How She Knows


Arts & Culture

Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.


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?”

Hermione Lee’s recent biography of Fitzgerald, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, has done great work in saying how, exactly, on earth this was done, recovering the deeply literary life that Fitzgerald was born into and led. Her father was Edmund Knox, editor of Punch and one of the famed Knox brothers, including Dillwyn, a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, and Wilfred, a theologian, who eventually became the subject of her second book. Her mother was one of the first students at Somerville College, where Fitzgerald herself went on to study with distinction. “I have been reading steadily for seventeen years,” she told the Oxford student magazine when she was voted Woman of the Year there. “When I go down I want to start writing.”

Strange, then, to imagine that this same woman was later said, by Julian Barnes, merely to have “fitted writing into the gaps in family life.” It has been the fate of many of the world’s most beloved writers to gain appreciation long after their deaths, but two years from Fitzgerald’s centennial birthday, we’re still only inching closer to acknowledging that her craft was more than a hobby. If Michael Dibdin’s 1995 use of Lord Grey’s 1816 statement is any indication, there is among male novelists an enduring tendency to regard the genius of their female counterparts as accidental, abnormal, and deeply inscrutable, when it is anything but.

Lee’s book rightly recharacterizes Fitzgerald’s success as deferred rather than late blooming—deferred, that is, by her relative poverty, a difficult marriage, and those prejudices that threatened her sense of ability—an important distinction. And it integrates a chronology of her life with deft analyses of her novels, like Offshore, into which Fitzgerald incorporated the houseboat on which she lived for many years, and which famously sank. The result, as Alexander Chee has written in Slate, is to pierce through the prevailing rhetoric that casts Fitzgerald as a bumbling grandmother of a writer. Lee has gone so far as to suggest that this persona was of Fitzgerald’s own devising: “And so she drew this other figure, the dotty lady,” as Chee summarizes, “over her own image, and she hid inside it.”

As a devotee of Penelope Fitzgerald the genius novelist, I’ll bend Lee’s perspective only slightly in my appreciation. Because viewing the “dotty lady” as a character put on by Fitzgerald doesn’t do enough to destabilize the categories of master and amateur that she defied—it doesn’t question the idea that these two identities, “accident-prone grandmother” and “English novelist,” could not have coexisted. It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.

Fitzgerald once lamented to her longtime editor Richard Garnett, “How many books do you have to write and how many semicolons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?” The Blue Flower, her last work, written at seventy-nine and concerning the German philosopher Novalis, echoes this question explicitly. It is no coincidence that the novel begins in the eighteenth century, when authorship in Europe became integrated into property ownership, excluding women. It specifically plays with the fragment, or aphorism, the chosen philosophical and literary form of the German Romantics. Short chapters, in bare prose and succinct phrases, invoke this style, but are ultimately undermined by a different set of novelistic devices that instead fill scenes with delicious richness, color that distracts from the supposed profundity of these men of few words.

This contradiction is introduced in the very first scene of The Blue Flower, in the midst of a washday. That Fitzgerald’s version of the life of a philosopher begins with the cleaning of the philosopher’s underwear is telling: immediately she has placed him inside a domestic sphere. Fritz (Fitzgerald does not use his Novalis moniker), in a Fichte-style fragment that he picked up under his tutelage at university, “Let your thought be the washbasket!,” but is interrupted by the barking of dogs, and by several maids, who cannot participate in his ecstatic utterance because their hands are full of his laundry. So the background becomes the foreground; the art of the scene is in its disorder, its fullness rather than its sparseness the main event. On the occasion of the washday, Fitzgerald locates beauty, rather than in the words of Novalis, in the sight of his siblings’ clothes, flung into the courtyard out of upper story windows, that “fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.” The image captures the power of imaginative thinking, the lightness and deftness of the human mind despite the physical world more thoroughly than Fritz’s philosophical exercise ever could.

Later in the novel, Fritz tells his friend Karoline that she is “the thesis, tranquil, pale, finite, self-contained. I am the antithesis, uneasy, contradictory, passionate, reaching out beyond myself.” The exchange occurs in the kitchen—“as she chopped”—where Karoline, busy cutting countless potatoes into uniform pieces, can only listen. The Romantic project, concerned with a split self, the problem of subjectivity, considered the fragment as the ideal form. Its clipped poeticism served their core principle of self-reflexivity, providing a starting point, a question, rather than an answer. But consider Karoline’s truly split self: she listens to her friend speak, and contemplates antithesis and thesis, at the same time preparing a dinner to feed a whole house of people.

Fitzgerald deeply valued the preoccupations of male artists and writers—whether German philosophers or her father and uncles—with questions about the world and how to be in it, life’s continual “process of estrangement,” as Novalis described it. But her work exemplifies how these endeavors are endowed with greater understanding, enlightened by a form that is centered in and derived from the perspective of those who are estranged, of women. Herein lies Fitzgerald’s genius. The authors who cannot find it, like Michael Dibdin, who calls The Blue Flower “a novel in which nothing happens,” are the ones in most dire need of retraining by her work, which leads the eye to a different mode of seeing. Julian Barnes, too, might try revisiting that first scene, to understand the brilliance of the washday.

Bridget Read is an editorial assistant at Ecco. Her work has appeared in New York, Guernica Daily, and Words and Women 1.