Penelope Fitzgerald, 1940 Dooley Archive

This week, Professor Dame Hermione Lee was awarded the James Tait Black biography prize for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Here, she introduces an extract from the book

I've written a biography of the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald because I think she is a great writer, though she would never have described herself in such a resounding way. She was born in 1916 and died in 2000; she started publishing books in 1975, around the age of 60. She won the Booker prize, and, with her last novel, she became famous at 80: so hers is an encouraging story!

My biography explores, for the first time, the life and work of a very private person and a very remarkable writer. Working on her was a challenge and a privilege, and not always straightforward. Her books are short, and hard to pin down. She writes about her own life, but keeps herself carefully concealed. In her first novels she drew intensely on her own experiences - working for the BBC in wartime, living in Suffolk and working in a bookshop there in the late 1950s, teaching child-actors, and living in the 1960s on a leaky Thames barge, which sank. But she gave little away about herself. In her four last novels, published in the 1980s and 1990s, she changed direction. They moved from using the material of her own life to creating astonishingly vivid historical worlds. They are all set at a time when change seemed possible: Russia before the revolution in The Beginning of Spring; post-war Italy in Innocence; pre-First World War Cambridge science in The Gate of Angels; the first stirring of Romanticism in Europe in The Blue Flower. These novels involved vast amounts of historical research, which is buried deep below the surface. She liked economy, and believed that "less is more". She didn't like to tell her readers too much: she felt it insulted them to over-explain.

Still, though she resisted explanations, there is a strong morality in her writings. She is a comic writer with a tragic view of life. She was drawn to what she called "exterminatees", decent, muddled characters who are bullied or exploited. She had strong religious beliefs, though she keeps them implicit in her fiction. She spoke for the underdog, for the vulnerable, for children, and against tyranny.

Fitzgerald's life-story has strong English roots, though she's not at all insular. She was interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Anglican church. She was passionate about painting, pottery, colours, gardens, flowers, and music. She had an old-fashioned style of dressing which made no concessions to fashion but was very alert to colours and fabrics. Her artistic heroes included Ruskin, William Blake, Burne-Jones and William Morris. She minded about the look of her books. She pays great attention to craftsmanship. There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. And it is often the women who do the jobs.

In this extract, we see her in full flight as a brilliant Oxford undergraduate - known as the Blonde Bombshell - editing and writing for the student magazine Cherwell in the 1930s. She seemed all set to be a writer. But then came the war, and everyone's lives were thrown up in the air. And she didn't start publishing for many decades. One of the mysteries my biography pursues is how much she was writing during the thirty or more years between her student days and the mid-1970s, when the brilliant young "Penelope Knox" finally became that extraordinary, original novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.

An extract from Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life Chapter Three, 'The Blonde Bombshell'

In 'The Curse of a Literary Education', a lover of literature has her visits to the countryside ruined because of all the quotations going round in her head, which she has to apply to everything she sees. 'Look, Stranger' is a parody on a sensitive, alienated soul who has quarrelled with Nature, the Brotherhood of Man, and finally with herself: 'I cut myself dead. I was surrounded by strangers.' The last of these Cherwell pieces, 'Wicked Words', published after she left Oxford, tells her history of being unable to swear, with a caricatured version of her school life, and one or two autobiographical clues: 'When I fall in love, which happens twice a year, and wish to end a tempestuous quarrel, I usually say "Drat you". When my heart is broken I say "Cripes".' At Somerville, they all knew how to cry, but not how to swear. 'We should all have liked to do so, because we were young, and wanted to be thought vicious.'

She couldn't swear, but she could spell. In January 1938 she was selected as one of two women on the eight-strong Oxford team for the first 'Spelling Bee' to be 'conducted by wireless across the Atlantic' (as The Times reported it under the title 'Hard Spells on the Air'). The opponents were from Radcliffe and Harvard, and the spelling had to follow the rules of the Oxford Dictionary (for the Oxford team) and Webster's (for the American team). They went to the BBC on a freezing cold Sunday train, hung about for ages while the engineers dealt with faulty headphones and microphones, were sent down to the cafeteria ('Cup of tea and Virginia cigarette, 2d, Cup of tea and Turkish cigarette, 2 d') and then did the forty-five-minute quiz, with thirty seconds allowed for each word, after which the other side had a go. The booby traps were 'haemorrhage', 'pettifoggery', 'anonymity', 'truncheon', 'labyrinthine', 'trachea' and 'corollary'. The Oxford team lost by four points, but 'Miss Knox, like her listeners, found her early temerity an attractive pose and retained it throughout the contest with great effect.' Her spelling of 'daguerreotype' was 'loudly applauded by both teams'. It was her first experience of the BBC, and she enjoyed herself. The Spelling Bee sealed her reputation, in her final year, as an Oxford star. 'BLONDE BOMBSHELL BEATS THE LOT', ran the Isis headline, and its annual Valentine competition ('First Prize, One Hundred Oxford Memory Cigarettes and Two Seats at the Scala Cinema') listed for its recipients 'Greto Garbo, Miss Penelope Knox, A Female History Don, or Mistinguett'. The results of the competition largely consisted of verses written to the 'evidently well-appreciated Penelope Knox': 'O Bombshell with the golden thatch'; 'Penelope, my Busy Bee, I love your voice, you must love me'; 'Venus, Minerva, Spelling Queen,/All three in thy small Frame are seen;/Fair Goddess, thou hast caught me well,/Wrapped in the magic of thy "Spell".'

Copyright Hermione Lee 2013. Extracted from PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A LIFE by Hermione Lee, published by Chatto & Windus at £25.00.


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