Penelope Fitzgerald Fitzgerald, Penelope (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fitzgerald, Penelope 1916–

An English novelist and biographer, Fitzgerald deftly develops characters and situations in a compressed, economical style. The authenticity of Offshore, which won the 1979 Booker prize, derives from her actual experiences as a former member of the Thames houseboating community; similarly, her wartime involvement with the BBC inspired Human Voices. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Susannah Clapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Penelope Fitzgerald's first novel [The Golden Child] is a small, benign thriller set in a London museum. It has an amiable, mostly baffled hero, who worries about his mortgage and his absentee wife, and an assortment of absurdities, excesses and enthusiasms which variously constitute and congeal into characters. There are traces throughout The Golden Child of a mildly sinister comedy about 'the pride and bitter jealousy which is the poetry of museum-keeping', where pointed references to the availability of conservation poisons, plaster-grinders and large incinerators spice the gloom of ancient inter-Departmental rivalries and enliven the damply cheerful crowds of visitors. Unfortunately, this aspect is under heavy siege from an over-inflated plot…. It brings in its wake a trail of recognisable grotesques, yet the book would have been neater and more credible with fewer obvious snipes and sparkier with fewer weighty intrigues.

Susannah Clapp, "Suburbanity," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2429, October 7, 1977, p. 483.

Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop is on any reckoning a marvellously piercing fiction. It is (of course) about a woman's resilience under stress. And the duress Florence Green is put under when she opens a bookshop in an islanded Suffolk seaside place is all the more harrowing because of its neighbourly, gossipy ordinariness, its roots in the well-intentioned but rival cultural aspirations of the genteel Mrs Gamart, the General's wife. What happens is sharply localized.

[There] are the small circumstances that give rise naturally to a Hardy-like gothic, complete with a rapping poltergeist, and to a fiction where character inevitably comes to "characters". And Penelope Fitzgerald's resources of odd people are impressively rich.

Further, and more seriously still, The Bookshop—fiercely, rousingly moral—analyses the operations of power. Mrs Gamart wants Florence's Old House bookshop for an Arts Centre and, frustrated, hectors and schemes until by dint of solicitors and connections and relations in government she finally winkles Florence out. There is a hostile class element in this—Mrs Gamart exploits the county network she's part of—but it's not simplistically analysed….

Above all, the story's refusal of sentiment will not let Florence off unblameable. She is a fighter, and her own belligerence draws Mrs Gamart's fire. More, Florence's innocence about Lolita, sales of which put her shop on the map and fuel local angers and envies, is made sharply unnerving. For tapping the powers of literature so naively—she has not read the book, does not know what she is selling, and too lightly quotes the old Everyman slogan about a good book being precious life blood, and so on—begins to look almost as dangerous as Mrs Gamart's wiles or Milo's supineness…. And though Florence's defeat leaves Mrs Gamart victorious in the field, her retirement to London broke, homeless, carless, bookshopless, has the kind of grimly ironic aptness for which this fetchingly orchestrated, indeed this "beautiful and blest nouvelle", has not left us entirely unprepared.

Valentine Cunningham, "Suffocating Suffolk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3998, November 17, 1978, p. 1333.

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Bookshop] Penelope Fitzgerald paints the bleak East Anglian coast in a verbal equivalent of the watercolours which a local artist tries to persuade Florence to exhibit in her shop. Against this background she draws some splendidly English eccentrics of all ages, from 11-year-old Christine, who helps in the shop after school, to the oldest inhabitant, Mr Brundish, who dies in the attempt to defend Florence's rights. There is also a poltergeist or 'rapper', but its antics do not much influence events…. The author has a wry humour and an easy, economical style, but the book peters out rather disappointingly; it is not unlike its protagonist, 'small, wispy and wiry'. (p. 690)

John Mellors, "War Wounds" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 100, No. 2587, November 23, 1978, pp. 689-90.∗

Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like 'The Bookshop,' 'Offshore' deals with an odd environment, felt as both isolated and ephemeral, and located in place and time very precisely and effectively.

'The Bookshop' caught the tone (and the politics) of a 1950s Suffolk village with marvellous acuteness; 'Offshore' treats an even more idiosyncratic community of Battersea Reach houseboat-owners in the early 60s….

The novel evokes with beautiful stylish restraint the whole quality of living moored on the Thames, without degenerating into fictionalised documentary. It is particularly good at the alien relations of river to city. When the characters make excursions on shore, a Conradian distaste is felt for the shoddy, sinister materialism of land life. This isn't allowed to harden into a rigid opposition, but it does produce some splendid bursts of satire … and, carefully anchored to the quiet tone of the whole, some attractive lyric moments….

Individually, the boat-owner's are engaging…. The two 'river children,' girls of six and twelve, cunningly self-reliant and worldly-wise, are especially well done, with nothing predictable about their dialogue.

When their mother tries to woo back her husband, or falls for the masterful Richard, the novel loses some of its crisp originality. Penelope Fitzgerald is not as interested in marriages, love or quarrels as in people existing on their own, in relation to things and places. But that in itself is an admirable preoccupation, and makes for a distinctively lucid and expressive novel.

Hermione Lee, "Down by the Thames," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9810, September 2, 1979, p. 37.∗

John Ryle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Set in a houseboat community on Battersea reach in the 1960s, Offshore is full of richly eccentric characters who are terrifically English: a terrifically English estate agent trying to sell a leaking barge, a terrifically English layabout, a terrifically English male prostitute, and, so on. For them there is simply nothing like messing about in houseboats. But it's not all mudlarks and Whistler nocturnes down on the waterfront; behind the brass-bound portholes holds are leaking and hearts are breaking…. Ms Fitzgerald has a wayward touch with metaphors. Do boat-dwellers really go around saying 'I won't go down without a struggle'? And she has a distracting didactic streak…. Some of the scenes in Offshore are as affecting as they are intended to be, but there are rather too many characters in the book and not enough people. It was Ronald Knox, the subject of an admirable biography by Ms Fitzgerald, who wrote 'biographies should be made about people you love, novels about those you dislike'. Ms Fitzgerald seems to be too fond of her people for them to come fully to life in her novel.

John Ryle, "New Music," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2529, September 7, 1979, p. 349.∗

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Penelope Fitzgerald] writes fluent poetic prose; yet [Offshore] leaves an impression of sharpness and shortness. Only in writing about the river does she let the words flow. The compression of her characterization is extraordinary; she can sum people up in a single sentence that begs as many questions as it answers but is worth pages of analysis. Of Nenna's twelve-year-old daughter: "The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long ago been passed by Martha." Of Maurice the prostitute, who has an unsavoury friend hoarding stolen goods in his barge: "The dangerous and ridiculous were necessary to his life, otherwise tenderness would overwhelm him."

The dialogue is equally spare; no one says more than a few terse words at a time. And Mrs Fitzgerald has a technique of incorporating speech and thought into description that makes phrases such as "she said", "she felt", redundant….

Mrs Fitzgerald has evolved a way of writing about people that compresses and therefore intensifies expression. Equally successful is her contrasting extravagance on the subject of the Thames—not only in her Whistlerish visual evocations, but in her soundtrack of hootings, gurglings and creakings. Less happy are one or two excursions into social documentary—or, to be precise, into the King's Road, Chelsea. For the novel is set in the 1960s, and we are not allowed to forget it….

[Some] uncharacteristically heavy-handedness might justify some of the grumbles that were audible when Offshore was awarded this year's Booker Prize. But it is only about a book of peculiar interest and excellence that one cares enough to protest over the striking of false notes.

Victoria Glendinning, "Between Land and Water," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4001, November 23, 1979, p. 10.

Mollie Hardwick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The characters in Offshore are all friendly with each other, with good inter-boat relationships; which is fortunate, as they are all just a little odd….

Their interwoven story is slight. What is memorable about it is the delicacy and wit with which Mrs Fitzgerald handles their dilemmas and mild adventures. We see most of Nenna, whose very inadequacy is endearing…. But by far the best bits of the book are those dealing with Nenna's two children, Tilda and Martha, who are of an astonishing precocity and as resourceful as their mother is not…. The scene in which they sell two de Morgan tiles to a dealer is a delight, and the perfect model of How to be Successful in Antiques. They, and the boat-cat Stripey, with her propensity for mud and for getting chased by rats, remain with one when the other characters have faded.

A delicate water-colour of a novel; even more aptly, a small, charming, Whistler etching….

Offshore is modest, compassionate, wise and funny, and the fact that it is little more than a sketch suggests that the author has in reserve material for a long, substantial and equally praiseworthy book.

Mollie Hardwick, "A Water-Colour Novel" (© copyright Mollie Hardwick 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 16-17.∗

Digby Durrant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore is deft, ironic, original and enjoyable, but it is hard to see how it came to win the Booker Prize. It is in no sense a 'big' book nor is it intended to be, and those who buy it because it won a major award will, one imagines, be disappointed by the modesty of the writer's ambitions…. Offshore vividly catches the life of Thames river-dwellers who retain their self respect by seeing themselves as voluntary exiles, members of the same club. (p. 92)

The plot isn't very important, even though one man is nearly murdered and drownings occur, but the book ends with disappointing abruptness when the male tart's barge, laden with stolen electric guitars, hair driers, transistors ('The strange currency of the 1960s') heaves itself away from its ancient anchor and sets off unwillingly, crewed by Nenna's runaway husband…. Where will they end up? Wormwood Scrubs or the Dogger Bank? Their fate is unresolved, the book ends. (p. 93)

Digby Durrant, "Winners and Misfits," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1980), Vol. 19, No. 11, February, 1980, pp. 92-3.∗

A. S. Byatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Penelope] Fitzgerald's new book, Human Voices, is about the BBC in the early days of the war…. She attempts to be exact; she offers authorial summings-up and judgments; but she guarantees nothing, neither justice, happiness, nor even an end to all the stories she imparts to us….

Penelope Fitzgerald's precise prose and brief comic set-pieces have some relation to the more flamboyant and apparently merciless proceedings of both Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon, but she lacks both their acidity and their high-handed moral certainties—Catholic in Muriel Spark's case, feminist in Fay Weldon's…. Human Voices is comic, and sometimes extraordinarily sad….

The BBC atmosphere is there: technical perfectionism, moral rigour, administrative agitation mixed with monumental calm in the face of outside disasters. A closed world, talking to a very large invisible outside world. The novel is rarely visual…. It is all scrappy, voices rising and falling, moments focussed and their consequences lost….

The scrappiness, the silences and absences, are essentially part of the theme and method of this novel. As a reader I veered between admiring this, and enjoying it very much, and feeling that I wanted to be told a little more, given a little more to go on. I suspect that on a second, slower reading the first feeling would be strengthened.

A. S. Byatt, "The Isle Full of Noises," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4043, September 26, 1980, p. 1057.

P. H. Newby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Penelope Fitzgerald's] Human Voices is about the BBC in the summer and autumn of 1940, when French troops camped in London parks, the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House was turned into a dormitory and the Blitz started. But anyone who has read her earlier novels, The Bookshop and Offshore … will know that the matter may be important but the manner is even more so. She is an individual, witty and trusting writer—trusting because she assumes that readers are as alert as she is. The tone of voice is important. In a conversation about music one of her characters is told that emotion must never intrude…. This sounds something like the discipline Penelope Fitzgerald herself writes under, and it does not imply coldness. On the contrary. The control is there because the current of feeling runs so strongly.

She is also a writer who cherishes absurdities. For example, the Head of Supply and Equipment is worried about his responsibilities if the United States and all of Central and South America, 15 countries in all, declare war on Germany. 'All of them are going to want representation at the BBC'—and he will be expected to provide the equipment…. [The] Director of Programme Planning, advises him to pray for a negotiated peace….

There are a number of set-pieces, some just funny like the abortive broadcast of a defeatist French general, some funny and touching like the celebratory dinner at Prunier's where Brooks improvises an engagement ring out of a piece of wire and a red currant, and one funny but black; this is an account of a girl in labour in the Concert Hall cubicle normally reserved for the Senior Announcer. But it is Annie who gives the novel its heart. In the handling of this honest and vulnerable character Penelope Fitzgerald uses the control that seems to shut out emotion only to involve the reader more. She creates appealing characters out of the simplest fairytale material. Annie sees life steadily and is unafraid; not a Beauty, perhaps, but then Brooks, though intolerable, is not completely the Beast. If all the elements in this short novel do not quite cohere there is enough vitality and good humour to make up for it.

P. H. Newby, "BBC Seraglio," (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of P. H. Newby), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2681, October 2, 1980, p. 445.

Penelope Lively

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Penelope Fitzgerald's latest book, Human Voices, makes use of her experiences in the BBC during the war to give us another exercise in the fiction of economy and understatement. It is a very English kind of writing, backing away from emotional and stylistic excess; if one had to suggest a literary antithesis I suppose it would be Lawrence Durrell. For my part, give me Mrs Fitzgerald every time….

Penelope Fitzgerald brings off her effects through neat dialogue and a deft hand with the descriptive phrase that nails a place or situation in a way that pages of painstaking description would have failed to do; the BBC as a "cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from …", a baby "that breathed gently, as though simmering", the BBC's labelling system—"Air Raid Siren, False Alarm: Cheerful Voices with Chink of Teacups: Polish Refugees in Scotland, National Singing, no Translation." The atmosphere of the place is beautifully conveyed; the custom of referring to everyone by a system of occupational initials—RPD, RPA, DPP—"the frightful clash of metal trays" in the canteen, the mixture of hierarchy and amateurish confusion….

It is not so much a narrative as a series of sparkling episodes; the continuity is provided by the characters…. The interplay between them is, among many other things, a clever fictional rendering of the way in which a random selection of people, flung together for impersonal reasons, will set up a pattern of relationships and reactions, just like iron filings…. Within [the confines of the BBC Penelope Fitzgerald] achieves a remarkable range of comment about how people behave, told in a voice that is both idiosyncratic and memorable. It is an unpretentious and thoroughly enjoyable novel. (p. 56)

Penelope Lively, "Five of the Best: New Fiction," in Encounter (© 1981 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVI, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 53-9.∗