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At Freddie's (1982)

by Penelope Fitzgerald

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3331360,904 (3.6)43
From the Booker Prize-winner of 'Offshore' comes this entertaining tale of a chaotic stage school and its singular headmistress. With a new introduction by Simon Callow. It is the 1960s, in London's West End, and Freddie is the formidable proprietress of the Temple Stage School. Of unknown age and provenance, Freddie is a skirt-swathed enigma - a woman who by sheer force of character and single-minded thrust has turned herself and her school into a national institution. Anyone who is anyone must know Freddie. At Freddie's is a wickedly droll comedy of the theatre and its terminally eccentric devotees.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
I've yet to meet a Penelope Fitzgerald book that I haven't liked, but I'm not sure that I loved this one, either. It is well-situated in its time in place: it's drawn -- at least in part -- from the author's own experiences and is set in comfortable, gray postwar London. We get an interesting behind-the-scenes of what goes in the theater, well, behind the scenes. The novel's characters are, as might be expected, impeccably drawn, not least the enigmatic title character, who, wheedles, charms and politicks relentlessly to ensure the survival of her Shakespeare-centric theater school.

"At Freddie's" is well constructed in the same way that Fitzgerald's "The Bookshop" is: the characters' fates are sealed so slowly that it's difficult for either the reader and the characters themselves to realize what is happening to them. Which only goes to show how good a writer Penelope Fitzgerald was. At the same time, things move so slowly here that I sort of wished, at times, that the plot manifested itself a little more clearly, for once. Simon Callow, who wrote the introduction to my edition, said that he'd always wanted to make a film version of this novel, but I'm not sure how you'd adapt such a subtle novel to the screen. I suspect that it might not really be possible.

As usual, Fitzgerald describes a world of aggressors and victims, but, unlike most of her books, the true natures of some of the novel's characters aren't really revealed until the last few pages of the book. It ends, in other words, with a twist, which is something that readers may or may not appreciate. The most memorable parts of this one, however, as mentioned by a previous reviewer, might be its portraits of two young actors, one of whom seems destined for stardom, the other of which, a true artist-in-the-making, has a much more uncertain road ahead of him. Even more impressive, however, are the careful parallels that the author draws between the way things are runs at Freddie's and the way power is being being concentrated in British society at large. Fitzgerald had, in addition to her many other gifts, an amazingly deep understanding of the machinations of power, and it's certainly on display here. Honestly, these parallels are drawn so artfully that I didn't realize they were there for some time after I'd finished reading this one. Even if I didn't particularly love this novel, I have to admit that this neat little allegory is a writerly feat of the highest order. Recommended to Fitzgerald's fans, theater folk, and lovers of well-written, clear-eyed novels everywhere. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Mar 17, 2021 |
''Although Freddie usually began by saying something gracious, the caller's first instinct was that of self-preservation, or even to make sure that the door, now to the rear, could be reached in a hurry. Yet in fact, no one left before they had to. The margin between alarm and fascination was soon crossed.''

At Freddie's, young students are preparing to conquer the London stage and film industry. At Freddie's, despairing teachers with questionable skills do the best they can through meager means. At Freddie's, a formidable headmistress has created an institution out of nothing. They say Theatre is hard but you have seen nothing like Freddie yet...

''You must tell me the moment I start going to pieces.''

Penelope Fitzgerald worked for the BBC during the nightmare of the Blitz. She offered her services in a small bookshop in Suffolk, she lived on a barge on the Thames, working as a teacher at a stage school. She is the ideal person to take us on a tour in a world - because that's what Theatre is - of talent and misfits, opportunities and disaster. And somewhere at the back of the auditorium, knowledge, and hope are clapping knowingly...

Freddie is a force on her own. She has succeeded in creating an institution but what happens now? The 1960s are changing the world day by day, the demands of the entertainment industry are different, the competent teachers are hard to find. The young students don't seem to care about knowledge and personality. They just want the right ''now'' that will bring them to the wealthy ''tomorrow.'' Pierce, an indifferent young man, is a teacher who wants a salary and a wife. On his own terms. Hannah is the ray of light. The idealist teacher that tries and tries but is in danger to fail because of her fleeting heart. She portrays the independence that is becoming a reality for the young women of the era.

One could say that not much happens in the course of the novel. But this is not that kind of a novel. This is a comedy of manners and characters. A look, however brief, to the reality of the children who saw Theatre as a way to success, in a country where Theatre runs in the blood of every citizen. The reality of the teachers who try to communicate with their students, while their problems have to be put aside in order not to crush them. In a time when values and codes of behaviour are being altered, a headmistress refuses to go with the flow. And where does Shakespeare stand in this situation?

In elegant sarcasm and acute characterization, Penelope Fitzgerald writes about a society and an institution that try to decide which direction to follow.

''It's a great mistake to live with past victories.''

My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.wordpress.com/ ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Mar 19, 2020 |
“I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choirmasters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see them if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.’

The senior house manager came almost at once. Having intended to say, and for some reason not said, that all this had absolutely nothing to do with him, he summoned indignation in place of self-respect and spoke of what had come to his ears and not knowing what might happen next, also of possible damage to the recovered seats, and the new carpeting which had recently been laid down in every part of the house.

‘What became of the old chair covers?’ Freddie interrupted. ‘What of the old carpets?’

The manager said that this was a matter for his staff. It seemed, however, that the Temple School, with its forty years of Shakespearean training, was carrying on the old traditions in a state not far from destitution, with crippled furniture, undraped windows, and floors bare to the point of indecency, and it was not to be believed that a prosperous theatre like the Alexandra would stand by and watch such things happen without giving a helping hand. The manager knew what was happening to him, even though it was for the first time, for he had heard it described by others. He was being Freddied, or, alternatively, Shakespeare would have been pleased, dear-ed, although the phrase had not passed between them. Thirty-seven minutes later he had agreed to send the old covers and carpeting round to the Temple, on indefinite loan. He felt unwell. Weakmindedness makes one feel as poorly as any other over-indulgence.” ( )
  proteaprince | Dec 18, 2019 |
Freddie's is a stage school (strictly stage, no TV or film work) run by the eccentric Freddie. Freddie is a shadowy figure, not motivated by money, but a law unto herself. Other characters include the two teachers she employs: Hannah, who loves the theatre and seems a reasonably competent teacher, and Pierce, who is uninterested in the theatre and doesn't even attempt to teach. Perhaps most memorable are the two child actors, the irrepressible Mattie and the self-contained Jonathan.

This novel is amusing and entertaining, but I find it hard to articulate what exactly it is about and there isn't that much of a plot. Definitely worth reading though. ( )
  pgchuis | Feb 5, 2017 |
Penelope Fitzgerald's slender novels are so very brilliant that it is almost possible to miss their perfection. A subtle writer with a true understanding of human foibles and so full of compassion, she rarely misses her mark. At Freddie's, is true to her rare form. Centered around a children's acting school in London during the early 1960s, one meets characters as varied as the incompetent teacher hired to make sure the professional child actors have their state mandated hours of academics to a hard headed business man who is determined to save the school which is perennially broke, though some of his methods are, uh...unorthodox. Take the case of how he attempts to have the school's most gifted child wow the visiting Noel Coward. At the center of this theatric microcosm is Freddie, the aging director of the Temple Stage School. Freddie has been adept at cajoling and charming resources from everyone, but times are changing, and the school seems in peril. Besides the question of the school the reader has a love story and the antics of the small stars with their overweening egos and a sham maturity to amuse and worry her. Plus, there is the fate of the gifted Johnathon to be determined.

Fitzgerald actually spent time at such a school as a teacher in the '60s so she knows her stuff. In fact, one of the amazing things about the writer is the volumes of stuff she does know and her ability to weave it artlessly into her stories. Compare to the bookish, heavily researched novels of A. S. Byatt. Byatt will wow one with the mass of information she imports to her work and obvious meticulous research she pours into the crafting of her novels. But as a reader, one feels the burn. With Fitzgerald, the wow comes later. One never feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, instead later one realizes one knows all sorts so things about turn of the century dining halls at Cambridge, bourgeoisie housekeeping in 17th century Germany, BBC regulations in WWII and educational laws as they pertain to little shits like Matty of At Freddie's.

A true treasure of 20th century English literature. ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Fitzgerald, Penelopeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Callow, SimonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lee, HermionePrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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From the Booker Prize-winner of 'Offshore' comes this entertaining tale of a chaotic stage school and its singular headmistress. With a new introduction by Simon Callow. It is the 1960s, in London's West End, and Freddie is the formidable proprietress of the Temple Stage School. Of unknown age and provenance, Freddie is a skirt-swathed enigma - a woman who by sheer force of character and single-minded thrust has turned herself and her school into a national institution. Anyone who is anyone must know Freddie. At Freddie's is a wickedly droll comedy of the theatre and its terminally eccentric devotees.

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