‘So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald’ ****

Penelope Fitzgerald has been one of my favourite authors since I discovered her and read three of her novels in quick succession in 2011. This collection of her letters, So I Have Thought of You, had been on my wishlist for an age before I picked up a copy from my local library. It has been described as ‘an unparalleled record of the life of this greatly admired writer’, which ‘give now the same pleasure they gave to those who first opened them’, and I cannot agree more.

So I Have Thought of You has been edited by Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley, and also features a preface by A.S. Byatt. Byatt worked with Fitzgerald during the 1960s, at Westminster Tutors in London, which prepared students for the Oxbridge examinations. Byatt admits: ‘I didn’t know her very well. She was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well.’ She describes Fitzgerald as ‘vague and self-effacing’ and ‘exacting’, and writes that her novels are ‘works of art’.

In Dooley’s own thorough introduction to the volume, he comments: ‘In letters she could say all she wanted to say, and couldn’t quite face to face. She did so in a way that was truthful, witty and persuasive, but above all focused on the person she was writing to. She intended to be entertaining, to offer consolation or to celebrate. She is vividly alive in these letters… Though she writes eloquently, she is unselfconscious and unguarded.’ He makes clear that this book is as comprehensive as was possible, but that Fitzgerald’s ‘fame came so late in life that there was no reason for anyone to keep her letters’. He also lets us know that many of Fitzgerald’s correspondents proved difficult to trace. There is ‘therefore a hole in the middle of this collection’, which omits large parts of her career, marriage, and children: ‘The years when, as Cervantes said to explain his own long silence, she was living her life: the years before she began to write.’ Fitzgerald’s output must have been astonishing, given that with all of these omissions, the collection is over 500 pages long!

The collection is split into two sections – ‘Family and Friends’, and ‘Writing’. Both of these are then organised by recipient. The letters featured begin in 1939, and stretch almost to Fitzgerald’s death in April 2000. Much of the correspondence is addressed to her daughters, Tina and Maria. Some of the letters fit neatly upon the back of a postcard, and others are far more lengthy. She writes about her friends and acquaintances, of writers she knows, a little of politics and domestic issues, and her own writing. She also gently chastises herself – and others – when she feels it is necessary. These letters are filled with humour, which is often rather dark and deprecating.

Of particular interest to me were the letters penned during the Second World War, when Fitzgerald was living in London. In September 1940, she tells her friend Hugh: ‘We have had a large oil-canister bomb which came through my bedroom window, so that I have a twisted piece of metal as a souvenir, but I was not there at the time and so although the window in the flat collapsed I did not.’ There are other, quite startling, occurrences which she recounts, too.

The whole is a delight to read, although I must admit that I preferred the section with warm letters penned to her family and friends, to those written to more professional contacts. Reading firsthand of the ways in which publishing changed over her lifetime, though, is nothing short of fascinating. These correspondences are, as one might expect, rather shorter than those to most of her family members and friends, but she writes to many people who work in a great deal of different roles – editors, publishers, other authors, researchers, those whom she called upon for various assistance, fellow members of the William Morris society, and even a letter to a fan who asked a question about The Gate of Angels.

Throughout, Fitzgerald is witty and intelligent. She captures so many amusing moments, and candidly mentions the many faux pas which she makes. In April 1965, she writes the following to her daughter Tina, who is on a French exchange: ‘I think you are facing up very bravely to the horrors of staying in a large French family – so much more efficiently than I did for instance – I was always in tears and then I got hungry in the middle of the night and went and got some cold potatoes out of the kitchen and the Italian cook was accused of stealing them.’

So I Have Thought of You does give much more of an understanding of what Fitzgerald was like, and how she lived; what mattered to her, and what did not. There are so many glimpses of her wonderful personality; for instance, she tells Tina in 1997: ‘The Guardian rang me up (they never ring me up usually) to ask for Five Wishes for the World for 1998. I couldn’t think of anything, except to abolish off-road motoring, and have those little packets of salt in crisps again. Of course they meant serious thoughts about world affairs, but the truth is, my horizons are shrinking.’

It is immediately obvious that Fitzgerald placed such care into her correspondence. There are heartfelt moments throughout, and concerns are both voiced and responded to. I very much enjoyed the way in which we only get to see Fitzgerald’s letters, and none of the replies; although some of the people and scenes she mentions are not given a wider context, it gives a more authentic picture of her, somehow.

Fitzgerald was a wonderful woman, and a generous correspondent, with a wicked sense of humour, who was game for anything; in 1995, her daughter purchases a farmhouse in rural Wales, and she looks forward to tramping up the hills ‘when spring comes’. This is a collection which I would highly recommend, but I would encourage everyone to pick up at least a couple of her novels before starting with this tome.

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