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The Shape of a Life

August 26, 2014 | by

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Congratulations to Hermione Lee, who has won the 2014 James Tait Black Prize for her biography of the Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One judge described Lee’s biography as “a masterclass in writing of this type … the perfect marriage of an excellent subject and a biographer working at the very top of her game.”

Lee was at work on the book during her Art of Biography interview last year: in the course of their conversation, Louisa Thomas discovers a blanket-covered box that contains the Fitzgerald family archive. Though Lee denies having set out to be a “woman writer writing about women writers,” she has almost exclusively chosen women authors as her subjects. Still, for a biographer of Woolf, Cather, Wharton, and Bowen, Lee found Fitzgerald to be a special case:

I don’t have a theory about Penelope Fitzgerald. I’m deeply interested in the shape of her life, and I’m fascinated by lateness, late starts. She didn’t start publishing novels until she was sixty, for a variety of reasons. I feel there was a powerful underground river running through her life. She was a brilliant young woman, and everybody thought she was going to be a writer and she was writing away like mad in her teens and early twenties, and she was the editor of a magazine. And then it all went underground. Meanwhile, she’s writing notes in her teaching books, which are a form of apprenticeship, and she’s bringing up her family, and she’s coping with her husband. And then he dies. And then up it comes, this underground river, at the age of sixty, and she writes thirteen books in twenty years. I don’t have a theory about that. Nor do I want to blame anyone. But I want to understand it and show it happening as best as I can.

The complexity of women’s lives is, naturally, at the center of Lee’s interview, and it’s a thread that connects Lee to her subjects intimately. The first woman to hold the Goldsmiths’ Chair and the first woman president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she recalls walking across the grass of New College and thinking of Virginia Woolf, who, in trespassing momentarily on the lawn, was chased off by a beadle. As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, “Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”

Lee, however, feeling the benefit of the “strenuous labors of my female predecessors,” can stray from the path; she makes a point of walking across the grassy quad, because “I had the right to be there.”

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