Between Head & Heart: Penelope Fitzgerald's Novels

By Lewis, Tess | New Criterion, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Between Head & Heart: Penelope Fitzgerald's Novels


Lewis, Tess, New Criterion


All accidents of our lives are materials out of which we can make whatever we like. One who has much intelligence will make much of his life. Every acquaintance, every incident might, for a thoroughly gifted person, become the first link of an infinite series, the beginning of an unending novel.

--Novalis, Pollen

Penelope Fitzgerald is anything but an autobiographical novelist. Yet four of her nine novels have grown directly from personal experiences. Her various positions as a clerk in a bookstore, as a sound assistant at the BBC during the Second World War, and as a teacher of child actors gave rise respectively to The Bookshop 1978), Human Voices (1980), and At Freddie's 1982). Fitzgerald's third novel, Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the Battersea Reach of the Thames where Fitzgerald herself lived on an old wooden barge until it sank. These early novels owe much of their success not only to the quaint charm of their settings--and there is plenty of that--but also to the unsparing precision of Fitzgerald's observations.

She is sharp, but compassionate, softening the bite of her remarks with gentle humor. In Human Voices, she described the British Broadcasting Corporation, an institution with a personality of its own, as a "cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from." The barge dwellers in Offshore aspire to houses on shore, sensible occupations, and adequate amounts of money, but

   a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people,
   caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up,
   into the mud moorings of the great tideway. Biologically they could be
   said, as most tideline creatures are, to be "successful" They were not
   easily dislodged.

Fitzgerald's early novels portray self-contained worlds with which she is intimately familiar. It is a measure of Fitzgerald's talent, then, that her later novels, set in increasingly distant periods and places and thus more intensely imagined, are even richer and more vivid. Innocence (1986) is set in Florence in the 1950s. Both The Beginning of Spring (1988) and The Gate of Angels (1990) take place on the eve of the First World War, with the first set in Moscow and the second in Cambridge, England. Her most recent novel, The Blue Flower (1998) spans seven years in provincial Saxony in the 1790s.

Fitzgerald's sensibility is an elusive one, suggestive rather than explanatory. In her fragmented, episodic narratives much of the story's action occurs offstage and significant effort is required of the reader to appreciate the subtleties and resonances within her relatively brief novels. Perhaps this is why, despite her longstanding success in Britain, she has only recently gained widespread recognition in the United States. The Blue Flower won not only the National Book Critics Circle Award, but also a surprising amount of critical attention and number of devoted readers for an elliptical novel about a difficult German poet. With the U.S. publication of The Golden Child (1977), Human Voices, and At Freddie's, American readers are finally able to appreciate the extraordinary range of her fiction. For the first time, all of her novels are in print here.(1)

All but the first of Fitzgerald's nine novels are woven from the accidents of her characters' lives. Incidents and incidentals rather than formal plots or tidy story lines govern the books. The effect of one character's personality upon another's is often more momentous and more interesting than anything a particular character does. Fitzgerald's gift lies in her ability to create charged dramas of intimacy from apparently unremarkable material. These dramas gain their particular poignancy from the discrepancy between the amused detachment of her narrative voice and the bleakness of the situation described. …

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