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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Between Head & Heart: Penelope Fitzgerald's Novels


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.