I am well into Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and I am riveted. I’ll be blogging about it when I have finished it. It is particularly fascinating to read a biography when the subject is someone you’ve known.I first met Penelope when I was curator at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith at the end of the 1980s. When I’d moved on from my job as curator to lecture at Homerton College, I stayed on the committee, and in due course became vice-chair and then chair. It was in that capacity that I spoke on behalf of the Society at Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorial service. This is some of what I said.
‘Penelope joined in [The William Morris Society] in 1973 and over the years she was a loyal friend of the Society – and of Morris and Burne-Jones. She reviewed books for our Journal, gave lectures, chaired meetings. My own memories of her include standing with her on a bitterly cold day near the site of Burne-Jones’s house, the Grange, in Kensington on the day that it was given a blue plaque. In 1982 she edited – most appropriately – Morris’s only novel, the unfinished Novel on Blue Paper.
Of course the greatest and most lasting contribution in this area is her biography of Burne-Jones. This marvellous book is frank, yet tactful, non-judgmental, but very shrewd. Above all it is a wonderful read, as compulsively readable as one of her novels. No-one has got closer to the psychological roots of Burne-Jones’s art. Penelope combined a scholarly concern for exactitude with a novelist’s sensibility to produce what is as much the portrait of a marriage and of a remarkable woman, Georgiana Burne-Jones, as a biography of an artist. I think Penelope felt a special sympathy for Georgiana, who had been her husband’s first biographer. The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones is one of the really great Victorian biographies and Penelope’s book was a worthy successor.
When Georgiana Burne-Jones died in 1920, J. W. Mackail, her son-in-law and also Morris’s biographer, wrote a tribute. Much of it might equally have been written for Penelope and I want to end by reading a little of it:
“She was a personality of extraordinary distinction and charm. No one, man or woman, who made her acquaintance failed to come under the spell of a nature that radiated beauty. Her intellectual powers were great . . . She had large clear eyes for art, books and human beings. Unaffected and touching humility was combined in her with quiet dignity. Few, if any, were more alive to follies and absurdities . . . her heart did not harden or her eager receptiveness lessen with the years. She burned to end with a clear, steady flame, leaving to those who love her a memory which is a continuing presence.”‘