Fitzgerald: A Life
Chatto & Windus, 2013
Penelope Fitzgerald (19162000) was a
great English writer, who would never have described herself
in such grand terms. Her novels were short, spare masterpieces,
self-concealing, oblique and subtle. She won the Booker Prize
for her novel Offshore in 1979, and her last work, The Blue
Flower, was acclaimed as a work of genius. The early novels
drew on her own experiences a boat on the Thames in the
1960s; the BBC in war time; a failing bookshop in Suffolk; an
eccentric stage-school. The later ones opened out to encompass
historical worlds which, magically, she seemed to possess entirely:
Russia before the Revolution; post-war Italy; Germany in the
time of the Romantic writer Novalis.
Fitzgeralds life is as various and as
cryptic as her fiction. It spans most of the twentieth century,
and moves from a Bishops Palace to a sinking barge, from
a demanding intellectual family to hardship and poverty, from
a life of teaching and obscurity to a blaze of renown. She was
first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is
a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form
Loved and admired, and increasingly recognised
as one of the outstanding novelists of her time, she remains,
also, mysterious and intriguing. She liked to mislead people
with a good imitation of an absent-minded old lady, but under
that scatty front were a steel-sharp brain and an imagination
of wonderful reach. This brilliant account by a biographer
whom Fitzgerald herself admired pursues her life, her
writing, and her secret self, with fascinated interest.
Hermione Lee on Penelope Fitzgerald:
Fitzgerald: Staying Afloat." The Guardian, 25
October 2013. [Hermione Lee looks back at Fitzgerald's free
yet fraught way of life on the Thames in the 60s that would
inform her Booker prize-winning novel, Offshore.]
Hensher, Philip. The
Guardian, 1 November 2013. From the Review: "Hermione
Lee has done a superb job, capturing the novelist's elusive
personality and telling a complex, sometimes harrowing story."
Wullschlager, Jackie. "Penelope Fitzgerald
by Hermione Lee." Financial Times, 1 November
2013. From the Review: "Lee elucidates the depth
of [Fitzgerald's] achievement, and ties it enthrallingly to
a life and personality more complex and difficult than anyone
imagined. Julian Barnes once pinpointed Fitzgeralds
courteous, elusive self-presentation as a jam-making
grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.
In a perfect literary biography, Lee plumbs the creative mind
beneath that persona, tracing the metamorphosis of messy experience
into crystalline art."
a singularly English novelist." The Economist,
2 November 2013.
Townshend, Emma. The
Independent, 3 November 2013. From the Review:
"This book will hold insights and treats for any
admirer of her fiction, and recruit converts to this reticent,
witty, ferocious champion of the utterly downtrodden."
Shakespeare, Nicholas. The Telegraph,
5 November 2013. From the Review: "[Lee] is excellent
on the tensions of living at close quarters with an ineffectual
partner, and on the bread and butter of a writers existence,
at the mercy of publishers who underpay and undervalue."
Roberts, Michèle. The
Independent, 8 November 2013. From the Review:
"Penelope protected herself by pretending to be a
gentle, old-fashioned, absent-minded eccentric. From underneath
this woolly disguise she could shoot razor-sharp barbs when
necessary. She also wrote penetrating literary criticism,
deploying quiet scholarship, wry humour, wisdom and generosity.
Lee mirrors her lovingly, and does her lucid justice."
McCrum, Robert. The
Guardian, 16 November 2013. From the Review: "Thanks
to this sympathetic biography, her afterlife shows signs of
becoming finally blessed with understanding, admiration and