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.[1] In 2008, The Times included her in a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[2] In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower, as one of "the ten best historical novels".[3]

Biography[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 Dillwyn Knox, the Bible scholar Wilfred Knox, and the novelist and biographer Winifred Peck.[4] 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."[5]

She was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Somerville College, Oxford University, from which she graduated in 1938 with a congratulatory First, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student newspaper.[1] She worked for the BBC during World War II and in 1942 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she had met in 1940 while they were both at Oxford. When they met he was studying for the bar and had enlisted to serve as a soldier with the Irish Guards. Six months after their marriage, Desmond’s regiment was sent to North Africa. He won the Military Cross in the Western Desert Campaign in Libya campaign but when he returned to civilian life he was an alcoholic.[1]

In the early 1950s she and her husband lived in Hampstead, London, where she had grown up, while they co-edited a magazine called World Review, where J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” was first published in the UK, as well as the writings of Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and Alberto Moravia. Fitzgerald also contributed to the magazine, writing about literature, music, and sculpture. Soon afterwards Desmond was disbarred for "forging signatures on checks that he cashed at the pub". The end of his legal career led to a life of poverty for the Fitzgeralds; at times they were even homeless and lived for four months in a homeless center. They lived for eleven years in a council flatpublic housing. In order to provide for her family, 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 taught "at a posh crammer’s, where her pupils included Anna Wintour, Edward St Aubyn, and Helena Bonham Carter (in fact, she continued to teach until she was seventy years old).[1] She also worked in a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. For a time she lived in Battersea, on a houseboat that sank twice.

They had three children, a son, Valpy, and two daughters, Tina and Maria.[1]

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.[6]

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".[7][8]

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".[9] 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) a romance between the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat and a doctor from a southern Communist family set in 1950s Florence, Italy. 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.[10][11] In 1999 it was adapted and dramatised for BBC Radio by Peter Wolf.[12]

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 Fitzgerald appeared: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee.[1]

Bibliography[edit]

Biographies[edit]

Novels[edit]

  • 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)

Letters[edit]

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

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Alan Hollinghurst (4 December 2014). "The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald". New York Review of Books 61 (19). 
  2. ^ (5 January 2008). The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Times. Retrieved on 2010-02-01.
  3. ^ Skidelsky, William (13 May 2012). "The 10 best historical novels". The Observer (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  4. ^ Jenny Turner, "In the Potato Patch: Review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life" by Hermione Lee", London Review of Books, 19 December 2013
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "review of her published correspondence", The Independent 24 August 2008
  7. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012. 
  8. ^ Cathy Hartley (2003). A Historical Dictionary of British Women. Psychology Press. p. 349. 
  9. ^ Harriet Harvey-Wood, "Penelope Fitzgerald", The Guardian, 3 May 2000
  10. ^ Hofmann, Michael (13 April 1997). "'Nonsense Is Only Another Language'". New York Times. 
  11. ^ [2].
  12. ^ [3]

External links[edit]