Penelope Fitzgerald's marginalia
April 3, 2010 6:49 AM   Subscribe

"Dear Penelope Fitzgerald, Among the books chance puts in our hands are a few that were never meant for us: this one, of course, was meant to come back to you, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to redirect it. With all best wishes, Alberto Manguel."

Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, author of The Blue Flower and other gorgeous books. Amongst the materials she has been given access to is Fitzgerald's vast and much-annotated collection of books--"not beautiful, expensively bound, well-ordered books with high-flown dedications from famous fellow authors", but "the battered, treasured, much-used library of a working woman, mostly paperbacks, stuffed full of notes, marks, clippings and reviews, written all over from cover to cover in Fitzgerald's clear, steady, italic handwriting."

Lee describes the contents in this Guardian article, including the card from Alberto Manguel contained in a copy of a pamphlet-essay on Lytton Strachey by Max Beerbohm. He'd acquired the copy at some point in the late 90s and noticed that it had been given by Fitzgerald to her father Evoe Knox (editor of Punch) in 1943.

Fitzgerald's letters were published a couple of years ago, and there's a sweet appreciation of them by Julian Barnes--complemented by some personal reminiscences--here.
posted by lapsangsouchong (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) at LibraryThing
posted by stbalbach at 7:33 AM on April 3, 2010

Where lies this charm in the word processor files yet to come...?
posted by aldus_manutius at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Probably every one who comes in to this thread will already be familiar with Fitzgerald, but if not, take the opportunity to read one or two of her books. She's not flashy but subtle, and packs a lot of observation into her invariably slim novels. The are full of both tragedy and wit that are so understated as to be almost below the surface, but are there to be found and enjoyed none the less.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:31 AM on April 3, 2010

Where should we start? The Blue Flower?
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:59 AM on April 3, 2010

Thank you, this is a good post.
posted by theora55 at 9:01 AM on April 3, 2010

I'd pick "The Bookshop" over "The Blue Flower" as the latter is very tightly wedded to a historical period that feels to me very stiff and formal.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:12 AM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can start with any of the novels, really, except her first, The Golden Child (not related to the Eddie Murphy movie of the same name). All of the others, on my experience, bear repeated re-reading, and there are none of them I don't like. I've probably given Innocence to more people as a gift than any of the others (and more than any other novel except Slaughterhouse-5, in fact), which might tell you something. Barnes is probably right that it's the final four that will anchor her reputation in the future, but that doesn't mean that the earlier books are minor, The Golden Child apart.

Like many novelists who don't sell enough books to live off the proceeds, Fitzgerald was also a prolific reviewer--her collected criticism, A House of Air, is a lovely book. I mentioned it, and its altered US title, here.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:36 AM on April 3, 2010

I love reading about the notes authors make in their reading, and it constantly reminds me that I need to be more attentive and responsive to my pleasure reading. Thank you for the post. I will pick up a book by her soon.
posted by cyphill at 9:40 AM on April 3, 2010

You can start with any of the novels, really, except her first, The Golden Child (not related to the Eddie Murphy movie of the same name).

Of course when you think of Penelope Fitzgerald, Eddie Murphy's the first name that comes to mind.
posted by Faze at 9:48 AM on April 3, 2010

Also, to add to something CheeseDigestsAll said, Fitzgerald's style is also subtle and understated--so much so that you can easily miss the fact that what you're reading is in fact a masterclass in style. Balance, rhythm, timing, tone... No wonder Jan Morris called Fitzgerald (in a review of Innocence) her "favourite English prose stylist".

I haven't read any of her biographies, but if her criticism is anything to go by they'd be worth anyone's time too. From Rosemary Hill's review of the letters in the LRB:
The subjects of her biographies [...] were mostly figures she felt compelled to rescue, either because, like her father and uncles, they belonged to an age that was fading so fast from living memory that they might otherwise be lost for ever, or because, like Charlotte Mew, their achievement, though slight, was not negligible. ‘She did write at least one good poem, how many of us can say that?’ Fitzgerald wrote to Richard Ollard at Collins, who was pessimistic about the prospects for a biography.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:50 AM on April 3, 2010

There is something miraculous that the best british novelists in the last half a century are women: Elizabeth Taylor, AS Byatt, Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Beryl Bainridge, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith...

Has there been a time in history where the stories of a nation have been written so extensively, and so well by women?

(that much of that list work through historical fiction or the domestic, or both, and all have a dry irony, and a sharp, almost bitter sensibility suggests that they might have something in common aside from varriations in race and sexuality)
posted by PinkMoose at 9:52 AM on April 3, 2010

that does not stop me from saying i love Penelope Fitzgerald, and the Blue Flower is oone of the most beautiful things I have ever read.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:01 AM on April 3, 2010

Well written multi-purpose letter. Change the name, and it doubles as a rejection notice.

"Dear [Budding Author], Among the books chance puts in our hands are a few that were never meant for us: this one, of course, was meant to come back to you, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to redirect it. With all best wishes, Alberto Manguel"
posted by otherchaz at 10:05 AM on April 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Thank you.
posted by nicolin at 10:06 AM on April 3, 2010

> Where lies this charm in the word processor files yet to come...?

Now with the authors original track changes, in their clown vomit glory!
posted by mrzarquon at 10:43 AM on April 3, 2010

The Blue Flower deserves every bit of praise it's received here, and more. It's an amazing piece of work.
posted by jokeefe at 11:29 AM on April 3, 2010

Thanks for this excellent post. I'll never forget the first thing I read of hers, the opening of The Blue Flower:
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year…
I immediately read that passage to everyone I could find, and I've loved everything I've read of hers since.
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on April 3, 2010

The Blue Flower The Blue Flower The Blue Flower! I dare anyone to read it and not want to name a child The Bernhard. Also, people talk a lot about avant-garde and postmodernist writers opening their eyes to new possibilities for the novel, in an I-didn't-know-you-were-allowed-to-do-that sense, but The Blue Flower is the book that really did that for me. It also awoke me to the fact that Penelope Fitzgerald's sense of humor is a possible sense of humor to have; it was completely alien to me in its subtlety.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 11:57 AM on April 3, 2010

I love the Blue Flower. I picked it up randomly at a used book store and haven't thought that much about it since I read it (well, other than reading it a couple more times again). I had no idea it was so celebrated and that Fitzgerald was as well. Thanks so much for this post. (sometimes I feel Mefi can be a little sci-fi/fantasy/graphic heavy, so it's nice to see "regular" novelists on the front page!). Like others here have said, I, too, love the subtlety of her writing. I think this sums it up nicely:
One of the remarkable things about her novels is the way they suppress and lightly deploy a deep mine of knowledge, so that a whole history of a place and a time – as that exam question on The Go-Between proposes – seems to open out behind them.
Also, I love seeing what authors themselves read. For example, when I learned that Zadie Smith's favorite author was the same as mine -- EM Forster -- it changed the way I read her novels ever so slightly.
posted by bluefly at 5:26 PM on April 4, 2010

I'm going to suggest Human Voices as another entry point, since that was what worked for me.
posted by tangerine at 11:49 PM on April 4, 2010

Excellent post.
posted by OmieWise at 11:31 AM on April 5, 2010

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