A Not So Quiet Life: Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Chatto, 2013.

I have always thought that the changing tone of Punch in the fifties and sixties and its demise in 1992 serves as a kind of metaphor for the disappearance of the England that appreciated and gave rise to its particular kind of satire. From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, I learnt Fitzgerald was a product of that world. Her father E. V. Knox edited the magazine in the forties, and she herself did a stint there before working for the BBC during the war. All I knew about her life previously had been the fact that she was in her sixties before she achieved the success she did with her novels.

While I own The Blue Flower, The Bookshop, and Offshore, I have yet to read The Knox Brothers or her biographies of poet Charlotte Mew or of the painter Edward Burne-Jones. At some point, I would like to read them, especially The Knox Brothers, a work about her father and uncles, one of whom was instrumental with breaking the Enigma codes and  another Monsignor Ronald Knox who was such an influence on a certain generation of Roman Catholics, especially Evelyn Waugh. The novels I have read reveal Fitzgerald to be a brilliant minimalist. Not one word is wasted. She distils atmosphere and character into a perfect vintage. Her worlds are never saccharine; her wit, sharp-edged, her judgement, highly moral. Lee’s biography reveals Fitzgerald’s work to be the result of rigorous, detailed research and complete dedication to craft.

Born Penelope Knox in 1916, Fitzgerald grew up in Hampstead, the daughter of Evoe Knox and Christina Hicks, both the children of Anglican bishops. After boarding school came Somerville College, Oxford, from which she graduated with a first-class degree. Her mother Christina died in 1935, and, while Penelope was still up at Oxford, in 1937 her widowed father married the daughter of the Ernest Shepherd, illustrator of among others A. A. Milne’s Pooh books and of The Wind in the Willows.

Given this establishment background, together with her own intelligence and wit, her wartime experience working at the BBC, her work with World Review, one might have expected a somewhat different trajectory for her life, something different from living in a south London council house, struggling to make ends meet, teaching at two different institutions, Queen’s Gate School and Westminster Tutors, marking A level scripts, and coming to terms with life with an alcoholic barrister husband who had been disbarred from Gray’s Inn. She had probably expected something slightly different herself, but one of the characteristics that Hermione Lee emphasizes about Fitzgerald is her “reticence, quietness and self-obliteration” (xvii). Lee quotes Julian Barnes description of Fitzgerald’s resemblance to “some harmless jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world” (qtd. 415). The photographs included in the biography show Fitzgerald looking a little rumpled, a little tweedy, her hair in need of a comb, uncomfortable in the long dress required for a formal Booker prize dinner, wearing a woolly hat and duffle coat in Russia; little sign remains in these pictures of the girl described in the May 1937 issue of the Cherwell as “Our Penny from Heaven” (52). I suspect that rumpled appearance has its roots in a desire for a certain kind of camouflage.

Lee’s biography is a highly successful attempt to see beyond that camouflage and to put her subject’s writing into the context of Fitzgerald’s personal life. This is no easy task given Fitzgerald’s own inclinations towards privacy. Lee introduces a woman who could be somewhat charmingly evasive in interviews, plying prospective interviewers with tea and cake but providing little information. Nevertheless, particularly when discussing the earlier novels, Lee makes a convincing case for her claims that Fitzgerald was drawing upon her own experiences. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is very much a literary biography; it also offers insights into the period covered by Fitzgerald’s life, a time of increasing social change, even upheaval, in England.

The book left me feeling somewhat melancholic. This is always a risk with biography, I suppose, because so often the subject of the work is dead, and if the biography covers the whole life of its subject it must also of necessity cover its subject’s ultimate physical decline and death. The work also touched me a little more personally than it might as I recognized in some of Fitzgerald’s experiences situations somewhat similar to those experienced within my own family circle. For us, too, the response was silence in the face of adversity, the hiding of severe shame in the face of scandal, the determination to carry on. I couldn’t help finding Lee’s relation of Fitzgerald’s life during the fifties and sixties not a little disturbing. I also recognised the attitude that values the pursuit of excellence and of truth for their own sake, that has little patience for pretension and distrusts glamour.

Despite the personal discomfort evoked by the work, I found Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life well worth reading, even inspiring.









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