Magazine article The Spectator

A House of Air

Magazine article The Spectator

A House of Air

Article excerpt

A talent for the unexpected A HOUSE OF AIR by Penelope Fitzgerald Flamingo, L20, pp. 552, ISBN 0007136420

Penelope Fitzgerald excelled in the art of summary. As a novelist, she had the unfailing knack of implying whole lives, emotional states, social milieus through the exactly chosen physical detail, or a single trick of behaviour. She had the confidence, too, to pass explicit judgment on some fact of existence in a well-turned epigram, and, as in Jane Austen, the novelist occasionally breaks through and tells us a general truth about money, love or morality which the action is more vaguely illustrating.

All these qualities, added to an extraordinarily energetic curiosity, make her a rewarding and illuminating essayist. These pieces, largely about literature, are full of exact and surprising evocations, and concise, responsible judgments bearing the weight of a great deal of thought and knowledge. One could quite happily do nothing but quote a great number of these brilliant sentences to convey how original and thoughtful Fitzgerald always was. 'I think of Tennyson as one of the greatest of the English-rectory-bred wild creatures.' Emily Tennyson is usually thought of as 'one more sickly Victorian woman, ruling from her sofa'. Charlotte Mew 'was the sort of person whose luggage is carried by helpful young men'. Rndclyffe Hall 'continued to hold her head high, even in the face of English jokiness'.

These summaries bear the imprint of great learning and original thought; it would be difficult to improve on her description of one aspect of Edwardian society: 'Fabianism and Utopianism, through Tolstoyan settlements, garden cities and vegetarianism tea-rooms, through Shelley's Spirit of Delight and the Spirit of Ecstasy and the new Rolls-Royce.' It is perfectly true that there was a vogue for Shelley around then, and the epigraph to Elgar's second symphony is the passage about the Spirit of Delight. But it takes a certain sort of genius to see that as characteristic of the age, which it certainly is, and a different sort of one to preserve the period phrasing of 'vegetarianism tea-rooms'.

This knack of summing up a person, place or time is intimately linked to Fitzgerald's virtues as a novelist. Frequently, evoking something, she will fasten on something apparently inessential, which in fact conveys far more than anything obviously important would do. Here she is on a childhood memory of Hampstead:

At 11 am on Armistice Day, no matter what day of the week it was, the traffic stopped dead for two minutes. That was hard on the horses if they were on one of Hampstead's steep hills, and the drivers sometimes threw out a drag, like a kind of anchor, to keep from slipping.

Few people would think to 'place' the relationship of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Stephen in precisely this way, but it is instantly evocative and truthful: 'I associate these close conspiracies of sisters with "long" families in many-storeyed and -railinged London houses.'

The detail of the railings might seem an extravagance, but how beautifully it shows us the entire atmosphere of late Victorian sisterhood. Often these deft summary images are deeply surprising, and therefore vivid; the image of Dorothy L. Sayers, if you keep her books in mind, is quietly hilarious: 'she sat there in black crepe de Chine, austere, remote, almost cubical'.

From many, if not most writers, such ruthless summaries might seem unfair. Fitzgerald commands assent, because everything in her writing shows her to be acutely observant, in life as well as in reading. In her essay on Emma, for instance, she stresses something which, as far as I know, nobody has ever thought significant before, that the Woodhouse estate includes a piggery; readers who overlook this have, I think, a tendency to underestimate how extensive the grounds must be.

It displays a general clear-sightedness, an ability to look and read without prejudice. Fitzgerald, in her essays on art and literature, writes simply about what interests her, not about any generally accepted canon of greatness. …

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