A Completely Determined Human Being
Flower, Dean, The Hudson Review
Something of the quality of Penelope Fitzgerald's mind may be gleaned from the index of The Knox Brothers, the biography of her father and three uncles that she wrote in 1977. Her multiple entries for each man include, unexpectedly, a separate list of his "Characteristics." There are, for example, twenty-two distinct character traits listed for her uncle Wilfred, all neatly alphabetized, beginning with "astringency, 157" and ending with "single-minded, 63, 196." No surprise there, really: Wilfred, an Anglican priest, was the most selfless, ascetic, spiritually driven of the four Knoxes. But note the following items midway in the list:
poverty, sympathy with, 50-51
power of prayer, 208, 262
practically inaudible, 195-96, 238
Will anyone notice the humor of that last category? What kind of reader, searching earnestly through an index for details about Wilfred's woice or audibility or maudibility, will hit upon p as the logical place to look?
Fitzgerald's index, like her mind, is not only systematic, precise, richly stored, and sharply analytic, but also wonderfully funny. In a 1982 review of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Letters, edited by William Maxwell, Fitzgerald conveys her disappointment that the book has "only a sketchy index." Whereupon she offers a sample of what it might have contained:
celibacy, S. T. W. recommends
clearing up, S. T. W.'s passion for
coalshed, T. H. White's diaries lost in
cold baths, S. T. W. advises, if piano kept in bathroom
Clearly this is a send-up of the index-maker's art. Yet I have no doubt that Sylvia Townsend Warner's letters are delightful and that she did in fact recommend celibacy, did mention the coalshed where White's diaries were lost, and did advise cold bathsif a piano were kept in the bathroom. Fitzgerald always gets her facts right.
The recent publication of a generous selection of her essays, introductions, and reviews gives a fuller sense than we have had before of what Fitzgerald herself was like.1 Always self-effacing in her nine novels and three biographies, she emerges here as a many-sided critic-lucid, authoritative, witty, and incisive. Her fully formed critical intelligence comes abruptly, as her novels seemed to do, out of nowhere. She was sixty-three when The London Review of Books invited her to start writing book reviews, a year after Offshore (her third novel) won the Booker Prize in 1979. Over the next twenty years she would review fiction and biography not only for The London Review of Books (43 articles in all) but also for The Observer, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The New York Times Book Review, and a miscellaney of other journals on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile she kept up a steady pace of writing novels, a biography, eight short stories, many introductions, travel essays, art criticism, literary essays, and journalistic sketches. By the 1990s she had become a cottage industry, and she maintained vigorous production right up to her death in April 2000, at the age of eighty-three. Counting just the book reviews written since 1980, the total exceeds 200.
The Afterlife testifies to Fitzgerald's amazing energy, but also to the fact that her critical intelligence apparently never needed to develop-it simply sprang into being. Or so it seems. Neither Hermione Lee's excellent introduction nor Terence Dooley's interesting editorial note suggests any real explanation of this mystery. Dooley mentions the existence of some reviews of horse shows, movies, plays, and art exhibitions written for Punch between 1937 (when she was a student at Oxford) and 1944 (when she worked for the BBC). He also mentions some essays on literature and art which she wrote with her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when they edited World Review from 1950 to 1953. But Dooley chose, along with his advisory editors Mandy Kirkby and Christopher Carduff, not to include any of this material. …