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Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’

How She Knows

December 17, 2014 | by

Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.

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From the cover of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Penelope Fitzgerald would have been ninety-eight today. We should mark the occasion by remembering that it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise.

In 2008, Julian Barnes described Fitzgerald as a jam-making grandmother, carrying a plastic, purple handbag. “Many readers’ initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel,” he wrote, is, “ ‘But how does she know that?’ ” He said that he has reread the first scene of her book The Blue Flower (2000) many times, “always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”

And most everyone knows the story of the Booker dinner in 1979, to which Fitzgerald supposedly wore a flannel housedress. When she beat out V. S. Naipaul for the prize with Offshore, Robert Robinson of Book Programme proposed that the judges had made the wrong choice.

Then there’s Michael Dibdin, who once compared Fitzgerald to Jane Austen, of whom Lord Grey of Fallodon said something like, How astonishing that, despite the dullness of her life, she should write not only one novel, but several, and they are very good, too. Didbin was also incredulous of The Blue Flower: “How on earth was this done?” Read More »

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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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Many Happy Returns, Penelope Fitzgerald

December 17, 2013 | by

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Image via the Guardian.

“Everyone in Penelope Fitzgerald’s family called her Mops, no one ever called her Penelope unless they met her later in life. And she didn’t like the name Penelope. But it would seem very peculiar for me to call her Mops all the way through.” —Hermione Lee, the Art of Biography No. 4

 

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A Week in Culture: Sadie Stein, Editor

November 14, 2011 | by

DAY ONE

4:00 A.M. I can’t sleep. Because I just moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan, my books aren’t unpacked, and so my reading options are limited. The only books I have handy are on decorating—although it’s usually a pretty theoretical study in my case. The pattern of the boards on the floor of this new apartment reminds me of floors I saw in Kraków when I visited there with my father, and I’ve decided rather grandly to do a sort of prewar Eastern European motif. (Again, this is probably theoretical. ) Wonder vaguely where one would find a tiled stove in New York.

I read a few chapters of the inimitable Dorothy Draper’s Decorating Is Fun!, which is filled with gems like “It is just as disastrous to have the wrong accessories in your room as it is to wear sport shoes with an evening dress,” as well as the somewhat less helpful “I don’t believe anything can do as much for a room as a glowing fire in an attractive fireplace. Men and dogs love an open fire—they show good sense. It is the heart of any room and should be kindled on the slightest provocation.” (That said, I’m guessing Alexa Chung or someone is wearing sports shoes with an evening dress as we speak, and probably causing a sensation. Imagine a world with rules and dicta. The mind boggles.)

5:30 A.M. Finally manage to drift off for a few hours, until a handyman unexpectedly knocks at the door at 7:45 to wash the windows. It occurs to me that this is just the sort of dubious ruse a murderer or thief might use to gain entrance to someone’s apartment; let him in anyway.

9:00 A.M. I pass an angry-looking gentleman on the way to the subway.
“Hello,” I say.
“Bloomingdales, Bloomingdales!” he shouts.

3:53 P.M. I get some sad family news. Internet is in and out here, but in a good moment, I find my favorite Barbara Pym quote: “The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things ... the trivial pleasure like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.”

4:45 P.M. My old boyfriend e-mails me about a recent fight he got into at a dinner party, over collective nouns. “I was quite put out, let me tell you,” he says. Read More »

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From the Cloakroom, at the Booker

October 20, 2011 | by

Julian Barnes by Ross MacGibbon.

For the real action at this year’s Man Booker Prize, you had to hit the cloakroom. For much of the evening, along with correspondents from all the major newspapers, I was sequestered in a large room in the palatial spread of the Guildhall. It was only when I ventured downstairs that recognizable faces attached to tuxedos and evening gowns began to drift in from the dinner. I ran across one former winner, dreamily improvising at an invisible keyboard while explaining how relieved he was to belong to what he called the great continuity of the prize; a well-known literary editor roamed the corridors, warily peering from right to left in the manner of a displaced meerkat; and Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, was huddled against a wall, unusually hushed by the seashell allure of her cellphone. Read More »

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Philip Hensher on ‘King of the Badgers’

September 27, 2011 | by

Philip Hensher.

King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher’s seventh novel, comes on the heels of his ambitious, fictional survey of seventies Britain, The Northern Clemency. King of the Badgers focuses on the staged kidnapping of China O’Connor, in circumstances that inevitably recall the disappearance of Shannon Matthews. Shannon disappeared from her hometown of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 2008 and, after huge national media attention, was discovered a month later in the home of her step-uncle, who was eventually convicted and jailed along with Shannons mother. It delves into the private lives of the community in the fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. I met Philip in a trendily minimal Fitzrovia café, where Philip spoke of his imagined world as alive and elusively present.

Let’s begin with Hanmouth, the setting for King of the Badgers. What kind of place is it?

Well, it’s one of those places with a betwixt and between status. It’s a town: it’s not a village and it’s not a city. Pressures in England are pushing most places in one direction or the other. Surprising places are suddenly being declared cities. Chesterfield is a city now. Brighton is a city now. If it’s not big enough to have a claim to being a city then it’s pushed down toward being a village.

I like those betwixt and between places, ones with about forty thousand people. They are small enough that people know each other, or recognize each other. Small enough that faces recur, but big enough for the chain of connections to stretch to a breaking point, so that people can still be strangers. Hanmouth is also an old town of the sort that are all over England. There’s history in them that people want to identify with, but at the same time modernity keeps cropping up. Read More »

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