the rural communes. Goethe and Schlegel have walk-on parts. There are many striking set pieces—a provincial fair, Fritz’s engagement party, a student duel, a Christmas party with its pagan candle-lit fir tree. “Inside the library the myriad fiery shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the high walls and even across the ceiling. In the warmth the room breathed even more deeply, more resinously, more greenly.”

The descriptions of Germanic feasting are rendered with particular gothic virtuosity, as if to counterbalance the delicate idealism of Fritz’s poetic dreaming. “The servants had already brought in the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbagewater, one of cows’ udders flavored with nutmeg. There was dough mixed with beech nut oil, pickled herrings and goose with treacle sauce. …”

In one scene, which prefigures Sophie’s tragic death, Fritz enters a country churchyard at dusk, and sees the mysterious vision of a youth standing above an open grave. This moment of mystic contemplation is rendered with extraordinary assurance and simplicity, as if bringing a Caspar David Friedrich landscape to external life, and then dissolving it back into a wholly interior world, in exact accordance with Romantic doctrines. (The source here is the famous sixteenth Fragment from Novalis’s Pollen.)

It was by now the very late afternoon, pale blue above clear yellow, with the burning clarity of the northern skies, growing more and more transparent, as though to end in revelation. …

The creak and thump of the pastor’s cows could still be heard far into the burial ground where the graves and the still empty spaces, cut off from each other now by the mist, had become dark green islands, dark green chambers of mediation. …

He said aloud, “The external world is the world of shadows. It throws its shadows into the kingdom of light. How different they will appear when this darkness is gone and the shadow-body has passed away. The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards.”

But in a perfect Fitzgerald peripetacia, the full tragic irony of this calm pantheistic vision only becomes clear when Sophie’s “shadow-body” is subject to an appallingly physical operation at the hands of the surgeons of Jena, from which she dies an agonizing and lingering death. (Some of the medical details are taken from Fanny d’Arblay’s horrifying and unforgettable account to her sister Esther Burney of her mastectomy operation undertaken in 1811 without anaesthetic.)

This swift and constant play of extremities and “incongruities,” of light and dark, love and misunderstanding, imagination and foolishness, idealism and gross physically, gives The Blue Flower its distinctive power and narrative conviction. At times it reads like a satire, at others like a folk tale, at others like a pure Romantic lyric. The pungent shifts of tone, and compressions of style, are amazingly assured. As an act of historical re-creation it achieves what Carlyle had thought nearly impossible, and makes Novalis and the world that produced him recognizable, memorable, and indeed movingly intimate.

For all its research, it is still of course a fiction. We would not guess, for example, that Fritz’s brother Erasmus would die of consumption just three weeks after Sophie. Nor can we take account of the fact (which so exercised Carlyle) that Friedrich von Hardenberg soon after became engaged to another woman, Julie von Charpentier, the daughter of the Professor of Mathematics at the Mining Academy of Freiberg. (Fitzgerald places this, mischievously perhaps, in a postscript.)

But these are the shortcomings of history, and The Blue Flower leaves us free to mediate on them, and perhaps to try Novalis for ourselves. As it stands, this seems to me the book that Penelope Fitzgerald (now in her eighties) was born to write, and I can think of no better introduction to the rest of her wonderfully accomplished and original work. As Fritz says to Sophie, “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”


  1. But see Henry von Ofterdingen, newly translated by Palmer Hilty (Waveland, 1990).

  2. Novalis and the Poets of Pessimism, edited by Simon Reynolds (Norwich: Micheal Russell, 1995).

  3. First published in England in 1978, to be published in the US in September by Houghton Mifflin.

Julian Gitzen (essay date October 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5545

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

Fitzgerald’s milieu is social comedy, within which she invariably focuses upon the activities of a small group of characters and prefers to feature comedy’s traditional subject of romantic love. She understands that successful compression in fiction requires above all restriction in both plot or narrative incident and passage of time, and that, as in short stories, the number of prominent characters must be kept to a minimum. The time span of her narratives typically is a year or less. The events in Innocence, arguably her most ambitious and complex work, transpire in little more than twelve months and involve only five or six major characters. As suggested by its title, The Beginning of Spring covers a time span of only a few weeks and centers upon the activities of three characters. These narratives revolve around one or two events: a middle-aged woman’s unsuccessful attempt to operate a bookstore; a father’s search for a suitable governess for his children; the meeting, brief courtship, and marriage of a young doctor and a Florentine noblewoman; the career conflict caused by the love affair between a fledgling academic and a would-be nurse.

In the interest of rapid pace, Fitzgerald occasionally accelerates events by introducing to each other two characters who, with an alacrity worthy of Shakespearean comedy, instantly fall in love. More typically, one immediately falls in love, while the other remains cool or is attracted to a third person. Impulsive acts also contribute to the brevity of the narratives. The Beginning of Spring is set in train by the impulsive departure of Frank Reid’s wife and closes abruptly (but symmetrically) with her equally sudden and unexpected return. Coincidence also plays its part in shortening the narratives. The Gate of Angels opens with the collision of two bicycles on a Cambridge byway, an accident which serves to introduce to one another the bicyclists, Daisy Saunders and Fred Fairly. It ends with a second fortuitous collision of sorts when Daisy unexpectedly encounters Fred while hurrying to the train station with the intention of leaving him. In Innocence an opportune phone call from his wife prevents a distracted neurologist from committing suicide. In Offshore a storm arrives on cue to signal both the end of a marriage and the conclusion of the novel.

Fitzgerald obviously recognizes that restriction of setting or locale is also suited to compressed narratives. Her strict rationing of backgrounds is particularly noteworthy in the three novels to date located in London, in each of which the action proceeds with a stage-like economy requiring no more than four major settings. The chief characters of Offshore dwell on a barge and a converted minesweeper, both of which are moored in the Thames at Battersea Reach. The majority of the novel’s scenes occur on these two vessels. Human Voices centers upon BBC personnel in the early days of World War II and accordingly takes place largely in Broadcasting House, with occasional excursions to a French restaurant or to the Hammersmith home of one of the young female characters. The central locale of At Freddie’s is the Temple School, an academy for child actors situated in Covent Garden. Additional scenes occur in the Nonesuch Theatre, “just off the Strand,” and in the bed-sitter rented by one of the school’s teachers. While these three novels are among Fitzgerald’s shortest, even in the longer and considerably more complex Innocence the majority of the action transpires in three settings, all of them family properties in or near Florence.

Complementing these neatly restricted locales is a judiciously focused character-portrayal. Fitzgerald is perhaps unique among current English novelists in identifying and delineating her characters primarily according to single, dominant virtues. In most of her novels one or more of the major characters exemplifies one or two traditional virtues. Among the most appealing of such figures is Daisy Saunders of The Gate of Angels. Daisy has been born in London into a life of poverty and hard work. At the age of eighteen she is accepted as a nurse-in-training at Blackfriars Hospital. Her choice of the nursing profession is itself indicative of the generosity of spirit which moves her and which is underlined when the author describes her as “generous … the kind of girl who’d give you the teeth out of her head, if she could get them loose.” Though admirable in itself, generosity is linked with vulnerability. Daisy remains blessedly unaware of “how dangerous generosity is to the giver,” but as if to drive home the lesson, her kindhearted attempt to assist one of her patients requires her to break a hospital rule and leads to her dismissal.

Fitzgerald has no time to waste upon protracted romances. Even the shyest of her suitors, such as Fred Fairly, act with sturdy impetuousness. On their first excursion into the country, Fred asks Daisy to marry him. Although fond of Fred and touched by his proposal, Daisy hesitates. Her unwillingness to accept on the spot arises in part, as the author explains, from her habitual generosity of spirit: “All her life she had been at a great disadvantage in finding it so much more easy to give than to take. Hating to see anyone in want, she would part without a thought with money or possessions, but she could accept only with the caution of a half-tamed animal.”2 As the narrative develops, it assumes the dimensions of old-fashioned melodrama, with Daisy’s virtue being threatened by an unscrupulous journalist, who eventually (and quite improbably) is knocked unconscious by the jealous Fred. This encounter fails to clear the way entirely for the marriage, and a distraught Daisy is hurrying to the train station, intending to return to London, when she passes an open door in the wall of one of the Cambridge colleges. Unknowingly, she is gazing into the inner courtyard of Fred’s college, St. Angelicus. In other words, an angelic figure stands before “the Gate of Angels.” From within she hears “a very faint … human cry of distress,” and, as is her wont, “without thinking twice about it, she walk[s] straight in” to find in the inner courtyard “an elderly man,” the blind Master of the college, in a mild state of shock. Daisy comforts him but fails to understand either the reason for his shock (the inexplicably opened door in question) or the general excitement occasioned by her innocent arrival within the walls of a college where no women are permitted. The door through which she has entered has opened mysteriously on only two other occasions in the college’s 500-year history. Though currently renowned as a center for scientific study, the college was founded as an institution of Christian learning, and the rare appearance at its door of Christian charity has been recognized and welcomed. In this instance, too, charity is rewarded, since the brief delay of her detour into the college grounds causes Daisy shortly thereafter to meet Fred unexpectedly as he returns to his quarters at the college.

Daisy’s generosity is spontaneous and unwilled, though no less estimable on that account than duty, the learned and deliberately practiced virtue which is exemplified in Richard Blake of Offshore. Richard is the chief male character of this novel, the counterpart to and briefly the lover of Nenna James, its female protagonist. Nenna and her two children inhabit one of a cluster of barges moored at Battersea Reach. Nearby lies Richard’s converted minesweeper, Lord Jim. One circumstance common to these two is an aversion on the part of their spouses to living aboard a vessel. Nenna’s husband, Edward, refuses to join her on the barge, while Richard’s wife, Laura, is intensely uncomfortable aboard ship and eventually deserts her husband to dwell ashore. Nenna has long admired Richard, having found him a model of the dutiful gentleman, a part which he plays in the novel’s opening scene. A meeting of the water-dwellers has convened to consider the wish of one of them to sell his vessel, despite its being unseaworthy. Richard has taken the chair and is conducting the meeting, recognizing it as his duty: “Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately, he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.”3 It is explained also that “politeness, observation and helpfulness” have been instilled in Richard from early boyhood. Though uneasy about the proposed sale of the leaking barge, he considers it his duty to offer assistance. Just as Daisy Saunders’ generosity takes its toll of her, so Richard’s sense of duty also exacts a high price from him, when one evening aboard one of the barges he unhesitatingly confronts a stranger who is in fact a thief. The intruder strikes him with a heavy wrench, seriously injuring him. Though his wife returns to his hospital bedside, she also takes steps to dispose of Lord Jim immediately and to purchase a house for herself and Richard in the country where she has long wished to live.

Among the virtues which most appeals to Fitzgerald, perhaps because of its rarity, is absolute honesty, an attribute exemplifed on occasion by Fred Fairly of The Gate of Angels. It is in the figure of another male suitor, however, that Fitzgerald has enshrined a comically conspicuous honesty. This individual is Pierce Carroll, an instructor at the child actors’ academy in At Freddie’s. When the proprietress hires him and reveals that, owing to her poverty, Pierce’s salary, both at present and in the future, must remain “quite low”, he replies bluntly, “It’s very low, I should describe it as exploitation, but it’s as much as I can expect with my qualifications.”4 Evidently, he is incapable of diplomacy, for after remarking to his employer that the surroundings in her school suggest that money is indeed in short supply, he reassures her that strict economy is estimable, “particularly in anyone who’s well advanced into old age.” Whatever may be her private reaction to this tactless observation, it combines with Pierce’s other remarks to arouse her interest, for she has heard in them “the weak, but pure, voice of complete honesty.” In his utter truthfulness and straightforwardness, Pierce is incongruously situated teaching would-be actors, whose art requires them to impersonate others. Indeed, he is perplexed by the aspiration of his students to earn a living by transforming themselves into a series of different characters. In his opinion it is “a sufficient achievement to be an individual at all, what you might call a real person.” Pierce’s manner of wooing is as direct and disconcerting as his conduct of daily affairs. He proposes that his colleague, Hannah Graves, should marry him and join him on his family’s farm in County Londonderry, where they might establish a business building and selling houses. He is willing to abandon his teaching career, in which he foresees little prospect of success: “I think we should admit that most teachers are a good deal more competent than I am. Promotion would pass me by.”5

Once more the issue of vulnerability arises, for Hannah fails to return Pierce’s affection, being instead attracted to an actor who treats her casually. Although she permits Pierce to spend one night with her, it is a gesture more of pity than of mutual feeling. In a futile effort to ease the pain of rejection, Hannah politely lies that Pierce’s original proposal was so business-like in character that she was unable to take it seriously. She reminds him that on that occasion, when she did not give him her immediate assent, he merely folded his papers, replaced them in his briefcase “and never blinked an eyelid.” He replies, “I might have done, perhaps, if I’d been acting.”6 Clearly he has learned nothing from his students, who act or play roles, including the role of student actor, both on and off the stage. Whatever the occasion, he can summon only a true and honest response, thereby causing Hanna to recognize in him the potentially humiliating combination of practical incompetence or lack of ambition and emotional innocence.

Though he is outspokenly honest to a fault, Pierce is not above censure on other counts. When he discovers Hannah’s fondness for the middle-aged actor, Boney Lewis, his very honesty compels him to manifest a tiresome jealousy. Embarrassed by his churlishness, he can only protest that, given a choice of sins, he “wouldn’t have chosen jealousy.” In admitting to one sin Carroll calls attention to Fitzgerald’s distinctive methods of character-portrayal. Just as she prefers to focus upon one or two dominant virtues which govern a character’s behavior, so conversely she deliberately limits and thereby highlights the faults (if any) attributed to each.

While Fitzgerald’s personae as a whole are much more notable for their virtues than for their vices, their estimable behavior does not assure wellbeing. Florence Green, the aspiring bookseller, whose distinctive virtue is kindness, eventually is reduced to poverty and homelessness. The dutiful Richard Blake suffers a punctured lung, loses his beloved Lord Jim, and is forced to retire to the country. Honest Pierce Carroll not only relinquishes his claims to Hannah Graves but, despite having no future prospects, resigns his teaching post to spare both Hannah and himself needless distress.

If their virtue has contributed to the misfortunes of the above characters, it has caused no serious injuries to others. In contrast, Innocence illustrates the potential of an unadulterated virtue to cause widespread comic disorder and distress. Set in Florence in the year 1955, the novel centers upon the affairs of the remnants of the ancient and noble Ridolfi family. It opens by recounting a bizarre family legend: in 1568 the Ridolfi villa was inhabited by midgets—the Count, the Countess, and their only daughter. Desiring that their daughter should always consider herself normal in stature, the parents never permitted her to leave the villa and surrounded her with midget attendants, among them a playmate of her own age who, to general consternation, subsequently “began to grow at a very noticeable rate” and soon towered over her companion. Assuming her playmate’s height to be abnormal, and wishing to spare her a lifetime of humiliation, the Ridolfi daughter innocently proposed that her friend should be blinded and her legs amputated at the knee. This fable’s implicit moral that innocence may be cruel anticipates well-intentioned calamities to come, most of which are precipitated either by the innocent honesty of the present daughter of the Ridolfis or by that of the young doctor who eventually becomes her husband.

Chiara Ridolfi is only eighteen and still attending the aptly named Holy Innocents school in England when, during the interval of a concert, she is introduced to the young neurologist, Dr. Salvatore Rossi. They have been listening to a histrionic performance of a Brahms sonata by a gypsy violinist. Dr. Rossi inquires politely, “You enjoyed the Brahms?” To his delight, Chiara replies simply, “Of course not.”7 The doctor esteems his new acquaintance as utterly truthful and trustworthy. A typical Fitzgerald suitor, he immediately becomes obsessed with Chiara, who in return is smitten with him, so much so that, upon returning from her final school term in England, she promptly calls at his office. This unexpected visit both excites and angers him. Indeed, the very presence of his beloved seems to exasperate him, but despite this paradoxical circumstance, at only their third meeting the couple make love in a bedroom of the Ridolfi villa. Chiara’s father learns enough of this episode to suspect what has transpired but determines “to avoid asking Chiara about it, because she would tell him the truth.” The author’s emphasis upon Chiara’s spontaneous honesty underlines the inseparability of her constitutional innocence from her honesty, itself perhaps Fitzgerald’s favorite virtue. Protagonists governed by honesty may well be dramatic but are unsubtle, more easily and rapidly portrayed and known than those impelled by multiple and shadowy motives. The attraction of such figures for a novelist bent upon compression is obvious.

In preparation for his marriage, Dr. Rossi pays a final visit to his mistress, Marta, to explain that the two of them must part. Although he is himself an emotional innocent (or at least appears utterly incapable of controlling his emotions), on this occasion he reflects that the innocence of both his mistress and his bride-to-be gives them the power to exploit vulnerability in the more sophisticated: “A serious thinking adult [has] no defense against innocence because he [is] obliged to respect it, whereas the innocent scarcely knows what respect is, or seriousness either.”8 To exemplify the potential of innocence to create discord, the newlyweds’ first public quarrel occurs in the midst of a dinner party when Chiara spontaneously offers to provide temporary lodging for a young English art historian. Instant jealousy prompts her husband to exclaim that they can accept no lodgers. Chiara is temperamentally unfitted to understand the reasons for this outburst since, in the wryly ironic words of the author, “The Ridolfi family were so constituted as not to feel jealousy and as a result they never suspected it. This was a serious fault in them, as it would be in anyone.”9

The novel’s climax arises because of an act of misplaced benevolence typical of the ingenuousness of the Ridolfis. Chiara’s aunt Maddalena repurchases in Salvatore’s name a parcel of land which he has recently sold to acquire the necessary funds for a house. He erroneously concludes that this gift is the work of his wife, who, he believes, is bent upon placating him. As though mindful of the proposal of Chiara’s distant ancestor that her playmate’s legs should be amputated, he grimly acknowledges the unexpected ability of his nineteen-year-old wife “to cut down a grown man.” He deems himself to be an “unnecessary person,” of whom Chiara has “no need whatever.” Amusingly, he repeatedly describes his wife as “not rational,” while with his usual impulsiveness he resolves upon immediate suicide. Fortunately, a timely phone call from Chiara (and one during which she manifests a brilliant rationality) brings him to his senses. While the innocent forthrightness of these lovers causes considerable pain to them both as well as discomfort or inconvenience to their friends and family, it also affords joy to the pair of them while lending a refreshing sharpness and directness to their conduct.

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. It has prompted Penelope Lively to assert, “There are few who can match her when it comes to nailing a character in a few words.”10 Victoria Glendinning likewise has praised as “extraordinary” Fitzgerald’s “compression of … characterization” and her ability to “sum people up in a single sentence that begs as many questions as it answers but is worth pages of analysis.”11 This talent is evident when Fitzgerald characterizes the frequent quarrels between Chiara and Salvatore as unsatisfactory for the simple reason that “Chiara had no gift for quarrelling at all and could scarcely understand how it was done, nor, really, had Salvatore, since his argument was with himself, and he was therefore bound to lose.”12 Nevertheless, Salvatore is quarrelsome, and his disputatious stance discomfits the priggish English art historian, Burton, who, while exchanging sharp words with him, registers “the unfairness of being confronted by a man who was apparently even more ready to take offence than he was himself.”

Even in the cases of characters who have received sympathetic portrayals, these pithy observations, replete with aphoristic succinctness and shrewdness, frequently are unflattering. Of honest Pierce Carroll we are informed, “He had no ability to make himself seem better or other than he was. He could only be himself, and that not very successfully.”13 Characters far less estimable than Carroll are subjected to proportionately withering scrutiny, as for instance Milo North, the selfish and dilatory young TV executive of The Bookshop, whose “fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.” Not only the adults, but also the children who frequent Fitzgerald’s narratives are the subjects of these capsule pronouncements. One such concerns twelve-year-old Martha, daughter of Nenna James, who differs from her parents in being a model of self-reliance and purposeful capability and who has acquired the maturity of judgment to recognize, as children may, “that their parents are younger than they are.” Martha has a spiritual sister in Christine Gipping, the assistant in Florence Green’s bookshop. Brisk, businesslike, and precocious, she readily and capably performs a variety of complex tasks. Though sympathetically portrayed, Christine is also accorded a comically ironic self-assurance: “Christine liked to do the locking up. At the age of ten and a half she knew, for perhaps the last time in her life, exactly how everything should be done.”14

Pronouncements such as these are the province of the omniscient author, and Fitzgerald’s fondness for them helps to explain why all of her novels to date consist of third-person narratives. Her implied presence in the text permits the freedom for occasional comments which suddenly sharpen the outlines of one or another of her characters. It also facilitates occasional statements, directed less to individual characters than to humanity in general, which reflect this writer’s charitable but penetrating appraisal of human nature. Thus, when Fred Fairly reacts favorably to the diffidence of a fellow character, the author explains that Fred himself is unassuming, “and only the humble can value humility.” Somewhat more astringently, the ambivalent kindness shown to Daisy Saunders by her fellow probationers when she is dismissed from Blackfriars Hospital is accounted for on the grounds that “Disgrace contaminates, even though it makes everyone else feel a little safer.”15

In keeping with the strict economy of Fitzgerald’s methods, certain features of her settings may be accorded such prominence as to acquire symbolic dimensions, permitting them to intensify and heighten situations or themes. Thus, The Gate of Angels focuses attention upon St. Angelicus College itself, emphasizing its comparatively small size and exclusiveness, as well as its defensive appearance. The point is made that the building resembles not a monastery but a fortress, toylike in size, “but a toy of enormous strength, with walls 3 1/2 feet thick.” This fortress is a male preserve, not even admitting female domestic staff, and, in striking contrast to its Christian and spiritual origins, it has become a bastion of empirical science. Although in the year 1912 atomic physics is under study within St. Angelicus, at least one resident scientist, Professor Flowerdew, skeptically warns of “the folly of basing any kind of scientific research on unobservables.” Together with the atom, Professor Flowerdew ranks God and the soul as additional “unobservables,” and dismisses the reliance upon such intangibles as “nothing more than a comforting weakness.”

Although Fred Fairly attends gravely to Professor Flowerdew’s pronouncements, the essay topic which he assigns to his physics class, asking them to “devise a rational system of measuring human happiness,” indicates a willingness on his part to ponder intangibles and a desire that his fellow scientists should do likewise. He reminds his students that “scientists are not dispassionate,” and that anyone’s emotional state may seriously affect his ability to carry out research. At this moment his own emotions are running high, as he assumes that he and Daisy have parted, but fortunately Daisy too is subject to ready emotions, and her impulsively charitable entry of the college as an “angel of mercy” not only breaches the citadel of empiricism but indirectly presents the two lovers with a felicitous opportunity for reconciliation.

Once again in The Beginning of Spring a tangible image serves to highlight and exemplify both visible and invisible phenomena. Rather, two images, a young peasant woman and a birch forest, when combined, signal and symbolize the rebirth associated with spring. The novel’s chief setting is Moscow at the end of winter, where an English businessman named Frank Reid has been inexplicably deserted by his wife. His immediate need is to locate a suitable governess for his three children. Lisa Ivanovna, the beautiful and extremely young woman hired for the job, radiates a haunting serenity which not only calms the restive children but irresistibly draws Frank into her arms. While she accepts and returns his embraces, she maintains an eerie, inner self-possession and reserve, “as though … she was listening to something else a little beyond his range.”

Lisa’s symbolic significance in the narrative increases at the approach of Easter, the season of rebirth and spiritual renewal, when she spends a week with the children at the family dacha deep in a birch forest. Fitzgerald emphasizes how the year’s cycle is mirrored in the annual changes experienced by the birch trees. The trees are portrayed as ceaselessly alive and in motion, each having “five or six different movements.” The birch trees’ vital presence permeates the dacha. The scent of their leaves perfumes the air, and in July when the “mealy” seed-bracts fall, they drift indoors and pile up in corners. At night in their beds residents of the dacha hear no human sounds, “only the voice of the birch trees.” It is the merger between Lisa and these trees one moonlit night which signifies the onset of the Russian spring. Dolly, the eldest of the Reid children, has followed Lisa into the birch forest, whose leaves already have begun to form, generating a pervasive scent. When the pair reach a clearing, Dolly is startled to discover that “by every birch tree, close against the trunk, [stands] a man or a woman. They [stand] separately pressing themselves each to their own tree.”16 So indistinguishable from the birch trees are these people that their faces, turned toward the new arrivals, appear as “patches of white against the whiteish bark.” Lisa, then, is a leader of a secret organization, probably a revolutionary. The year is 1913, and massive change is soon to sweep across Russia. The posture of those who are pressed against the trees as though sharing in their existence, however, invests the scene with a quasi-allegorical atmosphere, marking it as a rite of spring. When Dolly returns to her dacha bedroom, the odor of “the potent leaf-sap of the birch trees” remains “as strong inside the house as out.” Coincidentally, Frank Reid’s sanctimonious accountant Selwyn Crane is the author of a volume of poems entitled Birch Tree Thoughts. When asked facetiously, “What do birch trees think?” Crane soberly replies that the thoughts of birch trees are as spontaneous as those of women: “Just as a woman’s body … moves at her heart’s promptings, so the birch tree moves in the winds of spring.”17 His words prove prophetic, for immediately after the forest meeting Lisa mysteriously disappears. Meanwhile the storm windows are ceremoniously removed from the Reids’s Moscow home, and the outer windows are thrown open for the first time in months, admitting the sounds of “bells and noises” and also the fresh “spring wind.” Here as in the birch-forest dacha natural fertility merges with uniquely human space. At this pregnant moment a cab pulls up outside, bringing Frank’s wife, Nellie, back to her family.

Of the numerous central or dominant images developed by Fitzgerald, none is more pervasive nor more instrumental in enhancing character, situation, or motif than the Thames which is a constant presence throughout Offshore. The vessels inhabited by the barge-dwellers are homes of both land and water, since at low tide they rest on the mud of the riverbed. Ever conscious of the turning tide, the barge-dwellers regulate their daily affairs by its movements. Even Tilda James, a child of six, has memorized the schedule of tides and can chant, “High water Gravesend 3 a.m., London Bridge 4, Battersea Bridge 4.30.”18 Situated between land and water, these people regard themselves as amphibians. Like most “tideline creatures,” they are “not easily dislodged” but they fear being displaced and forced to move permanently to land, an environment in which others of their type have failed to adapt.

The Thames with its powerful tides is, of course, an appropriate setting for love-scenes, a fact recognized by poets from Spenser to Eliot and intuitively understood by Nenna James, who longs to persuade her husband, Edward, to join her on the barge. On one of the rare occasions when they do make love aboard the vessel, Nenna experiences a joy “which flowed like the current, with its separate eddies, of the strong river beneath them.” The novel’s central love-scene centers upon a night dinghy-ride, during which Richard Blake and Nenna make their way upriver to Wandsworth Bridge and then “switch off and drift down with the tide” to tie up at Richard’s vessel, Lord Jim.

Even the novel’s comically chaotic final scene owes its power to the behavior of the Thames during a storm. Having learned of Nenna’s eminent departure for Canada, an intoxicated Edward James, in search of his wife, has blundered aboard the barge of her equally inebriated neighbor, Maurice. He is clinging to the barge’s ladder at the moment when high wind and waves combine to tear away the vessel’s anchor and mooring-ropes, setting it and its two passengers adrift on the tide. The image of Maurice’s barge lurching toward the open sea fittingly symbolizes the character and situation of its two hapless and fugitive occupants. It also imposes poetic justice upon Edward, whose stubborn aversion to boats has contributed much to his wife’s distress.

With compression as a guiding principle, Fitzgerald has seized upon and exploited a valuable fact—namely that naked honesty is so uncommon a quality as to create a dramatic effect, particularly when it features prominently in emotional exchanges between characters. Not for her protagonists are the laborious and circuitous ways of Henry James’s characters, who seek a wealth of information about one another, yet who dodge and feint and conceal their motives and eventually, if they are to prevail, either must prove able to read one another’s minds or to interpret actions rather than words. In contrast, Fitzgerald’s characters are seldom long in doubt about the true state of their mutual affairs, and their knowledge often produces dramatic effects. In Human Voices a young woman employed in the BBC complains to her boss that he is selfish and thereby awakens his love for her. Similarly, Chiara’s truthfulness instantly wins Salvatore’s heart. While this diligent focus upon honesty or upon some other virtue such as kindness expedites her narratives, furnishes her characters with an appealing and amusing intimacy, and at length becomes a trademark of Fitzgerald’s fiction, it also limits the variety and dimension of her characterization and produces a degree of single-minded predictability in the behavior of the figures in question. Furthermore, it restricts enlargement of character in the course of a narrative. That it succeeds as frequently as it does is a tribute to her inventiveness in shaping individual and distinctive circumstances for her personae, in placing them in a multitude of fresh and imaginative settings, the vast majority of which are accurately observed and furnished with authentic detail, and to her skill in centering her narratives upon dominant or controlling images which lend a poetic unity and intensity to her fiction.


  1. “Suffocating Suffolk,” The Times Literary Supplement 17 November 1978: 1333.

  2. The Gate of Angels (London: Harper/Collins, 1990) 118.

  3. Offshore (London: Collins, 1988) 9.

  4. At Freddie’s (London: Collins, 1989) 21.

  5. At Freddie’s 105.

  6. At Freddie’s 147.

  7. Innocence (London: Collins, 1987) 31.

  8. Innocence 136.

  9. Innocence 176.

  10. “Backwards and Forwards,” Encounter June/July 1982: 86–91.

  11. “Between Land and Water,” The Times Literary Supplement 23 November 1979: 10.

  12. Innocence 165–166.

  13. At Freddie’s 21.

  14. The Bookshop (London: Harper/Collins, 1989) 64.

  15. The Gate of Angels 97.

  16. The Beginning of Spring (London: Harper/Collins, 1989), 174.

  17. The Beginning of Spring 114.

  18. Offshore 64.

Dagmar Herzog (review date October 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481

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 family in the German region of Thuringia, is a promising—indeed perhaps brilliant—student of philosophy. And yet he has, at least according to his brother Erasmus’ angry accusations, allowed himself to be taken in by a girl who is “stupid!” and “not even pretty … at twelve years old she has a double chin.” Fritz, however, is completely serene, secure that his transcendent feelings for Sophie are not figments of an inebriated imagination:

“I know that I am receiving moral grace. How can that be intoxication?” Fritz wrote.

Am I to be kept apart from her for
Is the hope of being united
With what we recognised as our own
But could not quite possess completely
Is that too to be called intoxication?
All humanity will be, in time, what
Is now for me: human perfection—
                              moral grace—
Life’s highest meaning will then no
Be mistaken for drunken dreams.

(p. 91)

For Fritz, Sophie is “my heart’s heart” and his devotion to her is unwavering.

The Blue Flower never fully resolves the mystery of what makes Sophie so enthralling to Fritz, but it gives plenty of clues to help us make up our own minds. The novel chronicles the evolution of their courtship, as well as the other relationships in which they are enmeshed. It ends with a haunting account of Sophie’s battle with tuberculosis—that most characteristic disease of the era—and, finally, with her death just two days after her fifteenth birthday.

For those readers familiar with German literature, the fact of Novalis’ seemingly irrational obsession with Sophie, and its impact on his work, may be standard textbook fare. But it scarcely matters what one might know of this story beforehand. Fitzgerald’s talent as a storyteller is to turn even the seemingly incidental moments of her tale about lovesickness in the 1790s into something wholly fresh.

One thing that particularly struck me was how much Fitzgerald tells us about the hard realities of life in the late eighteenth century. We learn along the way about the pigs’ snouts boiled in peppermint schnapps—a special treat for lovers at country fairs—the pigeon pies, pickled herrings, and soups made of beer, sugar and eggs, or of cows’ udders flavored with nutmeg. We hear that university students were perpetually drunk, and that when an admired professor was ill, students nursed him and emptied his bedpans. We discover that this faraway world too had its fair share of abortions, adulteries and divorces.

Fitzgerald subtly addresses the power imbalance between the genders. There is Fritz’ burdened mother Auguste, who “seemed always to be looking for someone to whom to apologise,” a woman terrified of unannounced visitors because then suddenly “everything was on top of you before you could pray for guidance.” Already totally intimidated by her own life, Auguste cannot really manage her household (she leaves that to her eldest unmarried daughter). Even going out into the garden alone in the evening is a daunting challenge. And yet, although the mother of seven and in her forties, she nonetheless gives birth to two more children—or, as Fitzgerald tartly puts it, “in the warmth of the great curtained patriarchal goose-featherbed … Nature’s provisions continued, so that last year Amelie had been conceived and born, and this year, Christoph.”

There is Karoline Just, five years Fritz’ elder, the unmarried niece and housekeeper of the man who is training Fritz in business management as he prepares for the solid and respectable career of salt mine inspector for the Prince of Saxony—work thought appropriate for the nobility. At the very least, Karoline is his intellectual equal, and Fritz confides everything in her. While she chops sausages and mends clothes, he enthuses about his latest deep thoughts.

Fritz makes clear that he wants only a friendship with Karoline, but he also, with unthinking narcissistic cruelty, flatters and flirts with her. Sharing drafts of his writing, he impatiently waits for her to help him interpret his own work.

“What is the meaning of the blue flower?”

Karoline saw that he was not going to answer this himself. She said, “The young man has to go away from his home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is, and as far as I can see he is already happy in his home.”

The unlooked-for privilege of the reading was fading and Karoline, still outwardly as calm as she was pale, felt chilled with anxiety. She would rather cut off one of her hands than disappoint him, as he sat looking at her, trusting and intent, with his large light-brown eyes, impatient for a sign of comprehension.

What distressed her most was that after waiting a little, he showed not a hint of resentment or even surprise, but gently shut the notebook. “Liebe Justen, it doesn’t matter.”

(p. 63)

Soon afterwards Fritz tells Karoline that “we are like two watches set to the same time, and when we see one another again there has been no interval—we still strike together,” and then blithely informs her that he has fallen in love with Sophie. For her part, Karoline masks her feelings for Fritz—and her heart keeps on breaking.

As Novalis, Fritz is perhaps best remembered for the slogan, “The world must be romanticized!” His poetry and prose, reacting against the classicism of Goethe, advanced a mystical spiritualism in which body and soul are united, there exists no barrier between life and death, and all things commune with each other. To some extent we see him already heading in this direction in the course of the novel, particularly when he rhapsodizes about the spiritual meaning and beauty of the most mundane objects. The Blue Flower also suggests that taking opium, in the form of laudanum, was routine. In a time more like our own the talk of Hardenberg and his friends might well be dismissed as only pseudo-deep—the ramblings of stoned sophomores, not the musings of the canonized philosophers and literati of German culture.

Simultaneously, however, Fitzgerald makes clear, without mockery, what it was about this era, its extreme provinciality and its yearnings and enthusiasms, that made these ideas so appealing. There was, for instance, the fierce authoritarianism of Fritz’ father, against which he rebels, as well as the constraining austerity of his childhood home. Fitzgerald does a deft job of capturing the anxiety about worldliness and sin that structured the Hardenberg family’s daily existence, without in any way allowing the reader to smirk at their worldview.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s spare and compressed style gradually grew on me. I especially found the later portions of this novel, about people who spent so much time reflecting on themselves and each other, thoroughly engrossing. Drawn extensively from the actual letters and diary entries of Hardenberg and his family and friends, a significant part of The Blue Flower's luminous eloquence is in fact their eloquence. But it is difficult not to be awed by Fitzgerald’s gift for distilling the essence from mountains of evidence, moving pieces around into unexpected combinations, imaginatively filling in gaps in the historical record, making these odd and occasionally unappealing historical figures speak at cross purposes and past one another, even while the juxtapositions of their casual remarks manage to convey worlds of meaning. The cumulative effect is heart-wrenching.

Dean Flower (review date Spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

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 generosity do her, in the long run, no good at all. The whole story seems wonderfully amusing, from stern little Christine who comes in to help after school to the eccentric hermit Mr. Brundish who so awkwardly and honestly appreciates Florence’s worth. There is even an inconvenient ghost and an old horse with the bumbreezes. But the genial, winning details only make the end more agonizing. No wonder critics are saying reckless things, like “the finest British writer alive,” about Fitzgerald.


  1. The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin. $10.00p.

Mona Knapp (review date Spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

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 various family members involved, to accept their engagement. This feat soon appears small, however, in contrast to the battle for Sophie’s health. She has a tumor infected by tuberculosis, and even Hardenberg’s devotion cannot save her waning strength. Sophie von Kuhn died in 1979, barely fifteen years old; Hardenberg would survive her only by four years, as the entire young generation of his family also fell to tuberculosis in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Given the richness of the material, Fitzgerald’s presentation is often understated. Most frustrating is the depiction of Sophie as dull and unimaginative; she can barely read and write and never does learn to spell Hardenberg’s name. This character fails to come alive and is less interesting than even the least of the secondary characters. Of these there are many, and taken as a whole they give an interesting glimpse into the life of late-eighteenth-century Saxony, including the struggles between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, the influence of philosophers such as Fichte and the Schlegels, and the horrifying status quo of medical treatment before anesthetics. One of the book’s most notable features is its use of language to mirror the expressions and syntactical nuances of the German—in places it reads like a very loyal translation that lets the original shine through. (Readers without some previous background may find it rough going, however.)

Fitzgerald’s achievement is to have gently rekindled the theme of the romantic search for the blue flower for modern readers. Perhaps Sophie’s vacuous nature should highlight the fact that the romantic yearning itself, not its object, becomes the true source of life and creativity, for “the external world is the world of shadows. The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards.”

Philip Hensher (review date 11 April 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142

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 place as commonplace, and what was held eccentric; Matryona Osipovna in The Beginning of Spring, recommending that young girls should have their eyes washed with their own urine, for instance, or, in The Gate of Angels, a 1912 Cambridge don’s wife’s food faddism:

‘Now, as to main dishes, this is a tin which I bought at the new Eustace Miles Emporium in King’s Parade. You can read about it on the label, it’s all printed there and it’s worth knowing for its own sake, particularly if—well, as you can see, this tin contains Health Plasmon, which may be combined with a variety of substances to make nourishing dishes without the necessity of cooking them.’

‘It looks like cornflower to me,’ said Daisy.

But mere research would never have produced this degree of solidity. Fitzgerald is a writer rooted in the physical world, who, whether she is writing about a familiar or a strange world, always bases her abstract truths, her observations of character and morality on a concrete fact. At another moment in The Gate of Angels,

Fred looked at his watch. It was a silver watch, belonging to his father, given to him when he took up his appointment, and yet not quite given to him either, since when he went back on vacations his father tended to borrow it back.

She is, of course, not quite talking about the watch here, but about Fred; her observations ground a single truth much more deeply than a simple statement about his character would have done.

And the novels are full of such strongly physical moments, making a large point through a small observed detail; Florence’s embarrassing and regretted red party dress in The Bookshop, or the cheese straws which the lackadaisical Maurice, short of fuel, burns to keep warm on his decrepit barge in Offshore. She is a writer who wants to understand how things work, and wants to make the workings—particularly the financial workings—clear. Accountants play a crucial role in The Beginning of Spring, At Freddie’s, and The Bookshop; we know an almost embarrassing amount about the finances of the Hardenberg household in The Blue Flower. Sylvia Townsend Warner said of her great mediaeval novel, The Corner that Held Them, that she wrote it ‘on the purest Marxian principles, because I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of the monastic life, you’d have to put in all their finances’. Fitzgerald has the same urge; her novels are constructed from the ground up.

Occasionally, in some of her moral observations, she may strike the casual reader as fulfilling the famous definition of a cynic. ‘It was not a fair blow, but justice is sometimes what you can afford.’ (The Gate of Angels), ‘[Willis’s] moral standards were much the same as Richard’s, only he did not feel he was well enough off to apply them as often, and in such a wide range of conditions, as the Skipper.’ (Offshore). But if her more impoverished characters sometimes seem to have a clearer view of truth, it is because they are closer to what the world acts by, and can less afford romantic illusions. From The Gate of Angels: ‘Don’t you know what you are to me?’ Fred asked. Daisy considered. ‘I suppose I do know, Fred. To tell you the truth, a child of six would notice it.’

There is an extraordinary swiftness about all Fitzgerald’s writing; she gives the impression of having finished the paper while the other candidates are still sharpening their pencils. Only two of her novels are longer than 200 pages, or need to be. And, though she is not a Dickensian writer, she has the Dickensian trick of fixing a character through a single sharp observation:

The Director of Programme Planning ordered a second double in his dry, quiet, disconcerting voice. Probably in the whole of his life he had never had to ask for anything twice.

The swiftness is at its most marked in the last page or two of each of the novels. At the end, Fitzgerald characteristically brings about a resolution which seems, in retrospect, always to have been foreseen, but which, in the process of reading, catches the reader on the hop. At her most wonderful, there is a sense of spiritual release, expressed in half a dozen final lines: in The Beginning of Spring the outer windows of the Moscow house are flung open to the northern wind; at the conclusion of The Gate of Angels, an ancient door, magically, opens for only the third time in history, and a woman, entering, changes everything, as men ‘cry out in dismay and one of them in what sounded like animal terror’.

‘We can’t go on like this,’ Salvatore says at the end of Innocence, just before his life changes for good. ‘Yes, we can go on like this,’ said Cesare. ‘We can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.’ That is the superficial claim of these great novels; to be documenting unremarkable lives, without drama, with only small events. But fundamentally, they are fictions of transformation in which those small events—a man folds a map for a woman, a lonely New Zealand farmer turns up, uninvited, for dinner—somehow change everything.

They are often incredibly funny novels, but are never satisfied merely to make the reader laugh. Even a delicious romp like her first, The Golden Child, finds time and space to breathe and make a few serious points about the responsibilities of culture; and even her most hilarious are apt to end in death, disaster or a glimpse of the sublime. At Freddie’s, for instance, has a brilliantly funny line in child actors, culminating in the monstrous Joybelle Morgan. It concludes, however, with a cool, distressing look at the indignities to which genius subjects itself in search of perfection, with the boy Jonathan leaping off a pile of crates, ‘climbing and jumping, again and again and again into the darkness’.

A dazzling scene in Human Voices shows just how far Fitzgerald is prepared to push her comic invention. The novel is set at the BBC, during the last war. A general of the Free French, General Pinard, arrives to give a live broadcast to the nation. Welcomed by half a dozen dignitaries, he embarks on what seems a bland, effective speech. After a couple of minutes, however, he sets off on an unforeseen tack:

When the Germans arrive, and at best it will be in a few weeks, don’t think of resistance, don’t think of history … all governments are bad, and Hitler’s perhaps not worse than any other. Give in when the Boche comes in. Give in.

The disaster proves to have been averted when an administrator admits to having pulled the plug in advance; Fitzgerald’s acute sense of balance between the hilarious and the appalling is underlined by a brief conversation between the administrator and his superior, reprimanding him for acting without authority:

Heads will roll. He was a privileged speaker.

Do you intend to do this sort of thing often?’

‘I hope we shan’t often be within measurable distance of invasion.’

‘I don’t like that, Haggard.’

‘I don’t mind withdrawing “measurable”.’

Some writers would have omitted this exchange, not wishing to puncture the brilliant farce with a grim truth; most would not have thought of making a serious point with the devices of farce. The interest in farce is constant; one of her best short stories, ‘The Means of Escape’, is revealed, only at the very end, to be a farce, as well as, as the reader had always suspected, a crime story, a miniature psychological thriller.

Remarkable as all her novels are, it is with The Blue Flower that her greatness finally becomes unarguable. It is the story of the German romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) and his passion for a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kuhn. Novalis’s writings, such as his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, remain partly cryptic, and, to his biographers, his life is still more opaque. How he fell in love with a girl about whom nothing remarkable is known and how, after her death, he could so swiftly propose marriage to one Julie von Charpentier are questions which no one has managed to explain. The Blue Flower takes on a strange and difficult subject; it is at once a realistic historical novel of incomparable solidity and accuracy, and a richly suggestive fable about the fascination which mediocrity holds for genius. Blake’s proverb, ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of Time,’ might stand as an epigraph.

The novel’s extraordinary richness and depth come with its perfect balance between the quotidian and the sublime. This is something which Fitzgerald has often exploited for comic effect, and, in the exchanges between the artists of the novel and the members of rural Saxon society, goes on enjoying here:

All I am doing is glancing round the table and assessing the presence, or absence, of true soul in the countenance of everyone here.’

‘Ach Gott, I should not think you are often asked out to dinner twice,’ said the Mandelsloh.

But here things can be simultaneously ordinary and numinous; it is all a matter of perception. Sophie von Kuhn is, to most of the cast, an ordinary little girl; she has a double chin at 12; she is ‘a decent, good-heartened Saxon girl, potato-fed, with the bloom of 13 summers, and the coarser glow of 13 winters.’ But we are not asked to doubt Hardenberg’s rapturous view, when he looks at her and sees that

Sophie was pale, her mouth was pale rose. There was the gentlest possible gradation between the colour of her face and the slightly open, soft, fresh, full, pale mouth.

The temptation is always to assume that the high-falutin is punctured by the commonsensical, to agree with Karoline Just when she says that

Mignon dies because Goethe couldn’t think what to do with her next. If he had made her marry Wilhelm Meister, that would have served them both right.

But The Blue Flower sets out a world in which both poetry and housekeeping have their place, where, indeed, they depend on each other. The double view of Sophie allows a stunning coup near the end. Friedrich’s brother, Erasmus, interrupts Goethe, who has been pontificating about Friedrich’s chances of happiness, and cries, ‘About hers, about Sophie’s, about hers!’ And we realise that Erasmus, too, has been given a glimpse of the sublime.

Like her previous novels, The Blue Flower ends with an epiphany, an afterword whose shattering force seems out of all proportion to the modest means employed. But the whole novel is rather like that; a work in which the major weight of expression seems to fall between the words, where the silences so beautifully created by Fitzgerald’s sense of rhythm and her evocation of the unsayable allow the reader time for his own thought, his own feelings. It is precise and unambiguous, and one cannot see how it is done. It never shouts its own seriousness, or seems to be leading the reader to any premature conclusion, but its quality, like the quality of the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, is beyond question. The Blue Flower deserves every prize in the world, but, by now, it no more needs them to make its way than Heinrich von Ofterdingen.

Mallay Charters (review date 17 May 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

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 civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn’t too sure where next week’s money was coming from,” First published in Britain in 1980, Human Voices is being released in the United States for the first time this month by Mariner Books. Curiously, the 82-year-old novelist, who resides in London, is not optimistic about its reception. “I was surprised they brought that one out,” she says. “It must be strange for American readers.”

Delightful is more like it. The publication of the novel finally makes available stateside the fourth volume of Fitzgerald’s unofficial quartet of memoirs, whose other installments are Offshore and The Bookshop, both recently reissued by Mariner, and At Freddie’s, forthcoming in September. While the other three novels chronicle episodes from Fitzgerald’s middle age, Human Voices offers American readers a glimpse of what the writer may have been like as a very young woman, new to work and love, enamored of one of her BBC superiors even as the London blitzkrieg raged outside.

In person, that young woman lingers mainly in Fitzgerald’s mischievous half-smile. Otherwise, the two-time recipient of the Booker Prize (most recently for 1995's The Blue Flower, which received the NBCC fiction prize when it was published in the U.S. in 1997) looks very much the grandmother of nine that she is. With wavy gray hair and ruddy cheeks, wearing a crimson skirt and loose wool sweater patterned in rows of marching pheasants, Fitzgerald serenely fields questions from a red sofa midway between her writing desk and neatly made-up bed. The bags of pink knitting yarn tucked under the coffee table at her feet, and the fact that her two-room apartment is annexed to the Victorian home of her younger daughter, neurobiology professor Maria Lake, enhance the matronly air. Only her watchful, slightly guarded eyes hint that she possesses the strong-minded critical sensibility so evident in her writing.

In Fitzgerald’s three biographies, one mystery and eight novels, she marries satiric wit with trenchant prose in a style reminiscent of George Eliot—and, indeed, Fitzgerald’s current writing project is an introduction to a forthcoming edition of Middlemarch. Unlike Eliot, however, her deepest allegiance is not to any elevating moral philosophy but to the quixotic and the quirkily human. Her characters are always the most strongly drawn element of her books, tending to be individual to the point of eccentricity and as vulnerable as they are independent-minded.

With the same perversity that allows her to blithely predict failure for a new publication, she claims that the hero of Human Voices is one Dr. Vogel, a peripheral figure, also based on a real person, who plays no role in the plot. A BBC acoustical expert and German refugee, Dr. Vogel is obsessed with capturing the perfect recording. “He’s so devoted, he doesn’t even notice the war,” explains Fitzgerald of Vogel. “He doesn’t notice anything that is at an advantage to himself-he is only devoted to sound itself.”


Fitzgerald’s intellectually accomplished and highly individual family background explains much of her idiosyncratic outlook. Both of her grandfathers were Anglican bishops. Her father, E.V. Knox, a journalist who became the editor of Punch, was the eldest, member of a quartet of remarkable brothers. There was Dillwyn, a cryptographer and Oxford classics professor who helped crack German code in both world wars; Wilfred, an Anglican priest and writer; and Ronald, a Roman Catholic apologist. “It was a very brilliant family, and they were given to understatement, which is where I got it from” says Fitzgerald by way of explaining her elliptical prose. “They felt that people ought to understand them without them saying anything. They did write a lot, though.”

Fitzgerald was born in 1916, in Lincoln, though the family moved to London when her father took the helm of Punch. Her only sibling was her older brother, Rawle, who later became a distinguished war correspondent. Fitzgerald is nonchalant about her earliest forays into literature: “I think all children write, up to a certain age—I certainly did. And perhaps we wrote more because there was less media.” At one point, she collaborated with Rawle on a magazine, noting that “you weren’t really entertained so much as children, just put in the playroom and asked to get on with it.”

Fitzgerald won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied literature with J. R. R. Tolkien. She graduated with honors in 1938, but her ambitions for a graduate degree were postponed in view of the country’s wartime needs. Instead, she moved to London, where she worked at the Ministry of Food, “a kind of hastily got-together administration to administer rationing.” In 1939 she took a job at Broadcasting House, the London quarters of wartime BBC, as a recorded program assistant.

At 25 she was married, to an Irish soldier she had met at a party (“Wartime’s a great time for parties”). In the late 1950s, with three young children, the couple lived in a converted oyster warehouse in Southwold, on the east coast of England, where Fitzgerald took a job in a bookshop. Later, in the 1960s, the family moved to London, where the only lodgings they could afford were a barge anchored on the Thames that twice sank under them. There, Fitzgerald worked full-time as a teacher: “We were only allowed to use the lavatory on a falling tide. It was terribly difficult to get respectable enough to go into work.” After two years on the houseboat, the family rented a flat. “It seemed rather odd to come back to dry land,” she recalls. In the early 1970s, her husband, who worked in the travel business, died of cancer.

Fitzgerald is notoriously reticent about her married life, noting only that “while we had our difficulties, we never actually separated.” Nonetheless, it was her husband who inspired her first attempt at fiction, 1977's The Golden Child, a mystery novel that was written to entertain her husband during his final illness. “My impression is that men—husbands—only read mysteries, and nonfiction, biographies. They don’t read novels, not really—and it did amuse him,” she says.

Her search for a publisher followed an equally unorthodox route: “I looked through the Writer’s Yearbook and I found somebody who didn’t take crime [Duckworth publisher Colin Haycraft]—and sent it to him, because I thought he wouldn’t have seen very much of it. I had heard horror stories of people going to publishing houses where there were tables groaning with manuscripts. But I was lucky, and he took it.” Perhaps tongue in cheek, Fitzgerald blames her penchant for brevity (most of her books are less than 200 pages long) on an early Duckworth editor, who truncated her manuscripts to fit within the company’s page specifications.

Fitzgerald’s first foray into the mystery genre proved to be her last. “The publisher told me I’d have to write six, with the same detective—so they could make a row on the bookshelf—and I was appalled,” she remembers. “I had found it rather hard to make it all come together with all the clues. So I wrote about my own experience—I think that’s what most people do.” The result was The Bookshop, her 1978 novel about a small bookshop on England’s east coast that is forced to close after arousing the antagonism of the local arts patron.

Fitzgerald won her first Booker Prize for 1979's Offshore, a love story set amidst the motley but warm-hearted community of a group of barge-dwellers on the Thames. (Regarding the strongly autobiographical setting, Fitzgerald notes dryly, “I didn’t say as much as I really could have said about the rats.”)

For Offshore, Fitzgerald had switched to Collins as her publisher, “because I had a friend [Richard Ollard] who was an editor there.” With Ollard she published Human Voices and 1982's At Freddie’s, an account of teaching at a theatrical school. Stuart Proffitt, whom Fitzgerald praises as “wonderfully energetic,” succeeded Ollard, and edited her through The Blue Flower, her Booker Prize-winning account of the love affair between the 18th-century German Romantic poet Novalis and a 12-year-old burgher’s daughter.

In the United States, Fitzgerald has been published previously by Scribner, Holt and David Godine to what she describes as little fanfare. She notes that the Mariner reissues, edited by Chris Carduff and Janet Silver, have been received “as if they had come out for the first time,” and pronounces herself “thrilled” at the NBCC prize. Mariner will reprint Offshore, The Bookshop and The Blue Flower as a boxed set in September. Fitzgerald has never been represented by an agent, saying that “They’re obviously very good to have, but I feel they just make an added complication.” While she has yet to embark on a promotional tour in the States, she says that letters from American readers help her feel connected to her audience here.


American fans drawn to Human Voices for its autobiographical element will also find it compelling as a historical document. While the story sketches out the complex dynamic between its female protagonist and her two superiors, the novel is really a valentine to the wartime BBC, the only source of information to England—and most of free Europe—for almost six years.

Fitzgerald is profoundly respectful of the radio station’s accomplishments during the war. Even as bombs were blitzing London nightly, the station continued its 24-hour broadcasts. She would later find out that her brother, a POW captured in Singapore, listened to the BBC throughout the war on a homemade radio. When street conditions got too perilous, the staff bivouacked in an auditorium. “The BBC rightly felt that they had to keep people’s spirits up, and tell the truth as far as they could, and it was a lot to do—and meanwhile you have these very human, fallible people actually doing it,” she says.

The fragility of the BBC that Fitzgerald describes is suggestive of the fragility of the creative endeavor generally, perhaps particularly for women of a certain generation. Fitzgerald reports having no regular work “routine” to speak of. “I don’t think women ever do—they call us kitchen-table writers,” she says. “Women always have to let the cat in, or something.”

Not that she’s complaining: “I hate writing, actually—I think a lot of people do. You just welcome any interruption that comes.” Despite the tartness of her statement, her eyes are twinkling, and she has a half-serious, half-amused air. As usual with Fitzgerald, she is finding the comic in the difficult—and inviting her audience to share in the laugh.

Jonathan Raban (review date 2 August 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3817

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 landing. We know it, we have been there, we have walked up the steep streets, we know the sea air. … Jewett knew all about fishing and small-holding and cooking haddock chowder, about birds, weather, tides and clouds. She had a wonderful ear for the Maine voice, breaking the immense silences. She quotes, more than once, what her father said to her: “Don’t write about things and people. Tell them just as they are,” and she understood the natural history of small communities.

These are all Fitzgeraldian virtues, especially the last one. Her own understanding of “the natural history of small communities” as if the communities were tide-pools, to be investigated with shrimp-net and magnifying glass—lies at the heart of her fiction.

She conducts her novels like scientific experiments involving a precise historical moment, a lavishly remembered physical habitat, and an ill-assorted bunch of human beings—accidental inhabitants of their place and their time. Though the outcome of each experiment is complex and often contradictory, the initial question that sets it in motion is simple. In The Bookshop it is: can the widowed Florence Green make a success of running a bookstore in the sour townlet of Hardborough on the East Anglian coast in 1959? In Offshore, it is: will the tatterdemalion community of Londoners, living aboard their Thames barges on Battersea Reach in the early 1960s, sink or float? In The Blue Flower, the question seems to have been resolved before the book starts: Fritz von Hardenberg will become the poet Novalis. But one of the great pleasures of the novel is one’s discovery of how very easy it would have been for Fritz not to have become Novalis.

In Fitzgerald’s bracingly stoic view of the world, things could always have been otherwise. Contingency rules. The last two sentences of The Gate of Angels make the point:

She must have spent five minutes in there, not much more. The slight delay, however, meant that she met Fred Fairly walking slowly back to St. Angelicus.

Those five minutes may or may not reverse the apparent outcome of the novel, which finds chaos theory in its infancy in the Cavendish Laboratory.

The tone of the novels is of a piece with their cool, experimental structure. More than any novelist I can think of, Fitzgerald aspires to a scrupulous disinterestedness as she observes the goings-on inside her books. She cherishes hard data, in the form of dialogue and facts about weather, architecture, domestic routines, professional expertise, clothing, voices. Figurative language is a rare and highly significant luxury for her. She carries spareness of description to an extreme. A paragraph by her often reads as if every other sentence had been omitted: the reader hops, oddly, from recorded fact to recorded fact, and has to work quite hard to intuit the connections between them. It is like being at a dinner party full of strangers, all of whom know each other well; you find your way by hunch and guesswork. The effect is disquietingly lifelike.

At a time when nearly all contemporary fiction assumes a comfortable solipsism as a natural condition of existence, with every novelist busy creating his or her “own” world, Fitzgerald insists, unfashionably, that the world is the place to write about, and that the lives of her characters continue independently of the novelist’s capacity to observe or create them. This is not a modest philosophical position to occupy. It turns Fitzgerald into a radical dissenter from the literary mainstream.

In her watchful detachment from the events in her books, she is a classic ironist, in H. W. Fowler’s happy definition of irony as “a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders’ incomprehension.” She is always requiring her readers to be that second audience; and, for those who make the exacting grade, Fitzgerald is the funniest writer in English now alive.

Her first book, published when she was fifty-nine, was a biography of the painter and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Her second book, The Knox Brothers (1977), was in effect the natural history of Penelope Fitzgerald, an engrossing study of the family tide-pool in which she grew up. Her father E. V. Knox, and his brothers Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald, were a daunting quartet, and (one would guess) a hard act to follow. Both of Penelope Fitzgerald’s grandfathers were Anglican bishops—solid pillars of the educated English upper middle class. Her father, who wrote under the name “Evoe,” was a famous humorist who became editor of Punch at a time when the magazine was still a British institution, the Church of England in mirthful mood. Her uncle Ronald caused a family scandal by converting to Romanism (“Poping,” as it was called), and metamorphosing himself into the gorgeous figure of Monsignor Knox, who, like his close friend Evelyn Waugh, sang wittily for his supper at the great Catholic houses of the land. Her uncle Wilfred remained within the C. of E. as an Anglo-Catholic “Socialist Christian,” taking vows of poverty and celibacy, and trying to reform “the church of the rich.” Her uncle Dillwyn, a classicist and mathematician, became a cipher expert, a key figure in the Enigma project at Bletchley during World War II.

Between them, the brothers wrote theological books, detective stories, translations of Greek poetry and the Bible, autobiographies, mathematical papers, pamphlets, feuilletons, satires, newspaper columns, comic sketches, and manuals of devotion. It was four years after the death of her father in 1971 that Penelope Fitzgerald published her Burne-Jones biography—a very late and tentative beginning to what has become a spectacular literary career.

Being born a Knox must have been a complex fate, at once deterrent and liberating. Fitzgerald’s childhood and youth brought her into contact with a huge cast of English notables. Through the pages of The Knox Brothers passes almost everyone who was anyone: Waugh, of course, along with such disparate figures as Alan Turing and William Temple the Archbishop of Canterbury, Maynard Keynes and Ivor Novello, Lytton Strachey. Hilaire Belloc, Harold Macmillan.

She is a novelist for whom a broad knowledge of the world and its workings is as essential as it was to Thackeray or George Eliot. Her own native habitat—the London haute-bourgeoisie of the 1920s and '30s (a period, interestingly, in which she has so far not set a novel)—must have afforded extraordinary opportunities for the apprentice observer. More than that, it helps to explain the sturdy intellectual framework of her books. with their easygoing grasp of the language of philosophy and science.

Fitzgerald is the least academic of writers—far less so than, say. Iris Murdoch, whose novels can sometimes read like diverting illustrations to a knotty article in Mind. Fitzgerald’s work is alive with the play of ideas, wielded with confident lightness, as if they were the stuff of ordinary civilized conversation. She has written engagingly of how the young Ronald and Wilfred Knox used to wrangle with their friends and brothers over cocoa in the smoking room of the bishop’s palace in Manchester, “snapping at the gaiters in a cloud of dust,” as Ronald later put it. In her novels, one is always in the smoking-room, never in the lecture hall.

It has taken nineteen years for Human Voices her fourth novel, and one of her best and funniest—to get published in the United States. The habitat is Broadcasting House on Great Portland Street, headquarters of the BBC, a temple of the arts and sciences, personally dedicated by Sir John Reith to Almighty God. (I am translating from memory Reith’s grandiose Latin inscription, which runs in a frieze around the cathedral-high lobby.) The historical moment is 1940—in Britain, the darkest year of the war, when the German invasion was hourly expected. The central characters are a job-lot of PAs—program assistants, mostly young women in their teens and early twenties, drawn from all over England to work as dogsbodies for their distracted male bosses.

The animating question of the book is drawn from Fitzgerald’s version of the BBC’s own wartime mission statement:

Broadcasting House was … dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

Can an organization such as the BBC, described here as “a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn’t too sure where next week’s money was coming from,” tell the truth? Can its individual members tell the truth to themselves or to each other? And with what consequences? So Fitzgerald sets her experiment in motion.

For the natural historian of small communities, the Byzantine corporate structure of the BBC proves a glorious field of study. Somewhere on an upper floor of the building lives God Himself, the Director General, or DG, a figure so remote that he is never seen in person by the characters in the book, though one of his lieutenants, ADDG, does make a fleeting appearance BH (Broadcasting House), a drab honeycomb of offices and studios, is divided into a multitude of independent fiefdoms, under the command of jealous departmental heads like DPP and RPD. Truth, as conceived in one chamber of the honey-comb, emerges as brazen falsehood when expounded in another chamber.

For Sam Brooks, the Recorded Programmes Director, truth resides in perfect aural fidelity. His master project, which goes under the provisional title of Lest We Forget Our Englishry, is to record the authentic noises of life in England before the anticipated invasion. In the company of Dr. Vogel, a German refugee and “the greatest expert in Europe on recorded atmosphere.” RPD roams the countryside in the department’s official black Wolseley, capturing for posterity such sounds as wheezing English lungs in the first chill of autumn, on aluminum discs, “all 78s … coated on one side with acetate whose pungent rankness was the true smell of the BBC’s war.” One particular national treasure is the creaking of an ancient church door:

“What we have been listening to—patiently, always in the hope of something else coming up—amounts to more than six hundred bands of creaking. To be accurate, some are a mixture of squeaking and creaking.”

“They’re all from the parish church of Hither Lickington.” Sam explained eagerly. “It was recommended to us by Religious Broadcasting as the top place in the Home Counties What you’re hearing is the hinges of the door and the door itself opening and shutting as the old women come in one by one with the stuff for the Harvest Festival. The quality’s superb particularly on the last fifty-three hands or so. Some of them have got more to carry, so the door has to open wider. That’s when you get the squeak.”

“Hark, the vegetable marrow comes!” cried Dr. Vogel, his head on one side, well contented.

An American reader might suspect that Fitzgerald has gone over the top here. Having spent a good portion of the 1970s in the company of sound-fetishists from BH’s radiophonic workshop, I declare the passage to be a nugget of masterly realism. Sam Brooks—childish and fanatical in his pursuit of true sound, insulated from the larger world by his “seraglio” of Junior Temporary Assistants—was and is a form of life that flourishes extravagantly in the many-chambered labyrinth of the Corporation.

His whole existence, though, is threatened by a directive that drifts down through the building from a higher authority, to the effect that truth is Live and not Recorded. The news is broken to him by DPP:

“The object of the meeting was to cut down the number of recordings in news transmissions—in the interests of truth, as they said. The direct human voice must be used whenever we can manage it—if not, the public must be clearly told what they’ve been listening to—the programme must be announced as recorded, that is, Not Quite Fresh.”

The conflict between live and recorded truth comes to the boiling-point when General Pinard visits BH to speak to England after the fall of France. Pinard, an Anglophile, and a familiar figure in horseracing circles at Newmarket, Ascot, and Epsom, is the government’s preferred alternative to the spiky and egotistical Charles de Gaulle. Talking without notes, on air not on disc, Pinard delivers a speech that is one of the triumphs of the novel—a paragon of comic pace and timing, beautifully judged in its effect on the reader as Pinard moves rapidly from warm patriotic sorrow to the demand that England surrender forthwith to the Germans:

“When the Germans arrive, and at best it will be in a few weeks, don’t think of resistance, don’t think of history. Nothing is so ungrateful as history. Think of your selves, your homes and gardens which you tend so carefully, the sums of money you have saved, the children who will live to see all this pass and who will know that all governments are bad, and Hitler’s perhaps not worse than any other. I tell you out of affection what France has learnt at the cost of terrible sacrifice. Give in When you hear the tanks rolling up the streets of your quarter, be ready to give in, no matter how hard the terms. Give in when the Boche comes Give in.”

A terrible fit of coughing overwhelmed the microphone.

“He’s overloading,” said the programme engineer, in agony.

It is typical of Fitzgerald’s sureness of touch that one recognizes with pleasure the small, unflagged details of the general’s French-inflected English, like “quarter” for “town” or “neighborhood.”

But the wireless sets of England have been silent for the duration of Pinard’s broadcast, because Jeff Haggard, DPP, has pulled the plug on him, warned in advance of the drift of the speech by two words, spoken by the general on his arrival at the studio: “Soyons réalistes.” The truth, DPP judges, will not be served by the general’s brand of realism: in 1940, England’s only hope lies in the grandiose unrealism of Churchill—“the courageous drunkard whom you have made your Prime Minister,” as Pinard dubs him. Silence, Fitzgerald more than once reminds us, is often truer than human voices.

The corporate debate (or, rather, the collision of prejudices) about truth-telling is conducted far over the heads of the young women in RPD’s seraglio whose lives occupy the foreground of the novel. It is part of Fitzgerald’s experimental bent that she has always been interested in adolescents, in personalities not fully formed, such as the students in The Blue Flower, the young actors in At Freddie’s, the girls Chiara and Barney in Innocence. Observing teenagers harden, uncertainly, into the shapes that they will assume as adults is one of the driving preoccupations of her work. So here Fitzgerald holds her magnifying glass to Lise, Vi, Della, and Annie, the pliant Junior Temporary Assistants, whose characters are in the process of being permanently molded by the BBC’s peculiar war.

One girl in the seraglio, Annie Asra, the daughter of a widowed Birmingham piano-tuner, emerges as the single most important voice in this novel of voices. She is a born truth-teller. She has perfect pitch—a gift both useful and dangerous, in an institution dedicated to sound-broadcasting—and speaks in the flat adenoidal accent of Selly Oak, a Birmingham suburb. To the dialect of self-protective irony, worn like a camouflage uniform by the middle-aged men of the BBC, Annie brings a puncturing literalism. On her first assignment to a producer, she remarks amiably to him that “you talk so daft.” But daft talk is the lifeblood of Fitzgerald’s BBC. The whole crankish, high-minded, admirable, and absurd enterprise is kept going by a language as rich in euphemisms and evasions as Mandarin Chinese. Broadcasting House is almost next door to Looking-Glass House, and Annie Asra is a close cousin to Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

She turns out to be an adroit philosopher. When Eddie Waterlow, the daft-talking producer, complains that he is undervalued and underused by the corporation, she tries to cheer him up.

“Surely the BBC can find something for you?” she asked gently. He looked forlorn.

“The BBC is doing gits bit [he is mimicking her accent]. We put out the truth, but only the contingent truth. Annie! The opposite could also be true! We are told that German pilots have been brought down in Croydon and turned out to know the way to the post-office, that Hitler has declared that he only needs three fine days to defeat Great Britain, and that there is an excellent blackberry crop and therefore it is our patriotic duty to make jam. But all this need not have been true, Annie! If the summer had not been fine, there might have been no blackberries.”

“Of course there mightn’t,” said Annie. “You’re just making worries for yourself, Mr. Waterlow. There isn’t anything at all that mightn’t be otherwise. After all, I mightn’t have … what I mean is, how can they find anything to broadcast that’s got to be true, and couldn’t be anything else?”

He gestured towards the piano.

“We couldn’t put out music all day!”

“Music and silence.”

Annie’s precocious grasp of the contingent nature of things, and her willingness to live in the world on the world’s terms, mark her out as an alien in the BBC, where the idea of the necessary, and of everyone’s personal necessity within the organization, are articles of superstitious faith.

When RPD throws a dinner party for his assistants at Prunier’s. Annie falls suddenly and unexpectedly in love with him, for the excellent Fitzgeraldian reason that she is wearing a white dress, and so is seated by the waiter on Sam Brooks’s right. Nothing is more contingent than love. Like Fritz von Hardenberg’s passion for Sophie in The Blue Flower, Annie’s ungovernable hunger for RPD is, as one might say, supremely unnecessary. Yet even in her bewitchment. Annie remains an unillusioned realist

Vi wanted to be of help, but it was difficult to find facts which Annie had not already faced.

“He’s old, Annie,” she ventured at last

“He is,” Annie replied calmly, “he’s forty-six: I looked him up in the BBC Handbook, and it’s my opinion that he’s putting on weight. I daresay he wouldn’t look much in bed.”

“But what do you expect to come of it?”


But Sam Brooks—self-engrossed, absent-minded, capable of tender feeling only for aluminum discs—is too weak to offer any real resistance to the force majeure of Annie’s love for him. She sweeps him away. His most nearly positive response to her is to resign, with feeble gentlemanliness, from the BBC, because “I’ve always prided myself on this one thing, I mean that I’ve got a proper attitude towards my staff.”

The immediate consequence of Annie’s compulsive telling of the truth is the death of DPP, Jeff Haggard, the cleverest, most ironically detached character in the book Leaving BH to rescue Sam Brooks from the avalanche of Annie Asra’s passion, he is killed, contingently of course, by an unexploded parachute-bomb that he mistakes for his taxi.

There is no boiling-down of a Fitzgerald novel to its driving theme or themes. She makes life hard for critics because she works every inch of her canvas. Her minor characters are as fully realized as her major ones. She is a writer who watches over the fall of each sparrow, and she bestows on all her sparrows the gift of free will, to exercise as waywardly as they may choose. She is always reminding the reader of the ability of her characters to pursue independent lives behind the scenes, and their offstage activities are as important as the activities that are performed in public view. This gives her books an extraordinary three-dimensionality: they are virtual realities, brought into being by a novelist who combines a rational skepticism about human affairs with a view of the world more commonly held by theologians than philosophers.

In Human Voices, Fitzgerald has built a perfect replica of the genteel labyrinthine bureaucracy of the BBC, but this inspired freehand realist is impatient with realism for its own sake. Like Eden, her BBC is a testing ground for individual volition and its chaotic consequences. Sharing her wonder, her pity, and her high humor at the goings-on in her created world, one finds oneself adopting the point of view of an amused, highly intelligent, and supremely charitable god. Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, are Fitzgerald’s true subjects, but she handles them so deftly, and with such dry wit, that the Miltonic grandeur of the enterprise is kept artfully hidden beneath the eventful, talky surface of her fiction. The experienced reader of Fitzgerald grows used to being taken suddenly aback by her underlying depth and seriousness. No wonder that a fast-growing cult is forming around her writing.

Edward T. Wheeler (review date 10 September 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

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 Prize winner in 1979, and shortlisted three times), Fitzgerald received acclaim here only recently for The Blue Flower, a historical novel on the life of Novalis, the German Romantic poet. She took a first-class degree in English from Oxford, married in 1941, and published her first work of fiction (still unavailable in the United States) when she was sixty-one. Before turning to novels she had written biographies of the painter Edward Coley Burne-Jones and of her illustrious uncles, the brothers Knox, including the Scripture scholar and Catholic convert, Ronald. Her father was, for a time, editor of Punch. In raising her three children, she resided in England and abroad, in circumstances sufficiently unusual to give her subjects for her work.

Fitzgerald is an uncanny, if understated, stylist. Her style is so distinctive that the novels give pleasure by making us ask how she achieves her effects. Those works of hers set outside England or beyond the immediate past (late eighteenth-century Germany, prerevolutionary Moscow, postwar Italy, Cambridge ca. 1912) abound with a detail, domestic and social, that makes fiction read like fact. Commonweal readers might particularly enjoy the sections of Innocence (1986) that take a wry look at Vatican politics through the aspirations of one Monsignor Gondi.

“I try to get the movement and counter-movement of the novel and its background to go together,” Fitzgerald writes. “Human Voices was set in Broadcasting House in the old days of wartime radio, and the narration as far as possible is through voices and music.” Memory and its defenses, truth telling, the honest sound of the human voice-these dilemmas and textures circulate thematically through the book, which is a love story, an ironically detailed recollection of Fitzgerald’s own time at the BBC, a quirky and puzzling study of characters who are somehow beyond our comprehension and all the more human for this. It is also a tribute to Broadcasting House, which is conceived metaphorically as a kind of great ocean liner navigating the turbulent seas of war in the early forties. (Edward R. Murrow, in the form of the character Mac McVitie, rushes on and off as the bombs fall.)

Episodic is not the right term for Fitzgerald’s style, nor is collage a correct way to describe the accumulation of scenes and bits of dialogue that characterize the work. Perhaps her own ocean liner metaphor is apt: the plot steams along taking characters to their ends; the occasional shock of emotional waves reminds us that we are underway. The novelist moves from deck to deck, cabin to cabin, recording, commenting sparingly, and letting the enigmatic quality of the dialogue provide the truth telling.

“Annie! If the summer had not been fine, there might have been no blackberries.”

“Of course there mightn’t,” said Annie. “You’re just making worries for yourself, Mr. Waterlow. There isn’t anything at all that mightn’t be otherwise. After all, I mightn’t … what I mean is, how can they find anything else to broadcast that’s got to be true, and couldn’t be anything else?”

As this quotation suggests, Annie, the heroine of the love story, has an impenetrable resourcefulness; she shows as much faith in the workings of the BBC as she does courage in her own apparently fruitless devotion to her boss, Sam Brooks. We are not given much more sense of what motivates her—or for that matter what happens after her confession of her love to Sam, the RPD. (The BBC’s notorious alphabet abbreviation is another aspect of the novel’s truthfulness; it takes a few rereadings of the first twenty pages to distinguish the RPD [Recorded Program Director], from the DPP [Director of Program Planning], from the RPAs [Recorded Program Assistants] at BH [Broadcasting House].) There is interior monologue or approximate omniscient narration, but the effect of the style is one of distance rather than intimacy. We have dotty inconsequentiality, hilarity shared but somehow private, a point of view which is skewed to the eccentric, and a style which has the abruptness of bombs exploding and changing the contour of a neighborhood—but the noise and the explosions have happened the night before. We were not there and witness the aftereffects in the riddling dialogue and the abrupt changes of scene.

On occasion, the novelist as captain, does let us know what is happening:

“As an institution they could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle at Delphi … they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost. … And every one who worked there, bitterly complaining … felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

Human Voices is, we must believe, the expression of that pride in the scattering of seeds of truth.


Fitzgerald, Penelope (Vol. 19)