Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), says the blurb of Hermione Lee’s new biography, ‘was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms’. Lee adds to this, stating that ‘her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle’. Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novella Offshore in 1979, and I am certain that great swathes of her fans have looked forward to the publication of a book which focuses solely upon her life. The author named Lee as a biographer whom she admired, and so it seems fitting that she was tasked by Fitzgerald’s own family to immortalise their beloved Penelope in such a way.
Fitzgerald first became a published writer at the age of sixty, and did not reach the dizzy heights of fame until she was an octogenarian. She became the author of ‘nine short novels, three biographies, some remarkable stories, many fine essays and reviews, and many letters’. Lee states that throughout her writing, Fitzgerald: ‘wrote about her own life, but kept herself carefully concealed’. Lee has split the biography into eighteen different chapters, which range from ‘Learning to Read’ to ‘Last Words’. The writing style which is used throughout has been stylistically rendered as though to fit a novel, in that it is ultimately pretty, and has clearly been well thought out. In this sense, the wealth of information which has been presented throughout does not seem at all dry, and is not difficult to absorb.
Fitzgerald had rather a sad beginning. She was born in the middle of the First World War, in which her father was ‘shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, [and was] then found in a shell-hole in a pool of blood’, and her maternal grandfather passed away when she was just two years old. At the start of the book – as with most biographies which set out the lives of the ancestors of their subjects – there are rather a lot of people introduced, and it is necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the extensive family tree which has been included at the beginning of the volume. Fitzgerald hails from, says Lee, an ‘exceptional and eccentric clan’, who ‘left a strong mark upon her life and her writing’. In the Knox family, ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something’. Indeed, there are some famous names in her extended family – the author Winifred Peck is an aunt, her father Eddie wrote for Punch, and her stepmother was the daughter of E.H. Shepard, most famous for illustrating the Winnie-the-Pooh tales. Her mother, too, contributed to the English Literature Series, which published ‘editions of annotated, abridged, classic texts’.
Quotes have been included throughout, both from Fitzgerald’s books, and the letters of her family and friends. Lee also paraphrases a lot of Fitzgerald’s work, which gives a real feel for the inspiration she took from her own life and interests, and subsequently fed into her fiction. The entirety is sprinkled with Fitzgerald’s memories – The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where she distinctly remembers an afternoon reading of Walter de la Mare’s poetry (‘he was the man who had written Peacock Pie. That was enough’); of being sent to prep school in Eastbourne, an experience which she hated; being taught at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was given lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; her first job at Punch, writing film reviews; her move to the BBC during the Second World War; becoming married: ‘To Hampstead neighbours, to friends and colleague, they seemed an enviable, talented couple with the world at their feet’; hardships, and her teaching career.
Penelope Fitzgerald is an admirable biography, and one which has evidently been thoroughly researched down to the last detail. Lee excels at her craft, and it is no wonder that the subject of this biography so admired her. Whilst reviewing Lee’s earlier book, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Lee’s book is not only very good, but very necessary’. The same can surely be said here.