Reviews — From the January 2015 issue

Her Struggle

The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald

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Discussed in this essay:

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Knopf. 512 pages. $35.

In Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee has written the kind of biography that probably every writer dreams of receiving: respectful, fair-minded, conversant with the pertinent literary references, drawing on all extant sources, and largely, the reader senses, in the dark.

Lee herself is aware of the problem. On the first page, she warns that her subject, best known in America as the author of The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998, was “cryptic”; in the last chapter, she is still wrestling with Fitzgerald’s “reticence, evasiveness, and secrecy.” Accident explains some of the obscurity. Many of the photographs and papers that documented Fitzgerald’s early life were lost in 1963, when a houseboat she lived on sank, and fame didn’t touch her until she was eighty, by which point many witnesses had no doubt either forgotten about her or died.

Illustration by Aidan Koch

Illustration by Aidan Koch

But there are signs, too, that Fitzgerald would have been hard to get to know under any circumstances. The letters of hers that have been published are unrevealing, and if Fitzgerald ever had a confidant, that person hasn’t surfaced. One associate reported, “You never quite knew what she really meant.” When an old friend, on renewing contact, asked about her late husband, Fitzgerald told him, “He just died.” Journalists found her so well defended that Lee is often reduced to cataloguing the commonplaces Fitzgerald fobbed off on them. Lee even resorts to reading between the lines of reviews that Fitzgerald wrote. She hints, for example, that Fitzgerald may have been skeptical of the “amiable drunk” that James Stewart played in the 1950 film Harvey because she had grown impatient with her own husband’s alcoholism. One admires Lee’s resourcefulness, but one wonders whether Fitzgerald took her secrets to the grave. It’s possible, of course, that the darkness is merely apparent — that there is simply nothing to see other than a grandmother with a weapons-grade intellect who waited until her sixties to start publishing novels that were compact, hilarious, and for the most part tragic.

Fitzgerald came by a taste for privacy naturally. When her father, the longtime editor of the British humor magazine Punch, was asked to write a memoir, he declined to supply more than a title: Must We Have Lives? The trouble is that if we must, and if people insist on reading about them, then one wants to know a little more. Why did Fitzgerald wait until her sixties to write? Was it her marriage that delayed her blossoming? Or was she hesitant to step out of the shadow cast by her famous father? What did she think about her husband’s alcoholism? The failure of his career sometimes left her and her children homeless and short on food. Why didn’t she turn to family and friends for help? Why are so many of her fictional characters and biographical subjects homosexual, either by avowal or implication? And what about her religious beliefs? Many of her books hinge on questions of faith, but Fitzgerald was no Cardinal Newman, eager to dilate on those “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” God was another topic she said little about.

Lee poses many of these questions, and it’s probably to her credit that where the evidence is insufficient, she has too much tact to speculate about answers. In the end, her best sources are Fitzgerald’s novels, biographies, and essays; Lee’s continual recourse to them, and her sensitive, detailed descriptions, have the effect of suggesting that Fitzgerald may actually have been that chimerical beast: the writer who can only be approached through her works.

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’s most recent book is Necessary Errors, a novel (Penguin).

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