Not So Tame? Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shew Retold.  Hogarth Shakespeare-Vintage. 2016.

What has always interested me most about The Taming of the Shrew is that it is a play within a play, a fact that I can’t help but think has a major effect on how we are meant to respond to the story of Katherine and Petruchio. However, that discussion must await another day.

Tyler’s novel begins with Kate, almost thirty, avid gardener, university drop-out, surrogate mother to her much younger sister, Bunny, housekeeper to her widowed father, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and although supposedly hating small children is employed in a pre-school. Professor Battista is somewhat eccentric in his ideas about family life and family management insisting that his family subsist on a diet of meat mash that is reheated every day.

Afraid he will lose his research assistant, Pyotr, because Pyotr’s visa is about expire, Professor Battista wants Kate to ensure Pyotr’s immigration status through marriage. While Kate is trying to navigate her way through this tangle, she is also faced with trying to ensure Bunny is keeping up with her schoolwork and not getting too involved with the next-door neighbour’s son Eddie Vince, who smokes “suspiciously tiny cigarettes” (48) and has already persuaded Bunny to espouse vegetarianism.

Given that we are told by the subtitle what Vinegar Girl is about, the major events of the novel are not excessively surprising. Tyler deviates from her model somewhat by including an epilogue that I found not unsatisfactory.

Is this a worthwhile book? One of my colleagues described it as “light.” It is a light book, but I would argue it is light in the way a beautifully made soufflé is light. It has substance; it leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Yes, the action of the novel verges on the farcical at times, but Tyler is control. She creates characters who even as they are somewhat eccentric are very sympathetic. We like them; well, perhaps Eddie Vince is a bit of a challenge but we forgive him. We recognize the world of a family, a family still suffering from the death of a wife and mother many years ago. We recognize loneliness, longing, and unfulfilled desires as much as we recognize the embarrassing quirks of family members.

I would argue that Tyler’s novel optimistically suggests that self-fulfillment, happiness and love are within our grasp even where we might not expect to find them.



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Not the Whole Story: More thoughts on Frances Hodgson Burnett

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess; Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time.

Not long ago, I reviewed Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and one of my readers responded with a comment comparing The Secret Garden with A Little Princess, which I promised I would read. Rather than possibly losing the thread of things by simply adding a response to that earlier comment, I’m going briefly to address A Little Princess in its own post. The version I found for my e-reader was published in 2010 but the publishing information other than a reference to the e-reader company and an ISBN number was absolutely minimal, so I apologise in advance for possibly insufficiently documenting my source.

A Little Princess is only the second work by Frances Hodgson Burnett I’ve read, so I’m hesitant to make any generalizations about her work. I did note certain similarities between the two works, the strongest being Burnett’s what seems to me a rather conflicted attitude towards social status. On the one hand, she creates characters such as the Sowerbys in The Secret Garden and Becky and the woman who runs the bakery in A Little Princess who are kind and good, but the people such as Mrs. Medlock the housekeeper (Garden) and Miss Minchin the headmistress (Princess) are coarse and unsympathetic. This difference would seem to suggest the possibility of a point of view critical of the middle class. However, by the end of A Little Princess the “rightful” order is restored through the actions of upper middle class characters. Burnett offers little suggestion of a possibility for social mobility. The characters in these two novels know their places.

I could argue that Burnett is simply reflecting the values of her time, and that if there is any moral critique in the works it lies in the values they encourage. Selfish children such as Mary Lennox and Colin Craven (Garden) and many of the girls in Miss Minchin’s school (Princess) learn to be kind. Snobbish, superficial adults such as Miss Minchin and Mrs. Medlock learn to see beyond surfaces. Mr. Craven learns to overcome depression and to face up to his duties as a father. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe both learn self-sufficiency and an understanding that human worth is based on deeds not looks and riches.

Moreover, it is not only in their social settings that the novels reflect their time. There are moments in the works, for example, Burnett’s use of the term “lascar” to describe Ram Dass the Indian servant (Garden), where a contemporary reader may be a little disconcerted. I have memories from childhood of the term being used if not derogatively but as somewhat dismissively of Indian door to door salesmen. I remember my mother buying a very beautiful heavy silk tablecloth from such a man. That table cloth lasted for years even though I would fiddle with its tassels. It was the sort of table cloth that went over the table merely for decorative and I suppose protective purposes: the bare wood look not entering my parents’ milieu until the early sixties. It was covered with a linen cloth when we “dined” or, more often, had formal tea parties. We usually ate in the kitchen; it was warmer. This digression, which I trust you’ll excuse, reminds me again of how societal mores change. That tablecloth was perhaps one of the last vestiges in my family of an Edwardian, even Victorian, aesthetic.

I don’t know whether my grandmother who was already in her teens when these books originally appeared ever read them, but they remain in print even though the world they portray is far more the world in which my grandmother grew up than that experienced by children today. Obviously, there is something in the ethos of the books that still touches young readers.

What I found perhaps most interesting in my response to the two books was the train of thought they elicited. I found myself thinking not only about Burnett’s books but about all those books written for children from the late nineteenth century onwards that reflect the existence of empire. The plots of the two books that I’ve read by Burnett both depend upon the existence of a colonial class. But Burnett is not alone in her use of India as a faraway place that can initiate action in England. Consider for a moment all those boarding school stories where the children’s parents are abroad, or those stories where children are thrust into a kind of independence because parents are building bridges, for example, somewhere abroad. Not only does “abroad” function as a kind of “other” an unknown but rather dangerous place, too dangerous for children anyway, it also sets the children from abroad somewhat apart, unshackled by ties of family life. I only wish I could remember more specific titles from my childhood reading. I just remember being unsurprised as a child to read about children whose parents were abroad. Of course, the reality for those children whose parents really were abroad and who were sent “home” at sometimes amazingly young ages was anything but exciting, and several of Jane Gardam’s works reflect insightfully on this situation.

The other issue I found myself wondering after considering the two Burnett novels together was to what extent did Burnett who though born in Britain lived in the States and wrote initially for an American market reflect American ambivalence towards the English class system as perceived from the other side of the Atlantic. What would I discover if I turned my attention to a detailed comparative analysis of the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Henry James? I was unsurprised to find that I’m not alone in thinking this way. Even an initial, superficial internet search linking Burnett and James sets one off down a rather interesting path, and here’s a link to the site I visited first: You may wish to go further than I. Burnett is also often compared with the English writer E. Nesbit. It may be a matter simply of personal taste, but I prefer E. Nesbit. On the whole, I find her world view somewhat less saccharine than Burnett’s, and her magic is actually magic in the sense of fantasy such as magic carpets, a phoenix, a psammead, and so forth. Burnett’s magic is, if I dare say it, a rather puritan magic, the magic of belief in oneself. For me, while I appreciate that belief in oneself and the discipline to set oneself moral goals is of great value, I, nevertheless, do really enjoy the odd magic carpet ride.

On that note, I will stop. I had intended this post to be a short one, but it has grown; however, the sub-title of my blog is The Ramblings of a Reader. This ramble has come to an end.


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Ethics of Memory: Tom Segev’s Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

Segev, Tom. Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends. Trans. Ronnie Hope. Doubleday, 2010.

Excluding the acknowledgements and detailed notes, this book takes 409 pages. At times, as is often the case with biographies, the book felt like a mere listing of events. Also, at times, I found the prose a little unvaried, the sentence structure somewhat repetitive and overly journalistic. Segev is a journalist. Translation, too, can sometimes reduce the vigour of prose. That all said, however, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends is a very worthwhile book. Simon Wiesenthal has probably become synonymous with our idea of the dedicated Nazi hunter, and by the end of Segev’s work, I found myself impressed by Wiesenthal’s dedication and determination but ambivalent about whether I would have enjoyed him as a social acquaintance.

The title of the book says much about Segev’s approach to his subject. He focuses not just on the events of Wiesenthal’s life but also upon what is believed about him, some of which, such as the encounter with the dying SS man (Chapter 13 “What Would You Have Done?”) may in fact not be true. Segev points out that Wiesenthal himself may have contributed to his own legend, for friends who survived him told Segev that Wiesenthal “wove tales out of things that happened to him or others, or that he saw in his imagination” (239).

The Wiesenthal Segev presents in this book is indeed a complex man: dedicated, but also somewhat vain, ambitious, perhaps overly sensitive, overly imaginative, utterly focused on justice. Wiesenthal’s life was punctuated by rivalries with such figures as novelist Elie Wiesel and Bruno Kreisky, the first Jewish Chancellor of Austria, who was fined for defaming Wiesenthal. Relationships with the state of Israel were not always completely harmonious, nor was his relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. Wiesenthal emerges from this book as a man haunted by the past, who was focussed on his search for justice rather than for vengeance.

Although the book focuses on Wiesenthal’s life, I think what remained with me most after I’d finished it was not so much particular events or even the idiosyncrasies of its main subject but discovering I share with Segev the sense of how with the passing of time within both the Jewish diaspora and the gentile world our memories and attitudes towards the Shoa have shifted. There was for a time post the Nuremberg trials what I might call a not quite silence on the subject of the Holocaust. Survivors tended towards silence not even telling their children much about the past. Segev reminds us of the tensions that underlay the relationship between those who survived the Nazis and those who living as they had been under the British Mandate in Palestine or in North America were not immediately affected by the Nazi program. He tells us, “Many felt that they had survived at the expense of their relatives and blamed themselves for not having done enough to rescue them,” and that “many people tended to think that those who survived the camps had done so at the expense of their less-fortunate fellow prisoners, and labeled them as rogues and scoundrels” (400). No wonder survivors remained silent. However, the capture, trial, and execution of Eichmann followed not many years later by the Six-Day war fired the post-war just-coming-to-young-adulthood generation with a desire to know more, and a desire to ensure that such inhumanity never occurred again.

However, we are still struggling with questions of collective responsibility for past actions and how to right the wrongs perpetrated by our forebears. To what extent should we be ashamed of or bear the guilt for the actions of our parents or grandparents? Is it possible to forgive? These are extremely challenging questions with which we continue to struggle not only in relationship with the Holocaust. 

I agree with Segev that the Holocaust has now become “a universal synonym for evil” (10), and I’m somewhat concerned that seeing the Holocaust as a metaphor for all inhumane acts rather than  a remembered, specific, shared experience may well reduce our sense of its actual concrete effects. If we lose our sense of  specific evils, then having lost lost sight of the individual, personal experiences of those who suffered, we risk allowing similar atrocities to occur. Why is it, for example, that we seem to have had little ability or will to take any preventive collective action in such places as Rwanda or Srebrenica? Now, over eighty years since the promulgation of the Nuremberg race laws in Germany, the numbers of survivors are shrinking, and few of those who facilitated and perpetrated the atrocities of the Final Solution remain, so we will soon have only the record and the memory. Do we have a responsibility to that memory? Wiesenthal believed we do.

Segev makes Wiesenthal’s commitment to that responsibility clear: “More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life” (10). 



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Deciphering Freedom: Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café

Bakewell, Sarah.
At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Knopf Canada,  2016.

How I wish Sarah Bakewell had been my Philosophy professor when I began my undergraduate career. How I wish she’d been around to talk to when I was doing my graduate course in critical theory. Her explanation of phenomenology elucidates what can be a rather dense subject. Or perhaps it is my density that is the challenge. Alas, when I was a student, the teenage Bakewell was becoming a “suburban existentialist” (25). Such indeed are the mis-chronologies of time with relation to one’s own life.

As the title suggests, At The Existentialist Café provides a retrospective overview of existentialism focussing particularly on those thinkers whose thought engendered it. The full title page reads “At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others.” Bakewell includes a “Cast of Characters” that takes six and a half pages beginning with Nelson Algren and ending with Richard Wright. To stay within her own metaphor from the stage, the star roles in this drama are given to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. One could perhaps see the book as a kind of bildungsroman for an idea. But then existentialism isn’t really only one idea. Some might define it as an ideology, or perhaps to use a less loaded term, a system of thought, and even a system of being.

What is perhaps most interesting about the book to me is that Bakewell unapologetically takes a biographical approach, but she is not writing the biography of one particular character. Both she and I were schooled in the “orthodox belief in the field at the time” (326) that the individual lives of philosophers or writers were of little import in comparison with their ideas. I remember being accused of “lapsing” into biographical criticism as a student and wondering to myself “but what about Keats’ letters? Can you really separate Virginia Woolf’s ideas from the effects life had on her? What about Joyce?” And so on. I kept my thoughts to myself and engaged in strict practical criticism, my institution demanding of all graduate students in English the passing of an exam devoted entirely to that art. I passed the exam and continued for a brief time into a world dominated by various strands of post-modernism. Try as I might, I couldn’t actually find how people who as Bakewell puts it sat around “playing with their signifiers” (28) were engaging in anything other than a kind of intellectual self-pleasuring. I also sensed not so much playfulness as a leaning towards a kind of intellectual totalitarianism that did not fit with my quietly independent self. Imagine my amusement, then, as towards the end of my career I began once again to see articles and hear papers read that engaged most specifically with their subjects’ personal biographies. As Bakewell points out, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (326).

Perhaps. I’m not sure. My own experience is some people are really boring while some ideas are very exciting. It might be closer to the truth to say that engaging with people who have interesting ideas is far more satisfying than engaging with those who are unwilling to think for themselves. It is certainly fascinating to see to what extent people live up to their own ideas. I digress. I should reiterate the heart of At The Existentialist Café’s is its explanation of existentialism and its outlining of those ideas within the context of the times and of the people who formulated them. If you want more detail about Simone de Beauvoir’s life, for example, then read her own volumes of autobiography. If you want to gain a sense of the tension between Husserl and Heidegger’s thought, or why de Beauvoir and Sartre ultimately reached different conclusions from Camus, then Bakewell outlines those differences extremely clearly.

Bakewell puts the personal back into Philosophy not only in focussing on the philosophers who did the philosophy but also in permitting herself the use of the first person. She allows herself a presence in her writing that one doesn’t normally expect, telling us how she was drawn to existentialism and to philosophy as a discipline. In summarizing Merleau-Ponty’s argument that the philosopher must have “the taste for evidence and the feeling for ambiguity” (qtd. Bakewell), she explains that “we can never move definitively from ignorance to certainty, for the thread of the inquiry will constantly lead us back to ignorance again.” She sees this view as “the most attractive description of philosophy . . .[she’s] ever read, and the best argument for why it is worth doing, even (or especially) when it takes us no distance at all from our starting point (241). I agree.

At the end of the book, she draws our attention to the way existentialist thought has permeated our own times and makes the argument that despite being personally “hopelessly flawed” (319) the existentialist philosophers and their predecessors such as Heidegger nevertheless still have much to offer us in that “they set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (325).  She points out how the desire for authenticity is as strong today as it ever was in the middle years of the twentieth century and asserts that “freedom may prove to be the great puzzle for the early twenty-first” given that we are living in a time when “basic ideas about freedom have been assailed.” In fact, she reminds us that “what we cannot do any longer is take it [freedom] for granted” (318).

As you can no doubt see, I enjoyed this book. The pleasure lies not only in its insight and clarity but also because just as her research for the book put Bakewell in touch with her own younger self her finished work allowed me a slight frisson of memory of my younger, intellectually enquiring self. As I later grew to know, there is so much more to being an existentialist than organizing improv workshops, attending poetry and jazz nights, and wearing a black turtle neck sweater—I would argue still that you can never have too many—but the existentialist’s emphasis on personal responsibility, the attempt to live up to an individual moral code remain with me.

Apart from the pleasure to be derived from reading At The Existentialist Café, I would recommend the work because, and this is what in some ways makes the book really important in today’s socio/political climate, in its biographical and chronological approach to its subject, it underlines just how important philosophy can be in contributing to an ethical society. I might risk asserting that doing philosophy is essential, but perhaps I should just say necessary.











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Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. Heinemann, 1957.

Christmas 1960, I think, it might have been 1959 I was given The Secret Garden as a present. The gift was not a surprise. I remember our shopping for it in the local bookstore where my mother made a special order and was told by the clerk that the edition she was ordering was a resetting of the original Heinemann publication with illustrations by Charles Robinson. My school library had the library edition with a sturdy blue cover and no coloured illustrations. I still have this volume, and for some reason I reread the story about once a year, usually in spring. This is more often than I reread the Winnie the Pooh or Carroll’s Alice books.

Why do I do this? It’s actually an extremely, even nauseatingly, saccharine book. I do really like the texture of the illustrations, and reading about spring at the end of winter can be somewhat uplifting. The work is, I suppose, very much of its time. Mary Lennox is literally a raj orphan, her parents having died in a cholera epidemic in India. The way the characters describe Indians as “blacks” and Mary’s attitude towards them is very disturbing to a contemporary sensibility.

I have also to admit that I find the work’s tone a little self-satisfied. It’s something I can’t quite explain, but the narrating voice is sometimes rather complacently judgemental. Perhaps this tone derives from the fact that the book is written for children, and children can be very judgemental. In an adult novel, Mrs. Medlock, for example, might well develop into a far more complex character, think of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, but Mrs. Medlock is rather two dimensional in the way that when we are children we tended to see the people around us in a rather broad outline and had less sympathy for their context than we have when we are adults.

Then there is the work’s classism. This, too, is a product of its time, and I don’t exactly criticize Burnett for not questioning the social hierarchy. In some ways she does; after all, the Sowerbys may be poor, but their family is not dysfunctional in the way the Cravens are. I suppose what I find somewhat distasteful is the presentation of Martha and her family and of curmudgeonly Ben Weatherstaff as overly stereotypical.

That all said, there is obviously something about the book that elicits thought. Just check out the Table of Contents for Gymnich and Lichterfeld’s A Hundred Years of The Secret Garden: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Children’s Classic Revisited ( I am not the only one to have found the novel intellectually fascinating or to have found myself comparing Burnett with D. H. Lawrence. There is something about the book that irritates, that makes one want to go further. I am not alone in wondering what could actually happen to those three children, Mary, Colin, and Dickon given their backgrounds and situation. At least three sequels have been written ranging from Perspective Provider’s The Secret Heart on the website, to Susan Moody’s Misselthwaite (Return to the Secret Garden in the US), or Stacie Morrell’s The Forgotton Room. Then there are the television and film adaptations as well as a musical. The Secret Garden appears to have a similar effect to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the way it has generated offspring.

To answer my earlier question, then, about why I subject myself to an annual revisiting of the book: I suppose, apart from nostalgia for my earlier self and appreciation for the illustrations, it is because those questions raised by the book of class, identity, sexuality, and more still demand my attention.





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On Missing the Beat: Naivety in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. Penguin Canada, 2016.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth remains, I think, my favourite of Smith’s novels. At least, I find it the most comic, and Autograph Man perhaps her most clever. Swing Time, despite its title, I found subtly muted, and it’s this restraint that gives the novel its power. The story of two girls who attend the same dancing class in working class north London spans decades and continents. One, the narrator, grows up to be fired after nearly ten years as the Personal Assistant of an Australian superstar; the other, Tracey, to be a chorus dancer and single mother.

The narrator’s experiences in the entourage of the entertainer Aimee take her into the world of the super-rich, globe-trotting, glitterati but deny her the chance to find the place where she truly belongs, and the novel ends on an almost Joycean note of melancholy epiphany as unemployed, childless, un-partnered, and unseen, the narrator watches from below as Tracey dances with her children on the balcony of their council flat. The narrator is looking up to the old friend on whom, if truth be told, she had rather looked down or, perhaps worse, pitied, for much of her life. Tracey has found her place, even if it is the place where she began. Her life as an adult is not that different from her own mother’s life. The narrator’s life has also brought her back to where she started, and it is from this place that she will have to begin again, to move into a new figure in the dance of life.

My use of the dance metaphor echoes Smith’s own, since she includes as an epigraph to the work the Hausa proverb: “When the music changes, so does the dance.” Dance requires specific movements, choreography. Traditional dances, whether defined as folk or ballroom dances, follow a recognised, accepted pattern, each dance having its own particular steps, shapes and so on. The dancer moves through that pattern, stepping forwards and back, side to side. Smith structures her novel into a pattern of seven parts each with several chapters. Within these sections of the work, the narrator moves backwards and forwards between her childhood and more recent past, rather as a dancer moves through the phases of a dance, progressing, regressing, changing partners, her progress interweaving with that of the other dancers. A misstep by one of the dancers disrupts the fluency of the movement, sometimes to the point that the dance must end. A dancer, too, can improvise only so far without breaking up the dance. There are expectations, defined roles.

Defining oneself and finding one’s place are usually challenging for all young people; the situation becomes more so for Tracey and the narrator when they are young because both girls are mixed-race. In outlining the difficulties of navigating the associations with and expectations of race, location, and history, Smith revisits familiar ground in Swing Time, and this novel continues her examination of living in our perhaps not so post-colonial world, especially when the results of past colonizations are indelibly ingrained within one’s skin. It is too easy for us to say the past is done with. Is it? Just how do we define colonialism? When does aid become intrusion and condescension? All these questions are raised in the novel as are questions of class and gender. Just what is sacrificed, if anything, by those who attempt to transcend the apparent limitations of both?

At heart, Swing Time is a novel about movement, change, and empowerment. The characters around the narrator move, change, reach for dreams. Some fail; some succeed. The narrator moves and observes but doesn’t always see except perhaps at the very end when she realises that despite everything her old friend Tracey has something that is lacking in her own life. While she had thought she was empowered, her dismissal by Aimee makes the narrator’s position very clear. She has stepped out of line, forgotten her place in the hierarchy of Aimee’s entourage. Her naivety allows the reader to see what the narrator herself appears to miss and allows Smith not unsympathetically to critique the various milieux in which the narrator finds herself.

I found this novel sensitive, serious, subtle. I sensed critique but no stridency, just a kind of melancholy world weariness, a kind of resigned sympathy for those of us who like the narrator observe but do not see.

















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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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