Penelope Fitzgerald described herself as “an old writer who has never been a young one”. Her first book (a biography of Edward Burne-Jones) was published when she was 59, her first novel, The Golden Child, at the age of 61. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is a fascinating account of the origins of her writing and a comprehensive cataloguing of the abundance of misfortunes that she suffered, which often pile on top of each other in such crowds that it is difficult not to giggle at times. Out of her, seemingly, disaster-prone life came the dark comedy of her novels, though Fitzgerald’s sensibility was rooted in the values of her distinguished family.
Penelope Fitzgerald was born into generations of clerics descended from Edmund Knox, the Victorian Bishop of Manchester. The Knox family were an “English tribe” who “ganged up on the outside world”, but they would carry a very Victorian sense of religious faith dominated by doubt into the twentieth-century. Penelope’s father, Evoe, was the editor of Punch and when she went on to Somerville College, Oxford, to study English she wrote: “we didn’t feel the need to study modern literature, we imagined we were going to write it.”
After Oxford came a job at the BBC and then, the first of her many misfortunes, a war-time marriage to Desmond Fitzgerald, an officer in the Irish Guards who would never get over the horrors he witnessed in the North Africa and Italian campaigns. Desmond, a barrister, would be disbarred for passing forged cheques, which would accelerate the family’s descent into several decades of quiet poverty (the lowest point coming when their decrepit houseboat sank into the Thames with all the family possessions on board). Alongside these worries, and while bringing up her children, Penelope Fitzgerald worked as a teacher; among her remarkable roll-call of students were Anna Wintour, Edward St Aubyn and Helena Bonham Carter. It was in her free periods between classes that Fitzgerald began to write.
Hermione Lee traces the autobiographical basis of her first novels (Offshore drew on the houseboat years) while unfolding the many aspects of Penelope’s own personality,noting how secretive, private and elusive Fitzgerald could be. After being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and winning it in 1979, Fitzgerald began to be regularly interviewed and hid behind a mask of elderly eccentricity (and sarcasm, a combination she shares with Bob Dylan).
Fitzgerald’s character was formed by the Victorianism of William Morris, devoted to a belief in an art based on craftsmanship, while her own extraordinary, intellectually curious, inner life sustained her through decades of poverty. Out of the mass of domestic details, and cataloguing of family life, Hermione Lee builds an intimate portrait while always keeping an eye out for the moments when Fitzgerald’s imagination would transmute her daily experience into novels, which were once seen as quietly out of step with literary fashion, but which have outlasted her fashionable contemporaries.
Any Cop?: In-depth, perceptive, sympathetic; a biography that is as fascinated by its subject as any reader of Penelope Fitzgerald will be.