Famous At Eighty

Reviewing Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, a new biography of the British novelist, Alan Hollinghurst reminds us of her late-in-life flowering as a writer:

She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, when she was fifty-eight; her first novel appeared when she was sixty. She was, as she said, “an old writer who had never been a young one.” How different it would have been if, like her close contemporaries Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, she had started publishing fiction in the 1950s, if she’d moved in the shifting currents of influence and allegiance and left her mark on the literary history of those decades. But as it happened she made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody. In America she achieved fame at the age of eighty with The Blue Flower, her finest and most demanding book, and also her last. She died, aged eighty-three, in 2000.

This triumph of late productivity is unavoidably tied to loss, the paradoxical freedoms of bereavement. Edward Burne-Jones was written immediately after her father died. Dedicated to her children, it reaches back into the cultural world of the generation before her own that she had always found so fascinating: it is a passing on of knowledge. Her first novel, The Golden Child, a “joke” as she called it, was written to amuse her gravely ill husband Desmond Fitzgerald, and is dedicated, posthumously, to him. Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood.

James Wood, meanwhile, parses her distinctively stylish prose:

Fitzgerald’s confidence in her material is oddly disarming; she seems somehow to take life as it comes, as if we were always entering her novels in the middle of how things just are. This is the opening of “The Bookshop” (1978):

In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not. This was because of her worries as to whether to purchase a small property, the Old House, with its own warehouse on the foreshore, and to open the only bookshop in Hardborough. The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much. Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all—and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind—she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.

“The Bookshop,” published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene, and the qualities of her immense vitality are all present at the beginning of her late-blooming career. The passage is lively in part because its music is jagged: each sentence is a little different from its predecessor; nothing is quite allowed to settle into the familiar. Precision seems important (“1959”; “a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters”), but the novelist’s certainty does not preclude a tactful hesitancy about her characters (“The uncertainty probably kept her awake”). At the very moment the reader might expect pathos or sentiment, there is a quizzical resistance to it (heron and eel are pitiable only in their “indecision”). The writing quietly hovers around the thoughts of its protagonist (heron and eel “had taken on too much,” like Florence Green) but has room for authorial impatience (“and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind”).