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Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013)

by Hermione Lee

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2497107,947 (4.21)33
English writer "Fitzgerald, born into an accomplished intellectual family, the granddaughter of two bishops, led a life marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop's palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. We see Fitzgerald's very English childhood in the village of Hampstead; her Oxford years, when she was known as the 'blonde bombshell'; her impoverished adulthood as a struggling wife, mother, and schoolteacher, raising a family in difficult circumstances; and the long-delayed start to her literary career"--Amazon.com.… (more)
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I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald before researching my most recent book, Library Lin’s Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs. A few years ago, I watched the movie, The Bookshop, and loved it. But I was unaware the film was based on a book or who had written it.

Hermione Lee has a reputation as an excellent biographer. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is the first of her biographies I have read. If this book indicates her skill, I will go out of my way to read others.

Once you got past the lengthy section on Fitzgerald’s illustrious family, what was so compelling about the book was the sense you get of knowing the subject. Even though Lee sometimes expresses frustration with Fitzgerald’s secretiveness, she makes you feel like you know her intimately. After all, we can live with people for years and know little about what goes on in their minds.

Fitzgerald lived an unusual life, encompassing privilege, education, poverty, and hard work. Her father’s role as editor at Punch and her esteemed uncles’ involvements with Oxford and the Enigma project during World War II opened some doors for her. As did her education at Oxford. But her husband’s difficulty dealing with the aftermath as a World War II soldier led to his heavy drinking, which drove his family to near-destitution. Penelope was forced to work hard to keep the family afloat.

The family’s poverty led to unforgettable experiences, such as living in an old barge on the river Thames, which was fodder for Fitzgerald’s future novels. The barge, for example, led to her novel, Offshore. Lee did such a masterful job explaining what may have influenced Fitzgerald and the brilliance of her works (which included biographies and novels) that I am determined to read them all at some point in my life. And that is the highest compliment I can give a biographer. Lee has inspired me to read more on her subject. ( )
  Library_Lin | Mar 21, 2023 |
Penelope Fitzgerald was the best novelist in English in the 20th century. There, I said it.
  sonofcarc | Mar 21, 2020 |
Beautifully written life of a British novelist. Hermione Lee really brought Fitzgerald to life and by the end I felt a real kinship with her. I've only read The Gates of Angels, but I'm now curious to read some of her other fiction. Highly recommended if you enjoy literary biographies. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Penelope Fitzgerald was elusive and private. Novelist A.S. Byatt, who for a time was a teaching colleague of Fitzgerald, explained as much to biographer Hermione Lee:

Antonia Byatt found her contradictory. She could be sharp; she could appear vague and self-effacing; she was also knowledgeable, perceptive and generous. “She was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well….” Byatt hugely admired her work, and gradually came to think of her as “one of the major writers of my time.” But remembering their period together as colleagues, she thought that Fitzgerald was “not a nice person. Geniuses are not nice people.”

Lee ably takes the reader through the sweep of Fitzgerald’s life. Born during WWI, Fitzgerald came from an accomplished family; her father was the editor of Punch magazine, one of her uncles was a member of the Bletchly Park team that conquered the Enigma machine during WWII. Known both as “The Blonde Bombshell” and as incredibly smart during her Oxford years (legend has it that Fitzgerald not only “got a First,” but that her papers were “…so outstandingly good they were kept and bound in vellum by her examiner…”), she eventually ended up as a BBC producer and scriptwriter during and after the second world war. Post-war, she married an Irish army officer, had three children, co-edited a literary magazine with him for three years (World Review) and then had it all crash down around her when his alcoholism and serious trouble with the law made them destitute. They lived for many years in council housing while the family scraped by largely on her teaching income (she taught for 26 years). Lee is especially good at contextualizing and exploring Fitzgerald’s work, influences and relationships (which were mainly with family members, but also those few friends with whom she became close, especially writers J.L. Carr, Stevie Smith, and later Penelope Lively).

I’m reading Fitzgerald in order so next up for me will be her third
book [Offshore], a story inspired by the time she and her family lived on a houseboat on the Thames because it was all that they could afford. (In real life, the boat sank, taking all of their possessions with it. She still showed up to teach on the day that it happened.)

Offshore was awarded the Booker Prize in a year where many thought V.S. Naipul would win for A Bend in the River. Lee describes a BBC program about the prize that year as being “breathtakingly condescending” toward Fitzgerald. Host Robert Robinson, “…evidently thrown by not having the big beasts he had expected, and by being presented a with a winner he had clearly never heard of, or read, steers the conversation, in his best patrician manner, with many jokey remarks…into a general discussion about literary prizes. He begins by proposing…that “the Booker judges had made the wrong choice” and that the “best book didn’t win….” Did she have a view of what a novel should be?

“That’s the scandal about novels, isn’t it?” she replies. “That they don’t have any classical models. But I would say it started as soon as people realized that it was dark as night—that it was dark outside. And they felt that they would like a story told them. And that’s what novels are for.”

Blankly uncomprehending, Robinson lumbers on: “But don’t you think it must deliver something of importance to everyone?” “No, I don’t,” she answers, just for a moment allowing sharpness through. “I think it’s that, for the time being, you forget that it’s dark outside.”” ( )
  theaelizabet | Dec 31, 2016 |
Beautifully written life of a British novelist. Hermione Lee really brought Fitzgerald to life and by the end I felt a real kinship with her. I've only read The Gates of Angels, but I'm now curious to read some of her other fiction. Highly recommended if you enjoy literary biographies. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
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English writer "Fitzgerald, born into an accomplished intellectual family, the granddaughter of two bishops, led a life marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop's palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. We see Fitzgerald's very English childhood in the village of Hampstead; her Oxford years, when she was known as the 'blonde bombshell'; her impoverished adulthood as a struggling wife, mother, and schoolteacher, raising a family in difficult circumstances; and the long-delayed start to her literary career"--Amazon.com.

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