Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald
This is the first biography I have read of someone that I’ve actually known. Penelope Fitzgerald was an active member of the William Morris Society of which I was curator, and later vice-chair and then chair in the late 1980s and the 1990s. My memories of her include standing with her on a bitterly cold day at the site of Burne-Jones’s house, the Grange, in Kensington to watch a blue plaque being unveiled. In 1982 she edited Morris’s only novel, the unfinished Novel on Blue Paper, and her greatest and most lasting contribution to Morris studies is her biography of Burne-Jones, published in 1975. Though she is best known now for her fiction, Penelope was a fine biographer, and books on the Knox brothers and the poet, Charlotte Mew, were to follow.
What then would she have made of her own biography? Hermione Lee writes that ‘perhaps self-deceivingly, I have felt while writing this book that she might not have disapproved of me as her biographer – if there must be a Life – because she had liked my book about Virginia Woolf, and had been kind to me when we met’(p. 433.) I’ll return to that proviso, but let me begin by saying that, like Penelope’s own biographies, this is an absorbing read: thoroughly researched, judicious, sympathetic, yet pulling no punches. It is also a visually attractive book with Penelope’s own charmingly idiosyncratic drawings scattered throughout the text.
Above all, Lee sets out with great skill the ways in which the work grew out of the life. Penelope said that in her writing she aimed to be true to ‘the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it’(xvii). She had plenty of this in her own life: the courage as well as the weaknesses, the tragedies, and the missed opportunities.
Penelope was the daughter of Evoe Knox, the editor of Punch, who was one of four extraordinary brothers: the others were Dyllwyn, a brilliant mathematician and Bletchley Park code-breaker, Ronald Knox, a Monsignor, writer of detective stories and the most famous Roman Catholic convert in England, and Wilfred, ascetic Anglo-Catholic priest and welfare worker. Lee succeeds in creating a more nuanced picture of the Knoxes than was possible for Penelope in her biography of the brothers. Highly talented, the family was also highly competitive and unforgiving of failure. This heritage was a mixed blessing, as Lee points out, and part of the pain of Penelope’s difficult middle age must have come from knowing how far she had fallen short.
Yet it had begun so well for her. At Oxford, she seemed effortlessly brilliant, a golden girl of whom much was expected. A fellow student at Somerville commented that ‘Everyone else wrote [essays] at length, but Penelope Knox wrote one paragraph and that was enough’ and, as Lee comments, ‘It would always be enough.’ (pp. 56-57). She got a First. Soon after she graduated the war began. After a spell with the Ministry of Food, she joined the BBC and after the war ended reviewed books and did some script-writing for the BBC. Penelope herself expected that she would write fiction. ‘Women, if they possibly can, must write novels,’ she said in a review of a novel by Elizabeth Taylor in 1947 (p. 88). But her literary career petered out and her first novel, The Golden Child, didn’t appear until 1977, when she was sixty-one. What went wrong?
It is tempting to say that she married the wrong man. There was an unrequited love – Penelope never divulged his identity – and a hurried war-time wedding to a dashing young Irish officer and barrister, Desmond Fitzgerald. The early years of her marriage were occupied by attempts to get and stay pregnant. Her first baby died soon after birth and she suffered numerous miscarriages before the birth of her first son, Valpy, in 1947. Two girls, Tina and Maria, followed. No doubt these were busy years, but the real problem lay with Desmond, who had come back from the war with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and began drinking heavily. Their marriage was dogged by money problems and finally in 1962 Desmond was caught forging signatures on cheques. He escaped prison, but was disbarred and forced to leave his Chambers. He spent the rest of his working life as a clerk in a travel agent’s. Penelope worked at several jobs as a teacher to make ends meet. In her Burne-Jones biography she writes: ‘The fact that Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti could live through those days and months and maintain such a convincing everyday life will only seem strange to those whose marriage has experience no crisis’(p.223). Yet her marriage endured and when Desmond died aged 59 in 1976, she wrote to an old friend that it was a ‘dreadful blow . . . the truth is that I was spoilt, as with all our ups and downs Desmond always thought that everything I did was right’ (p. 237).
But for a writer no experience is wasted and of no-one is that truer than Penelope Fitzgerald. Sensibly Lee breaks with chronological order and discusses the novels, Human Voices, The Bookshop, Offshore, and At Freddie’s in the context of the events that inspired them, though the books were not published until many years later. Penelope had always been a novelist in the making. Working in the war-time BBC, leaving London with her children to run a failing bookshop in Suffolk, living on the Thames on a dilapidated barge, teaching at a stage school: these experiences provided rich material for her first four novels.
Even the teaching jobs that she found demanding and exhausting were part of her long apprenticeship. Lee examines her annotated copies of her teaching texts and concludes that ‘the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show her thinking deeply and intently about art and writing. They show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing to burst out’(p. 202). The same was true of her biographies: ‘the questions she asked herself about how to enter into another person’s life, the melancholy and the mess of the lives she was drawn to, all fuelled her novel writing, the more so as fictions of history replaced autobiographical fictions’ (263). Of those last novels, Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower, Penelope said ‘the moment comes when you have to step outside your own experience because you have used everything you want to write about and maybe many things that are too painful for you to mention (p. 464). Reviewers commented on the ease with which she appeared to evoke the past, but Lee shows what extraordinary pains she took with her research whether the setting was Italy in the 1950s and earlier or Moscow in 1913. And what an extraordinary late flowering these four short novels represent. Her last novel, The Blue Flower, published when she was seventy-eight, gained her an international reputation.
Lee admits that ‘there are many things [Penelope] did not want anyone to know about her, and which no-one will ever know’ (p.434). Many family documents, including letters from her mother, who had died when Penelope was eighteen, were lost when their barge sank in the Thames. Her war-time letters to Desmond have not survived. But it was also Penelope’s nature to be reticent and to guard her privacy. Some of those things too painful to mention included Desmond’s disgrace and her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Deeply attached to Valpy, she was horrified when he got engaged at eighteen to a Spanish girl and married her as soon as he left Oxford. Lee doesn’t gloss over Penelope’s sometimes unwelcoming and unkind behaviour and she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she had. And Lee shows her too as an admirable person: stoical, unassuming, devoted to her children, loyal to her husband. Still, I found myself wincing from time to time and I closed the book thinking how much Penelope would have disliked her private life being laid bare. Yet she was a biographer, too, and someone to whom the truth was important. She would have understood the need for honesty.
So, yes, returning to that earlier proviso – if there had to be a Life – and perhaps for a writer of Penelope’s stature there did have to be one – it is hard to imagine a better one than this.
This review was first published in The Journal of the William Morris Society.