Penelope Fitzgerald

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Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald.jpg
Born Penelope Knox
(1916-12-17)17 December 1916
Lincoln, England
Died 28 April 2000(2000-04-28) (aged 83)
London, England
Occupation Writer
Nationality British
Period 20th century, 21st century
Notable works The Bookshop, Offshore, The Blue Flower
Notable awards Booker Prize
Spouse Desmond Fitzgerald (1941–1976)

Penelope Fitzgerald (17 December 1916 – 28 April 2000) was a Booker Prize–winning English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[1] In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower, as one of "the ten best historical novels".[2]


Early life[edit]

Penelope Fitzgerald was born Penelope Mary Knox at the Old Bishop's Palace, Lincoln, the daughter of Edmund Knox, later editor of Punch, and Christina Hicks, daughter of the bishop of Lincoln and one of the first women students at Oxford. She was the niece of the theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox, the cryptographer Dilly Knox, the Bible scholar Wilfred Knox, and the novelist and biographer Winifred Peck.[3] Fitzgerald later wrote:

When I was young I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn't like them. Later on, I found that this was a mistake, but I've never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I suppose they were unusual, but I still think that they were right, and insofar as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world.[4]

She was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Somerville College, Oxford. She worked for the BBC during the Second World War and in 1941 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, an Irish soldier. They had three children, a son and two daughters. During the 1960s she taught at the Italia Conti Academy, a drama school, and at Queen's Gate School, where her pupils included Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. She also worked in a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. For a time she lived in Battersea, on a houseboat that sank twice.

Literary career[edit]

Fitzgerald launched her literary career in 1975, at the age of 58, when she published a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. This was followed two years later by The Knox Brothers, a joint biography of her father and uncles in which she never mentions herself by name. Later in 1977 she published her first novel, The Golden Child, a comic murder mystery with a museum setting inspired by the Tutankhamun mania earlier in the 1970s. The novel was written to amuse her terminally ill husband, who died in 1976.

Over the next five years she published four novels, each connected in some way with her own experiences. The Bookshop (1978), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, concerns a struggling bookstore in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough; set in 1959, the novel includes as a pivotal event the shop's decision to stock Lolita.[5]

Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for 1979 with Offshore, a novel that takes place among residents of houseboats in Battersea in 1961. Human Voices is a fictionalised account of wartime life at the BBC, while At Freddie's depicts life at a drama school.

In 1999 Fitzgerald was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature".[6][7]

Historical novels[edit]

Fitzgerald said after writing At Freddie's, that she "had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about".[8] After writing a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew she began a series of novels with a variety of historic settings.

The first was Innocence (1986), the story, set in Italy in the 1950s, of a romance between the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat and a doctor from a southern Communist family. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci appears as a minor character.

The Beginning of Spring (1988) takes place in Moscow in 1913, and examines the world just before the Russian Revolution through the family and work troubles of a British businessman born and raised in Russia.

The Gate of Angels (1990), about a young Cambridge physicist who falls in love with a nurse after a bicycle accident, is set in 1912, when physics was about to enter a similarly revolutionary period.

Fitzgerald's final novel, The Blue Flower, published in 1995, centres on the 18th-century German poet and philosopher Novalis, and his love for what is portrayed as a rather ordinary child. Other historical figures, such as the poet Goethe and the philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel, feature in the story. The book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award 1997, has been called Fitzgerald's masterpiece.[9] In 1999 it was adapted and dramatised for BBC Radio by Peter Wolf.[10]

A collection of Fitzgerald's short stories, The Means of Escape, and a volume of her essays, reviews and commentaries, A House of Air, were published posthumously. In 2013 the first full biography of appeared: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee.




  • The Golden Child (1977)
  • The Bookshop (1978)
  • Offshore (1979)
  • Human Voices (1980)
  • At Freddie's (1982)
  • Innocence (1986)
  • The Beginning of Spring (1988)
  • The Gate of Angels (1990)
  • The Blue Flower (1995, UK, 1997, US)

Short stories[edit]

  • The Means of Escape (2000)
  • At Hiruharama (2000)

Essays and Reviews[edit]

  • A House of Air (US title: The Afterlife) edited by Terence Dooley, with an introduction by Hermione Lee (2005)


  • So I Have Thought of You. The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald edited by Terence Dooley, with a preface by A. S. Byatt (2008)


  1. ^ (5 January 2008). The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Times. Retrieved on 2010-02-01.
  2. ^ Skidelsky, William (13 May 2012). "The 10 best historical novels". The Observer (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  3. ^ Jenny Turner: "In a Potato Patch". Review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life" by Hermione Lee. London Review of Books 35/24, 19 December 2013.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ The Independent 24 August 2008, review of her published correspondence: Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  6. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012. 
  7. ^ Cathy Hartley (2003). A Historical Dictionary of British Women. Psychology Press. p. 349. 
  8. ^ The Guardian, 3 May 2000
  9. ^ [2]; [3].
  10. ^ [4]

External links[edit]