Too much information?
I have nearly finished writing my review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald for the Journal of William Morris Studies and I have mixed feelings.
Hermione Lee writes that ‘perhaps self-deceivingly, I have felt while writing this book that [Penelope] 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 am pretty sure that Penelope wouldn’t have like the idea of anyone writing a biography of her, and yet, of course, she was a biographer herself. Like Penelope’s own biographies Hermione Lee’s book is an absorbing read: thoroughly researched, judicious, sympathetic, yet pulling no punches.
I now know an awful lot more about Penelope than I did before. In some ways I now know more about her than I do about about my closest friends, and I’m not sure that I like it. Lee admits that ‘there are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no-one will ever know (p.434). Her war-time letters to her husband, Desmond, which might have thrown more light on her marriage were lost when their barge sank in the Thames along with many other family documents, including letters from her mother, who had died when Penelope was eighteen. But it was also Penelope’s nature to be reticent and to guard her privacy particularly in relation to the catastrophies which befell her family in the 1960s. And then too there was her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Deeply attached to her son 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 her unwelcoming and unkind behaviour and she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she had. Still, I found myself wincing from time to time and feeling like a voyeur. There is one episode of doubtful authenticity, which I think I would perhaps not have included – so I am not going to recount it here.
Does the biography increase my pleasure in reading Penelope’s novels? No. Does it threw light on the creative process and the evolution of a novelist? Yes. So returning to that earlier proviso – if there had to be a Life – and perhaps for a writer of her stature there did have to be one – I think Hermione Lee did a very good job. Yet, fascinating as I found this book, I closed it feeling very thankful that no-one is likely to write a biography of me.