'The author of The Blue Flower is an imaginative genius writing about what 'genius' is. She is an old person keeping her imagination fresh by writing about youth. And she is, also, an old person thinking about the end of life and the prospect of death..'
I will admit that I skimmed one or two of the sections in Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, specifically those giving a detailed analysis of the books, in order to read them again and come to these new appraisals with the novels fresh in my mind. I decided to turn to the final one first, The Blue Flower, so there will be no prizes for guessing which plant might feature in this week's Tales From the Potting Shed.
After so many anxiety-inducing books in recent months and a sense of fatigue after being enveigled into being a surrogate mother to orphaned boys in New York, and fighting off tigers for old ladies in Australia, it came as welcome respite to sink into a Penelope Fitzgerald novel and let everyone else do the worrying.
I have tried to write about The Blue Flower on here in the past and failed, there is much that it is hard to pin down on the page, and I am not sure I can do much better this time around because Hermione Lee says it all, thus even more original thought hard to come by. However I have been quietly mesmerised once more by the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (known as Fritz) and his infatuation with the twelve year-old Sophie von Kuhn. The book is based on the true story of Fritz, educated at the universities of Jena, Leipzig and at Wittenberg, and in subjects designated by his father. Except Fritz, who would eventually become the German Romantic poet Novalis, has ideas of his own opting for history and philosophy over maths and law.
The book surely has the most celebrated opening of all Penelope Fitzgerald's novels as Fritz arrives at the family home with his student friend Dietmahler, only to find that washing day is in progress. It seems so innocuous, an unassuming everyday event, except when you only wash clothes once a year it's quite a kerfuffle, and no one likes to wash their dirty linen in public after all.
This my third reading of The Blue Flower and each time I see something different, almost read an entirely different book, now I see the women quite clearly. For all the patriarchal dominance of the eighteenth century...it is Fritz who receives the best education, not his sisters, the women danced off the page; strong women going quietly about the daily round, the domestic, the giving birth, the cooking, the illness, the chatelaines, the enablers, the carers, providing the common sense and the scaffolding for the men and for each other, and in their midst the child, the innocent that is Sophie.
Universally praised, chosen in nineteen end of year recommendations in 1995, and tipped to win every prize going, The Blue Flower was mysteriously ignored by prize list judges. I well recall Susan Hill giving a very honest account of this in the days when she wrote a blog, in fact I had printed it off and found it tucked in my copy of the book. Though no longer available online, the blog post was widely read back in 2006. Susan tells of arriving for the first judges' meeting of the very first Orange Prize sure in the knowledge that her fellow judges would agree that The Blue Flower was going to be a very hard book to beat. Faced with blank looks it became clear that no one shared her opinion, considering it a 'thin little historical novel by a middle class middlebrow writer.' Fighting the book's corner to no avail, it wasn't even shortlisted, and when, in her late seventies, a gracious and quietly modest, yet ultimately snubbed, Penelope Fitzgerald appeared at the inaugural Orange Prize awards ceremony, specifically to celebrate the prize and congratulate the winner, she must have risen head and shoulders above the rest.
The good news is that, according to Hermione Lee, The Blue Flower caused a 'perfect storm' in America, where they clearly know a great book when they read it...
'The novel caught fire; it became the book of the year, the book everyone wanted to read...'
Hailed as 'luminous and authentic,' in the New York Times (by Michael Hofmann no less) the U.S. critics began to call Penelope Fitzgerald 'the finest British writer alive,' before giving the novel the National Book Critics Circle award. Asked how she might celebrate Penelope Fitzgerald replied...
'... I certainly shan't do any ironing today.'
Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth on this side of the pond... if there is such a thing as poetic justice, surely that comes close.
I know plenty of people who struggle with Penelope Fitzgerald, may be the secret is not to try too hard, just watch and wait and above all to listen. Let the book do the work and see what happens. I find myself allowing space in my thinking as I read ...so easy, there is absolutely no clutter, no distractions, plenty of silences to hear what has not been said. I often wonder about my Desert Island Books and I think for sure I could cheat a little and ask to have The Complete Writings of Penelope Fitzgerald (yet to be published, they'd have to print one for me) and know I would never be bored.