Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novels, Ranked

9. The Golden Child (1976)
The last person I ranked in this manner was Muriel Spark, whose first novel is so freakishly well-realized that it just made me want to subside into nonexistence, like that book’s villain, Mrs. Hogg. Accordingly, then, I must thank Fitzgerald from the bottom of my heart for writing an OK first book that does not read as if it descended from heaven on a throw pillow made of angel pubes. It’s really discouraging when people do that, and the ho-hum quality of this mock-mystery novel about a fake museum exhibit gives the struggling would-be writer some hope.

Don’t bother with The Golden Child unless you’re crazily devoted, is what I’m saying.

8. Innocence (1986)
Don’t be fooled by the low ranking; from here on, pretty much the entire Fitzgerald canon is indispensable. This one is famous for a) initiating her “historical novels” phase and b) containing a beautifully-felt cameo by Antonio Gramsci. It is an utterly fresh romantic comedy with shadows around the edges. But every writer has that weapon she or he is prone to overusing, and for Fitzgerald, funnily enough, it’s understatement. The description of an episode in the (fictitious) history of the Ridolfi family at the beginning, which casts a symbolic shadow over the whole book, is always mentioned by critics as an example of Fitzgerald’s cleverness and subtlety; I think they actually talk about it because they’re proud they figured it out.

7-6. At Freddie’s (1982) and Human Voices (1980)
A toss-up, I love them both so much. They’re both among Fitzgerald’s early “autobiographical” novels (the others are The Bookshop and Offshore) and they’re both notable for not reading anything at all like novels involving “autobiographical material” are supposed to read. The narrator is almost inhumanly impartial to the characters most similar to the author, and wonderfully generous to everyone else. (Penelope Fitzgerald must have been a hell of a fun officemate, at least before life wore her down.) The happy endings are deeply equivocal, as earthly happiness must always be.

At Freddie‘s builds a wonderfully satisfying conflict between a woman of the theatre, running a perpetually down-at-the-heels acting school in London, all of whose personal power and influence come from her immense and classically theatrical denial of all the actual circumstances of her life, and her employee, a guy so morbidly honest that he makes Samuel Johnson look evasive. Dreams, meet Reality. This is a beautiful “Nobody gets what they want” novel, and finds its place this low on the list because it’s outshone, not because it isn’t, on its own terms, awfully bright.

Human Voices (and the title alone gives it a slight edge over At Freddie’s: at once an Eliotic allusion just right for the characters and mood, a description of the BBC Radio milieu in which the characters work, and a reference to the rumor-heavy hubbub of wartime) is perhaps the novel of Fitzgerald’s that pushes furthest her notion of erotic love as a beautiful and necessary catastrophe. You root for this book’s central couple, knowing that they’re going to bring each other misery. It’s the theme Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wanted to have, but the characters weren’t fully realized enough to embody it the way this book does. (Fitzgerald’s Innocence also treats of this sort of relationship, in a way that looks a little broad only when you compare it to the infinite subtlety of Human Voices.)  To bring Eliot back into the conversation, Fitzgerald writes about love the way Eliot’s Magi speak of the birth of Christ. And I think she writes truly.

5. The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Bears in the dining room. Prerevolutionary Russian mystics. A sexy au pair. And an image so spooky and lovely that I won’t say a word about it, even though one of Fitzgerald’s stupider paperback publishers has chosen to spoil the whole thing with a cover illustration.

4. The Gate of Angels (1990)
Readers of Hermione Lee’s Fitzgerald biography are oppressed by the knowledge that Fitzgerald began a book about the Inklings that she didn’t live to finish. It’s a foregone conclusion that this would have been the greatest novel of all time. On the day of its publication, bells would have rung, Lycidas would have returned from the sea’s bosom, ISIS would melt down their guns and declare war on frowning, the snow would have mounted on its frozen feet and commenced shoveling itself with a “Terribly sorry for the mess,” and “Hey Ya” would have sounded fresh again. However, if I had to pick any other period in the history of Oxbridge life for Fitzgerald to finish her book about, as consolation, it would be Cambridge at the dawn of modern physics, among handwringing men with apologetic faces and eccentric social habits who, half unmeaning (Eliot again!), disturbed the Newtonian universe. Anyone paying attention at this point could have seen that Fitzgerald had long since gathered to a greatness.

3. The Bookshop (1978)
(But what is “greatness,” anyway? Are we more in need of small portraits perfectly realized or large, difficult things brought off right? B: Yes. A: This book.)

2. The Blue Flower (1995)
And having gathered to a greatness, Fitzgerald flames out, like shining from shook foil.

I am tempted to accede to consensus here and put Blue Flower at number one. It is certainly the book that forced even the most dismissive old sexists in the British bookchat industry to admit that the dowdy lady comedian-of-manners was a genius. It is the most obviously innovative of her books, Cubist in its use of point of view (you often have no idea who is narrating or from where). It is, at least, a great choice to read if you don’t plan to read any other Fitzgerald. You’ll be moved (as much by the delicate beauty of the book’s structure, the sense it constantly creates of sudden affinities between widely-separated details, as by the pitiable lives narrated), and you’ll get why German Romanticism is a major literature ill-served by the English language.

1. Offshore (1979)
If there’s a distinction to be made between “early” and “late” Fitzgerald, it is radically not one of quality. Nor does it have to do with emotional force. I am not sure a novel has ever left me sadder.

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