Choosing my final read of one year and the first of the next is normally quite a palava. I want it to be sincere and meaningful, a sort of final summing up of another year of great books which I have been fortunate enough to read, and a platform to launch me into another. As it happened, having read half of Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald back in October and then rested, I picked the book up again and bridged it across 2013 and into 2014 and it all felt quite perfect.
I had stopped half way because it felt as if there was almost too much of this life to take in, maybe I felt a little like Penelope Fitzgerald standing in a field as a child...
'Sometimes, I was overwhelmed standing in a field under an open blue sky, by a kind of terror at the enormity of the turning of the earth...'
I could identify with that. We stand in the field up behind the house and say there's no mistaking the earth is round, we see from east to west without interruption, the curvature of the earth is obvious. It calls to mind notions of infinity and beyond and then some.
But there can be something of that terror associated with reading a biography of the life of a writer I have come to love too, and in a way I had felt overwhelmed (in a good way) by the detail. Setting aside the unique and slightly quirky Knox family into which Penelope Fitzgerald was born there was so much to feel...well sad about. Not least the war and its disruption for so many of plans and hopes and dreams. Penelope Knox, much to her family's surprise I suspect, married an Irish officer Desmond Fitzgerald in 1942, a dazzling charmer, but a man who was subsequently changed by the war.
As the couple settled down to a shabby-chic Bohemian lifestyle in post-war Hampstead, pottery classes, radio script-writing, reviews and mother hood beckoned for Penelope whilst Desmond went back to 'lawyering'. Living beyond their means and in dire financial straits the family suddenly upped sticks and moved to Southwold and from then on life really seemed to be a catalogue of disasters. In the midst of it all I could see was a proud,clever and intelligent woman whose own ambitions were constantly thwarted and under siege
The losses were profound; belongings, status and friends for the couple; schools, stability and security for the children and alongside Desmond's descent into alcoholism, walking loyally by with a sure foot was Penelope's fortitude and determination, she holding the family together through this abject poverty and hardship. Lesser mortals would have sunk without trace, faster than the family's houseboat which was there one morning when they all left for work and school, and gone when they all arrived home that evening.
Penelope herself comes across as devoted but severe, and certainly never effusive, she was not one for hugging and kissing, nor one for praising face to face, though read her letters to her daughters and the love and affection is all there in spades. Clearly emotion was much easier to write than say.
Through it all I got the definite impression that Penelope kept a secret kernel within herself, protected, nurtured and nourished with whatever crumbs of culture she could glean. Though her own needs were largely subsumed by those of her family, and the need to work to support them all, that nourishment took her to museums and exhibitions and entailed listening to the radio and reading. Her upbringing whilst privileged was also resourceful and emotionally self-contained, there was an inbuilt resilience which when called upon seems to have served her well.
And at this point I rested because I felt decidely melancholy for her.
Things picked up on my return to the book because Penelope, following the death of Desmond, starts writing and achieving moderate success, her first novel The Golden Child having been written through his final illness. I have much-treasured first editions of all her books, some signed, but somehow The Golden Child, with its rather odd dust jacket still feels the most special. It should all have been crowned in glory when Penelope won the Booker Prize for Offshore, but it is at this point that Hermione Lee exposes the literary world on its very worst behaviour. Penelope Fitzgerald's treatment by the literati after that win beggars belief, and there she was poor as a church mouse and with no handbag to take to the awards ceremony so she uses a sponge bag... by this time I really wanted to cry.
An array of personal anecdotes make for interesting reading...
'Those who did not like Penelope Fitzgerald found her reserved, perverse, mischievous, wilful and sharp-tongued. Those who did like her found her kind, wise, funny, reticent, brilliant and generous. But those two people were one person.'
The more I think about that the more I suspect that the reaction you received was much more about how Penelope Fitzgerald had assessed you in the first place; I would wager that through years of hardship she had become an exceptionally intuitive, astute and highly accurate judge of character. Her novels suggest as much, and Hermione Lee gives an excellent account of each book all cleverly woven into events in Penelope's life.
Scattered throughout the book, along with some wonderful photographs, are Penelope Fitzgerald's drawings. I hadn't realised quite what a gift she had for art, a unique and very endearing style of her own that belies the impression of a seemingly rather distant and unemotional woman. The sketches are astonishing, as pared down as her writing, yet full of love and comfort and warmth and closeness...
So there you have it, a biography that has really taken me to the beating heart of a life, and to the extent that I felt true sadness as Penelope Fitzgerald's health began to fail. When I read of her final series of ultimately fatal strokes, and her daughter sitting at her bedside reading Willam Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, and the two of them talking about the book together, well that was me done for.
I have visited Penelope Fitzgerald's grave in Hampstead, indeed a reader here went and placed some flowers there a while back. It is a lovely spot, the voices of the children in the school playground just over the wall ring around the cemetery..
'If the story begins with finding it must end with searching...' says Fritz to Sophie in The Blue Flower, and that is the book I pick up next at the start of another reading year.