Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Alan Hollinghurst on the genius of Penelope Fitzgerald

In 'Offshore', Penelope Fitzgerald was inspired by the most difficult years of her own life, writes Alan Hollinghurst

Canal families, Brentford, by John Cosmo Clark
Canal families, Brentford, by John Cosmo Clark Photo: bridgemanart.com
"Everything that you learn is useful,” says the 11-year-old Martha in Offshore. “Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?” Her little sister complains she is merely parroting the wisdom of their schoolteacher, Mother Ignatius, but Penelope Fitzgerald herself is surely standing close behind her. All Fitzgerald’s books are the product of maturity, reflection, the quickly touched depth of accumulated knowledge and long experience. Their creation reflects the new sense of opportunity that may come with the bereavements and displacements of later life. It was after her father, Edmund Knox, died in 1971 that she wrote her first book, a life of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, which came out in 1975, when Fitzgerald was 59. Her father himself became one of the subjects of her next book, the remarkable joint biography The Knox Brothers, published in 1977. Both these biographies draw on a lifelong exposure to, and reckoning with, the artistic, intellectual and spiritual life of the generations immediately before her own, made vital to her through her own extraordinary family. Fitzgerald’s first extended fiction, The Golden Child, was written to entertain her husband Desmond before his death in 1976; the eight novels, the stories, the further biography and all the luminous journalism that followed were thus the work of a quarter-century of widowhood.

As a novelist Penelope Fitzgerald drew at first quite directly on her own life, discovering, in her late shift of circumstance and perspective, the potential for making distinctive art out of several earlier episodes in an often difficult and ramshackle career. Her period working in a Southwold bookshop had fed The Bookshop (1978), and in Offshore (1979) she turned to the years, her lowest and most difficult, living on an old Thames sailing barge on Battersea Reach; later, Human Voices (1980) would draw on her years of employment at the BBC during the war, and At Freddie’s (1982), her most exuberantly comic novel, on her time as a teacher at the Italia Conti stage school. Offshore too is at times very funny, though tonally it is the most mercurial of all her books. She herself called it a “tragi-farce”. 

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