It is rare indeed to begin a literary career after the age of sixty, and then to achieve reputation and fame as a novelist during the next decade. But Penelope Fitzgerald was a highly unusual and original sort of writer. Before she turned to writing she had married and raised a family, worked during the war at the BBC (the setting of her fourth novel, Human Voices
), run a bookshop (an experience that also provided a novel), and taught school, including a school for theatre and drama training.
Her first book was a study of the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones. She followed this with The Knox Brothers
, a biography of her father Edmund Knox, the gifted and remarkable editor of Punch,
and her equally talented set of uncles. That might well have been enough for most writers at her age, but it turned out to be in the nature of a prologue to her real career as a novelist.
In a cool modest way Fitzgerald was an experimenter, never repeating the same kind of novel twice. Her first, The Golden Child
, plays engagingly with the forms of the mystery and detective story, but its real charm lies in the field of comedy: in this case the quirks and personalities of the staff who run the big museum which is housing a prize exhibit. This was followed by the lively and delightful story of The Bookshop
, the prelude, as it might be said, to Offshore
, her first assured masterpiece, nouvelle and almost miniature as in a sense it is. All her books have the quality, and the impact, that goes with a particular sort of brevity: their simplicity and their author’s finely individual line of vision, unique in each particular case, makes them seem longer than they really are.Offshore
, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, to the surprise of some of the judges, and, indeed, to the amazement if not the chagrin of other, more heavyweight contenders, has a deceptive simplicity about it. It needs to be read at least twice before the reader grasps how subtle and how eventually rewarding are its method and effect.
As with Penelope Fitzgerald’s other novels, a close analogy suggests itself with what happens to us when we meet new aquaintances in ordinary daily life. In such a situation we may soon realize that we know very little: our first impressions (to borrow the original title of Jane Austen’s first novel) are probably not true, or even just, but in life itself we hardly have the opportunity, and seldom indeed the inclination, to enquire or to wonder much further. We are in that situation as we continue to encounter Nenna, the wife whose husband has left her, and who — in a muddled way, distracted as she is by everyday cares and problems — wishes he hadn’t. The wholly disconcerting effect that the young can have, even — or perhaps indeed especially — on their parents, is suggested by a sentence about them so quietly laconic and unobtrusive that it seems almost absent-minded: ‘The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha.’
Martha and her sister Tilda are, in their unflamboyant way, a disconcerting pair, but readers have, as it were, too much to do with other people and other matters, with the boats and the personalities of their owners, with the absorbing nature of the odd and yet perfectly normal world they find themselves in, to worry much about the nature of the children. They are so obviously not worried themselves: and very little attention is paid to them by anybody. As their creator so economically remarks — and the uninsistent humour of the moment is typical of all Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction — children do indeed discover, or at least receive the impression, that — in the words of a wise old priest — there are no true adults in the world, and that they themselves are as old as they are ever likely to be. There is a kind of insecurity about the Fitzgerald world which makes it, as every page turns, so increasingly fascinating and challenging. She never attempts to analyse or to possess her characters in the way, for instance, that Henry James, another master of the nouvelle form, finds it too strong a temptation not to do.
And this odd fact may indeed give the clue to the way in which readers finds themselves hooked. Some mystery, some secret will surely emerge; and yet it does not. Her readers are no wiser about what the people they have been reading about are like at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning. That
is not, as it were, the point of the exercise, as it would be, say, in a nouvelle by Henry James or a novel by George Eliot.
The same applies to story or plot. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels don’t have plots, but they give a wonderful illusion of having them, by keeping the reader glued to the page, in anticipation of what’s to come. In a sense nothing much is, because nothing much happens to the characters, but the last thing the reader feels is disappointment. (Offshore
has indeed an astonishing climax and conclusion, but it gives us the pure pleasure of accomplished art, rather than the mere surprise of an unexpected ending.)
Although always unobtrusive, the moments of drama in the novel are, in their own way, devastating. No one has ever described a husband—wife ‘quarrel’ with such appallingly accurate charity as Fitzgerald gives us in the scene between Nenna, longing to have her husband back, and Edward, longing to be taken back, but finding himself, as men do, in an impasse of perverse pride and muddled vehemence. All she can say is ‘please give’ and when he angrily demands ‘what’, she can only say ‘anything’. But she has managed, as he has not, to say that she wants him every moment and to remember that one of his few accomplishments is the ability to fold up a map properly, something she herself can never do.
Although the author never says so, it is clear that the boat itself, the Grace
(meaningfully incongruous name), and the way of life on the river, have really come between them. The little girls love their life and everything about the Thames — the mud, and the mess, and the chances of finding even quite valuable broken tiles on the muddy foreshore. Again the author makes us see, without stating the fact, how and why they love it, and yet how impossible it has become as a life for their elders.Offshore
is in some ways a sad book as well as a searching one, although sadness, like so many other things in the novel, is mingled with a kind of accepting gaiety. In Human Voices
, Fitzgerald takes up again her own style and form of comedy. It is a most amazing book and, like all her books, a charitable one, although it may have made a few faces blush at the BBC. As the river is the essential background of Offshore
, so London in wartime is presided over by the sound of those cultivated voices mediating the war to the British public. It is tempting to wonder whether there is a sly reference in the title to the
concluding lines of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Penelope Fitzgerald had been a sea-girl herself, so to speak, in the offices of the Cporation; and she loved a subtle or oblique joke as much as anybody. As a critic pointed out when Human Voices
was published, although the temptation is to read fast because the novel is so delightfully readable, it is better to go slowly so as not to miss the jokes. There are plenty of them below that demure surface. The Beginning of Spring
has all the fascination of its predecessors and much more beside. ‘Open the doors,’ runs a Russian proverb, quoted by Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘here comes trouble.’ It is a very Russian proverb, for Russians are convinced that since trouble will come anyway it should be greeted with an appropriate hospitality. There is plenty of trouble in this strangely magical and in some ways very Russian novel, but there are other things too, including the promise of spring, and indeed its beginning, when all the double windows in Moscow houses are taken out, in readiness for the few short months of summer. Not the least magical aspect of the book, as if it were a Russian fairy-tale mixed with the innocent sophistication of a story by Chekhov, is the way in which the author has, as it were, contrived to Russianize her imagination while leaving its inherent Englishness still in place. Quite how she has discovered, absorbed, and made her own use of so much Russian material remains her secret. Perhaps a Knox uncle or two may have been useful? — who knows.
So authentic is the feel of the book that we may be baffled, and even unsatisfied at first, as much by the tone as by the intention. Penelope Fitzgerald has always given the feeling, in her fiction, of the way things are muddled up in life, but here such an impression is more overwhelming than ever, and seems, too, more cunningly engineered by a sophisticated process of art. Almost as in her first novel, the ‘mystery’, and its solution, seem to lie in the fact that there was no mystery in the first place, only the appearance of one. In this case it is Nellie — Mrs Reid, wife of an English printer in Moscow — going away, and then at the end, returning. Why does she do it? We don’t know — any more, we might feel, than a lot of things which are never to be known or understood: in Russia,
or, indeed, in the world at large. But so far from being frustrating or disappointing this effect of the novel seems, in its own way, both logical and deeply satisfying.
The humour of the book, never laborious or attempting to show itself off, is one of its joys. Frank Reid’s assistant at the printing works, Selwyn Crane, is perhaps the nearest Penelope Fitzgerald comes to creating a ‘character’, and a comic one at that. He is one of those people most of us have somewhere in our lives who invariably manage to occupy, as one might say, the moral high ground. When Reid’s wife Nellie leaves home — and it may be for no other reason than that she finds life in Moscow, with an English husband born and bred there, too unnatural, indeed too exacting, for her — Selwyn is at once on hand to give his own peculiar variety of consolation. Poor Frank puts his head in his hands, feeling that ‘he could bear anything rather than determined unselfishness’. Selwyn
makes everyone else feel guilty, as Frank tells him in a burst of exasperation, and when things are sorted out Selwyn can think of nothing but ‘his next charitable enterprise’. Now, ‘with the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.’ On top of all this, the part he has played in the decamping of Nellie Reid seems to be a puzzling or, even, an equivocal one.
Such things, however, don’t greatly matter: indeed one of the strange things about this jewel of a book is how little things like that do seem to matter; and yet we are always gripped by what is happening, and pleasantly taken up with wondering what might happen next. This is in a sense the old atmosphere of fantasy and fairy-tale, brought up to date here and with its species of strangeness never far away, and yet always strictly and beautifully down to earth. Penelope Fitzgerald’s children — Frank’s Dolly, Ben and Annushka in The Beginning of Spring
, like Nenna’s Tilda and Martha in Offshore
— seem so natural a part of their author’s highly individual world that they are wholly pleasing and acceptable, even to those of us who would normally be highly suspicious of child characters in fiction.
As much a part of the suggestiveness and material imagination of the story is the young girl from the big shop, Lisa, employed by Frank on Selwyn’s advice to help look after the three children. What part Lisa subsequently plays in Frank’s own life — emotionally, even perhaps sexually — is all a part of the artful mystery of the book’s development. Frank and a Russian friend go, at the friend’s suggestion, to a fashionable Moscow teashop called Rusalochka’s. In Russian mythology a Rusalka is a water-sprite, once human, who has drowned herself when forsaken by a human lover. Sometimes, as in Pushkin’s magical poem, she has borne a daughter in her new transformation, in fact a Rusalochka, who will herself sexually tempt her mother’s faithless lover. Penelope Fitzgerald’s meticulous inventiveness is much too subtle to labour this legend, or for any of the normal signposts and suggestions of symbolism, but the relationship between Lisa and Selwyn, and Lisa and Frank and his vanished wife, teases the reader — not into a search for clues, but into the superior enjoyments of aesthetic questioning and wondering.
No wonder, too, that Anita Brookner, writing in the Spectator,
was sure that the novel had ‘mastered a city, a landscape and a vanished time’ in producing a work of art which was ‘part novel, part evocation’, done with ‘a calm confidence behind its apparent simplicity’. That confidence in handling material so far distant from the normal domestic field which English novelists have made so distinctively their own, from Jane Austen to Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner herself, is indeed a very special achievement of Penelope Fitzgerald; and The Beginning of Spring
, when it appeared in 1988, was the surest example of a triumph that was to be repeated in her novels to come.
Copyright © 2003 by Penelope Fitzgerald. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.