New essay on Penelope Fitzgerald

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a ragtag fugitive Canadian Reformed newspaper on a lonely quest to stay in business without dumbing down. I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people.

Historical novels generally work by immersion. Like Pixar movies or the better sort of video game, they bludgeon you with detail, distracting you with endless small sensible facts from any thought of the present-day world. This is a perfectly sensible method, yet the layers and layers of explanation—President Lincoln lifted the yellowed, battered envelope from the desk. Like most mail, it took months getting anywhere, and arrived travel-stained, smelling of gin…—implicitly acknowledge, and thus reinforce, the reader’s sense of distance from the very world into which these details initiate us.

For a few chapters, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995) pretends to be this kind of book. Jacob Dietmahler, a German student, arrives at the estate of his friend Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, AKA Fritz, AKA Novalis, who we know (if for no other reason than that we’ve read the blurb) will become a major German Romantic poet and, through his impact on George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, a formative influence on modern fantasy literature. It’s laundry day when they arrive, so we pick up a few details about what minor German nobility of the late eighteenth century wore, and how often it got cleaned (only once a year, in the Hardenbergs’ case: a massive, daylong operation). One by one, conveniently, the Hardenburgs introduce themselves to Dietmahler, who will be, it seems, our point-of-view character.

Sixteen pages in, the bottom drops out. Dietmahler disappears—we don’t see him again for over half the book. Orderly sequence of event gives way to potted biographies, short out-of-context conversations, poetic asides, scene-setting details for scenes that barely arrive, all of this cheek-a-jowl on the page, sometimes together in the same paragraph. Constantly, Fitzgerald plays with our distance from the time period, at times speaking of the characters with great and easy intimacy, and at times turning essayist or intellectual historian, throwing details over her shoulder that none of the characters could possibly know: “It was at this time, when Fritz was emptying the sick room chamberpots, and later … that he was first described in a letter by the critic Friedrich Schlegel.” Who in the story knows this? Where is this narrator talking from? By the end of the book, we have, in this way, been Fritz’s friend, his fiancee, his protective and confused mother, his eventual readers, his intellectual heirs. He exists for us on many levels at once, as does—we realize with a gasp—the mystical, neoplatonic world that his works describe: a world in which brokenness and perfection somehow live together in a companionable, elderly-German-couple silence. In other words, the book enacts, in its structure, the world Novalis imagined, and tried to live in: a world in which Fritz’s short, disappointing life and Novalis’s long literary triumph coinhere.

The Blue Flower is the most obviously experimental of Fitzgerald’s nine novels, but it shares with its predecessors her amazing subtlety, her humor, and her predilection for meditative rather than chronologically linear structure. Most of all, it shares those books’ attachment to the sorts of characters that Hermione Lee, in her excellent new biography of Fitzgerald, describes as follows: “‘[D]ecent chaps’ who struggled and did not succeed…women who were always interrupted…vulnerable children…people who loved silently and without much hope.” She writes of defeats so small, so decorous, and so final that at least some of the characters barely register them as such. The hero of The Bookshop (1978) opens a bookshop in a provincial English town, and is ruined by the aspersions of an obnoxious blueblood. Offshore (1979) concerns a romantic relationship that never quite gets around to existing except in the minds of its two principals. Human Voices (1980) and At Freddie’s (1981) concern themselves with requited and unrequited love affairs, respectively, both equally doomed. And so on, through the series of historical novels that capped her career—Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower, her recognized masterpiece. Only God could lavish more loving attention on losers than Penelope Fitzgerald does.

There are two things about Lee’s biography, meticulously researched and marvelously organized as it is, that make the book hard to finish. First, it shows, in pitiless detail, that Fitzgerald loved, and was, these people in life, not only in art. Her husband was a well-intentioned failure, an ineffectual drunk with whom she’d stopped sleeping by the early ‘60s, a period that she spent too busy to write (!), cadging a living from ill-paying jobs, raising too-thin children on a leaky houseboat. Which sank. I would not wish Fitzgerald’s midlife on a bank robber, let alone on one of the great postwar English novelists. (The other is Muriel Spark. There is no third.) Secondly, when Fitzgerald does at last “succeed,” she is still subject to the most appalling male condescension this side of Mad Men. Her first publisher refers to his backlist of woman-written novels as “a branch of gynecology.” Literary journalists call her “shy Penelope.” After she wins the Booker Prize for Offshore, she sits, bemused, through a BBC panel discussion devoted to the proposition that the judges picked the wrong book. (They didn’t.)

Such is often the fate of the smart, compassionate, epigrammatic novel that nobody describes as “sprawling,” that doesn’t lend itself to panel discussions of The Contemporary Situation, that takes up more space in the memory than on the bookshelf. It is only partial compensation to see these books enjoy the sort of gradual triumph that culminates in the sort of fat, loving, judicious biography that Hermione Lee has written. But the lateness of Fitzgerald’s reward only reinforces the insight, ultimately theological, to which this quietly devoted Anglican writer’s novels bear witness: Humans are too hopelessly ill-adapted to this life for it to be the only one.

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