The Delights Of Penelope Fitzgerald

by Michelle Dean

Today is Penelope Fitzgerald’s birthday. Let’s celebrate it, because Americans don’t celebrate Penelope Fitzgerald nearly enough.

Penelope_FitzgeraldI mentioned yesterday that one of the books that has really stuck with me this year is Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I was drawn to the biography in the first place because I like Fitzgerald’s books – The Bookshop is tops with me, but I like The Blue Flower too, obviously – of course. Though as someone raised on Alice Munro with general doses of Mavis Gallant, I’m probably genetically programmed to love the writings of shrewd, intelligent, but ultimately despairing British Commonwealth writers. Also, I’d been having a weird fall working on my own book. And I could justify reading the Lee as a sort of research. “I’m skimming for structure,” I told a friend. “I want to know how Lee puts these things together.” And she is, yes, a wonderful biographer and I always learn new tricks from her.

But these were excuses. I was doing the thing people write whole essays decrying: I was reading the biography out of an impulse not far from a reader of self-help. I wanted to know how Fitzgerald did it. And I loved what I found out.

Some things I already knew, of course. For example, that Fitzgerald didn’t publish her first book until the age of 58. Her first proper novel didn’t appear until she was 60. If you’re not the sort of writer who ascended to the stratosphere right away, these are cheering numbers. They represent hope. Even if you spend your whole life struggling, Fitzgerald’s trajectory suggests that late in life there might be a breakthrough. You might become a great.

There’s more hope to be found, as it turns out. Though I’d read Offshore before, I hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that Fitzgerald’s struggles included her houseboat actually sinking into the Thames. That put my first writing apartment, a basement affair in which the ceiling fell in twice from bad plumbing in the two years I lived there into real perspective, let me tell you.

Fitzgerald’s example also casts hopeful new light on the problem of awful people who don’t like your work. Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore in 1980, went on television in celebration with the other finalists and proceeded to be insulted by everyone present. She’d upset V.S. Naipaul for the prize and evidently others felt she didn’t deserve it. Quoth Fay Weldon on the announcement of Fitzgerald’s win, with Fitzgerald sitting right there: “I felt as though something had hit me very hard on the head.” It was like Twitter, except in real life. And yet Fitzgerald was the one who made the best British novelists lists. I’d say she won out.