Hermione Lee: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – The Whole Story?’

Hermione Lee opened her talk about Penelope Fitzgerald with the epigraph from her recent biography: ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’.  Lee began Penelope Fitzgerald’s story by reflecting on her accomplished career.  Late in life, Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.  At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style.  Over the next hour, Lee held the audience spellbound as she led them in search of the life that made this gifted, insightful, and intensely private novelist.

Lee’s talk, like the biography, followed the chronology of Fitzgerald’s life.  Researching this life cannot have been an easy task: Penelope kept many secrets.  She cultivated a public persona as a grandmotherly figure to protect her privacy.  Her literary career is a story of patience and endurance, ‘an old writer who never got to be a young writer’ as Lee said.

Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox to an accomplished family; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and was so successful in her exams that her papers were purportedly bound in vellum (Lee admits this story may be apocryphal).  She married her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1942, and wrote for the BBC during the war.  On Desmond’s return, the two settled in Hampstead and had three children.  Desmond worked as a lawyer, and together the two started an ambitious literary magazine called World Review.  The stage seemed set, Lee said, for a comfortable, literary life.

That life was unfortunately not to be.  The young couple was over-extended financially.  Desmond developed a drinking problem and began forging checks; he was eventually found out and disbarred.  After that, the Fitzgeralds lived in true poverty.  Penelope moved the family to Suffolk, where she worked in a bookshop, and then to a houseboat in Clapham, which sank.  Lee recounted a poignant story of Penelope’s children coming home to find a cat clinging to the mast, and Penelope’s books stained yellow with Thames water.   Penelope took up teaching to make ends meet.  She did not publish a novel until after her husband’s early death in 1976.

These experiences affected Penelope deeply.  From the religious Knox family, she inherited a fascination for the clash between reason and the vagaries of human emotion.  The extremities she faced in adulthood drew her to the poor, the downtrodden, to those born defeated, and it lent her writing a feel for dark comedy and for acute sadness. As Lee put it, ‘she knew the worst that people can do to one another, and to themselves’.  But her life also supplied the subject matter for her early novels: her time in the Suffolk bookshop became The Bookshop, while her stint at the BBC found use in Human Voices.

Fitzgerald’s later novels move away from her own life experiences, but they retain the characteristics that make her early novels compelling—the exploration of reason and emotion in spare, austere prose.  In them, she developed a style Lee characterised as ‘reticent’ and ‘full of silences’, qualities which mask passionate conviction.  Fitzgerald researched her historical novels intensely, even re-learning German for her last novel The Blue Flower, but her careful choice of detail masks the range and depth of her research.  In their understated control, Lee felt, the novels achieve something profound and original.

Lee admitted that she felt great responsibility to her subject in writing this biography, the first ever written on Fitzgerald, not least because many living people still remember Penelope fondly.  With this, as with other biographies, Lee concluded, the biographer has a duty to get the story as right as possible, but acknowledge that no biography is ever complete.  We can follow Penelope Fitzgerald’s life, trace connections between it and her work, but ultimately we are ever in search of the whole story.