4

Books for Springtime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for spring, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with hot cross buns, birdsong, and long walks in the countryside

1. The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley

‘Spring marks the genesis of nature’s year. As Earth’s northern hemisphere tilts ever more towards the life-giving sun, the icy, dark days of winter gradually yield to the new season’s intensifying light and warmth. Nature responds… For our flora and fauna, for the very land itself, this is the time of rebirth and rejuvenation – although, as Jim Crumley attests, spring in the Northlands is no Wordsworthian idyll. Climate chaos and its attendant unpredictable weather brings high drama to the lives of the animals he observes – the badgers, seals and foxes, the seabirds and the raptors. But there is also a wild, elemental beauty to the highlands and islands, a sense of nature in animation during this, the most transformative of seasons. Jim chronicles it all: the wonder, the tumult, the spectacle of spring.’

2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

‘Penelope Lively has always been a keen gardener. This book is partly a memoir of her own life in gardens: the large garden at home in Cairo where she spent most of her childhood, her grandmother’s garden in a sloping Somerset field, then two successive Oxfordshire gardens of her own, and the smaller urban garden in the North London home she lives in today. It is also a wise, engaging and far-ranging exploration of gardens in literature, from Paradise Lost to Alice in Wonderland, and of writers and their gardens, from Virginia Woolf to Philip Larkin.’

5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

‘”Now, my dears,” said old Mrs Rabbit one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” But what does Peter Rabbit do? Beatrix Potter’s delightful ‘Tale of Peter Rabbit’ tells the story.’

6. Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison

‘It is a time of awakening. In our ­fields, hedgerows and woodlands, our beaches, cities and parks, an almost imperceptible shift soon becomes a riot of sound and colour: winter ends, and life surges forth once more. Whether in town or country, we all share in this natural rhythm, in the joy and anticipation of the changing year. In prose and poetry both old and new, Spring mirrors the unfolding of the season, inviting us to see what’s around us with new eyes. Featuring original writing by Rob Cowen, Miriam Darlington and Stephen Moss, classic extracts from the work of George Orwell, Clare Leighton and H. E. Bates, and fresh new voices from across the UK, this is an original and inspiring collection of nature writing that brings the British springtime to life in all its vivid glory.’

7. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Offshore’, ‘The Blue Flower’ and ‘Innocence’ comes this Booker Prize-shortlisted tale of a troubled Moscow printworks. Frank Reid had been born and brought up in Moscow. His father had emigrated there in the 1870s and started a print-works which, by 1913, had shrunk from what it was when Frank inherited it. In that same year, to add to his troubles, Frank’s wife Nellie caught the train back home to England, without explanation. How is a reasonable man like Frank to cope? How should he keep his house running? Should he consult the Anglican chaplain’s wife? Should he listen to the Tolstoyan advice of his chief book-keeper? How do people live together, and what happens when, sometimes, they don’t?’

8. Spring Morning by Frances Darwin Cornford (my own review)

‘I love discovering new poets, and came across this title at the back of Charlotte Mew’s Saturday Market. Published in 1918, this is a relatively short collection, made up of just 17 poems. It is complete with charming woodcuts. Whilst I found a couple of these poems quite odd, Cornford’s nature writing throughout is lovely.

I have chosen to copy out the entirety of ‘Autumn Morning at Cambridge’, which made me feel rather homesick for my home city:

I ran out in the morning, when the air was clean and new,
And all the grass was glittering, and grey with autumn dew.
I ran out to the apple tree and pulled an apple down,
And all the bells were ringing in the old grey town.

Down in the town, off the bridges and the grass
They are sweeping up the leaves to let the people pass,
Sweeping up the old leaves, golden-reds and browns,
While the men go to lectures with the wind in their gowns.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent summer, autumn, and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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‘Innocence’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

I sadly only have a couple of the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels left to read, and a few of her non-fiction books.  I purchased Innocence (1986) several months ago, but chose to leave it on my to-read shelf as a special treat to snuggle down with, rather than immediately rushing into it and then having to wait an age to find her outstanding titles.  I was moderately disappointed by Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning Offshore, but have very much enjoyed the rest of her books to date.

9780544359468A.S. Byatt calls Innocence ‘exquisite’, and The Guardian deems it ‘Delightful… a bubbling and beautiful book.’  The novel begins in 1955 in Florence, and follows the once-moneyed Ridolfi family who, ‘like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days.’  The character whom Fitzgerald has placed most focus upon is the eighteen-year-old Ridolfi daughter, Chiara.  Her vitality is ‘matched by innocence – a dangerous combination.’

Chiara has fallen head-over-heels for Salvatore Rossi, ‘a young doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one.’  Chiara, frustrated by her own progress in the matter, has to ask one of her English friends from the convent school which she attends to help her set them up.  ‘And so,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘ensues a comedy of manners, in which lovers, with the best of intentions and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another astonishingly miserable…’.  Indeed, the novel feels Shakespearean in its scope, and in the witty asides made at times.

Fitzgerald makes us aware of Chiara’s limitations when at home: ‘Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence.  Her American mother’s family had once been Scottish, her looks were northern, her delicate high colouring was suited not to a fierce climate but to the mild damp and mist of the north.  Only the lids of her blue eyes were Florentine, round and languid…  her half eager, half diffident approach to whatever came along hadn’t the ruthlessness of the ancient money-making city which in its former days had questioned the bills of the world’s greatest artists…’.  In this manner, Fitzgerald intertwines the history of the Ridolfi family, as well as the Florentine people, with the present-day stories of Chiara and her father, Giancarlo.

Fitzgerald is highly informed about Italian culture, and the differences between separate regions; this knowledge translates marvellously to the page, and makes each setting all the more vivid.  There is also a focus upon the minutiae of life, and the use of colour and sense are particularly striking throughout.  Fabric comes in shades of ‘tender grey’, the sky is a ‘darkish olive-green’, and the air is ‘damp and caressing’.   Of the Ricordanza, the secluded house in which the Ridolfis live, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The ground floor was used for storage and was lit only by two round windows.  This raising up of the front door made the whole house look unwelcoming and inaccessible.  The lemon trees in their terracotta jars, each balanced on an empty one turned upside down, dispensed their bitter green smell: their dark green leaves were startlingly fresh against the blank, bleached, cracked and faded house.’

As with her other novels, I found Innocence both shrewd and immersive.  Fitzgerald’s writing is as finely crafted as it is highly distinctive; there is a playful sharpness to it.  Full of wisdom, humour, and measured reasoning, Innocence is a wonderfully mesmeric read.

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2

2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Knox Brothers’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

A.S. Byatt calls The Knox Brothers ‘A masterpiece… a portrait of English intelligence, eccentricity and wisdom’.  In this biography, newly reissued by 4th Estate with a striking and rather lovely cover, author Penelope Fitzgerald presents a portrait of her father and his brothers.  The book was first published in 1977, and was one of Fitzgerald’s earliest works.  Her father, Edmund Knox – or Evoe, as he was known by all – was ‘a brilliant journalist, humanist and Fleet Street legend’, two of his brothers, Wilfred and Ronald, were both priests, and the youngest, Dillwyn, ‘possibly the most enigmatic brother’, was ‘a Greek scholar, mathematical genius and notoriously bad driver’.

‘The Knox Brothers’ by Penelope Fitzgerald (4th Estate)

The interesting preface to this edition has been penned by Hermione Lee, whose most recent book is a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald herself.  The introduction has been written by Richard Holmes, who states that ‘As a Knox, she [Penelope Fitzgerald] was descended from one of the great intellectual, Anglo-Catholic clans of late Victorian England’.  He goes on to describe that The Knox Brothers is Fitzgerald’s ‘remarkable tribute to this family inheritance.  It is a strikingly original group biography’.  He sets out the main details of the lives of the Knox brothers, and the things which they have come to be remembered for.

Fitzgerald writes in her own introduction to the volume that: ‘In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers.  All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any statement pass without question’.  She describes the way in which she has ‘tried to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved’.

The Knox brothers, ‘descended from land settlers in Ulster’, were born between 1881 and 1888, and spent their formative years in the Edwardian era.  Their family tree, which stretches back for several generations, has been included, along with a concise bibliography and rather large index.  The book has been split into nine sections, ranging from ‘Beginnings’ to ‘Endings’.  The brothers were brought up in an Evangelical household along with their two sisters, Ethel and Winifred (later to become the novelist Winifred Peck).  Fitzgerald talks of the way in which the men in question ‘gave their working lives to journalism, cryptography, classical scholarship, the Anglican Church, [and] the Catholic Church’.

Fitzgerald’s father was the favourite child of the family: ‘Among a courageous group, he was the most daring’.  Each and every one of the boys, from their early days, is described as clever and remarkable – Dillwyn, for example, ‘did not have to “do” sums, [as] he “saw” them’.  Fitzgerald tells of their schooling and scholarships in distant towns, describing the way in which ‘In this family which breathed the air of scholarship, but had constant difficulty in making ends meet, education was the way to the future’.

Indeed, the education of the boys allowed them to advance rather far in their chosen careers.  Evoe, for example, worked at iconic satirical magazine Punch, during what Richard Holmes states was ‘a perilous time (1932-1948) when the magazine was still a great institution of national identity’.  It is fair to say that Fitzgerald’s family made important contributions to British history.  Her father fought in the First World War and survived the Battle of Passchendaele, and Uncle Dillwyn, who ‘appeared to live entirely on black coffee and chocolate’ worked upon the Enigma Code, which was instrumental in ending the Second World War.  Her family are justly remembered kindly.  Wilfred worked as a chaplain at the University of Cambridge, and upon his death, ‘so many students wanted to get into Pembroke Chapel for the memorial service that there had to be a ballot for tickets.  It was hard to envisage life in college without their tattered chaplain’.

Many anecdotes have been included throughout, and a lot of these are amusing and heartwarming.  When staying in a different house for the night and encountering electric light within a dwelling for the first time, Wilfred and Ronald ‘sat in their nightgowns, taking strict turns, as they always did, to turn it [the light] on and off, and nobody told them to stop’.  Wilfred, when he was around fourteen years old, went on to collect ‘Bits of Old Churches’.  ‘These’, says Fitzgerald, ‘were souvenirs, stones and chippings which must genuinely have fallen off and been honestly picked up, otherwise they did not “count”, though Eddie and Dilly sometimes assisted with a good hard blow at the church wall which Wilfred never suspected’.  Quotes and recollections have also been taken into account in each chapter, and most of these hail from the letters or memories of other family members.  It is clear that Fitzgerald greatly respects her ancestors, but at no time is she overly gushing or biased about them.  She tells of their stories with both wit and warmth.

Evoe Knox (date unknown)

A lot of the details in The Knox Brothers are recounted in Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.  The entirety of the book is, of course, well written and so interesting, but this reviewer would suggest that a long period of time is left between reading both of the aforementioned books, as they do overlap rather a lot.  In The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald has presented a very well considered portrait of a most intriguing family, each and every one of whom deserve to be remembered.

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One From the Archive: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee ****

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’.

Penelope Fitzgerald (The Telegraph)

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.

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Five Great… Novels (E-F)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
“The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking? Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, ‘The Blue Flower’ is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.”

2. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
“James Frey wakes up on a plane, with no memory of the preceding two weeks. His face is cut and his body is covered with bruises. He has no wallet and no idea of his destination. He has abused alcohol and every drug he can lay his hands on for a decade – and he is aged only twenty-three. What happens next is one of the most powerful and extreme stories ever told. His family takes him to a rehabilitation centre. And James Frey starts his perilous journey back to the world of the drug and alcohol-free living. His lack of self-pity is unflinching and searing. A Million Little Pieces is a dazzling account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed. It is also the introduction of a bold and talented literary voice.”

3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
“George Eliot’s most ambitious novel is a masterly evocation of diverse lives and changing fortunes in a provincial English community prior to the Reform Bill of 1832. Peopling its landscape are Dorothea Brooke, a young idealist whose search for intellectual fulfilment leads her into a disastrous marriage to the pedantic scholar Casaubon; the charming but tactless Dr Lydgate, whose marriage to the spendthrift beauty Rosamund and pioneering medical methods threaten to undermine his career; passionate, idealistic and penniless artist Will Ladislaw; and the religious hypocrite Bulstrode, hiding scandalous crimes from his past. As their stories interweave, George Eliot creates a richly nuanced and moving drama.”

4. The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
“”The Little Shadows” tells the story of three sisters making their way in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. Setting off to make their fortune as a singing act after the untimely death of their father, the girls, Aurora, Clover and Bella, are overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama. The girls begin with little besides youth and hope but evolve into artists as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters – charming charlatans, unpredictable eccentrics, and some who seem ordinary but have magical gifts. Marina Endicott lures us onto the brightly lit stage and into the little shadows that lurk behind the curtain, and reveals how the art of vaudeville – In all its variety, madness, melodrama, hilarity and sorrow – echoes the art of life itself.”

5. Maurice by E.M. Forster
“Maurice Hall is a young man who grows up confident in his privileged status and well aware of his role in society. Modest and generally conformist, he nevertheless finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening. A tale of passion, bravery and defiance, this intensely personal novel was completed in 1914 but remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1970. Compellingly honest and beautifully written, it offers a powerful condemnation of the repressive attitudes of British society, and is at once a moving love story and an intimate tale of one man’s erotic and political self-discovery.”

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0

‘The Knox Brothers’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

A.S. Byatt calls The Knox Brothers ‘A masterpiece… a portrait of English intelligence, eccentricity and wisdom’.  In this biography, newly reissued by 4th Estate with a striking and rather lovely cover, author Penelope Fitzgerald presents a portrait of her father and his brothers.  The book was first published in 1977, and was one of Fitzgerald’s earliest works.  Her father, Edmund Knox – or Evoe, as he was known by all – was ‘a brilliant journalist, humanist and Fleet Street legend’, two of his brothers, Wilfred and Ronald, were both priests, and the youngest, Dillwyn, ‘possibly the most enigmatic brother’, was ‘a Greek scholar, mathematical genius and notoriously bad driver’.

‘The Knox Brothers’ by Penelope Fitzgerald (4th Estate)

The interesting preface to this edition has been penned by Hermione Lee, whose most recent book is a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald herself.  The introduction has been written by Richard Holmes, who states that ‘As a Knox, she [Penelope Fitzgerald] was descended from one of the great intellectual, Anglo-Catholic clans of late Victorian England’.  He goes on to describe that The Knox Brothers is Fitzgerald’s ‘remarkable tribute to this family inheritance.  It is a strikingly original group biography’.  He sets out the main details of the lives of the Knox brothers, and the things which they have come to be remembered for.

Fitzgerald writes in her own introduction to the volume that: ‘In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers.  All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any statement pass without question’.  She describes the way in which she has ‘tried to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved’.

The Knox brothers, ‘descended from land settlers in Ulster’, were born between 1881 and 1888, and spent their formative years in the Edwardian era.  Their family tree, which stretches back for several generations, has been included, along with a concise bibliography and rather large index.  The book has been split into nine sections, ranging from ‘Beginnings’ to ‘Endings’.  The brothers were brought up in an Evangelical household along with their two sisters, Ethel and Winifred (later to become the novelist Winifred Peck).  Fitzgerald talks of the way in which the men in question ‘gave their working lives to journalism, cryptography, classical scholarship, the Anglican Church, [and] the Catholic Church’.

Fitzgerald’s father was the favourite child of the family: ‘Among a courageous group, he was the most daring’.  Each and every one of the boys, from their early days, is described as clever and remarkable – Dillwyn, for example, ‘did not have to “do” sums, [as] he “saw” them’.  Fitzgerald tells of their schooling and scholarships in distant towns, describing the way in which ‘In this family which breathed the air of scholarship, but had constant difficulty in making ends meet, education was the way to the future’.

Indeed, the education of the boys allowed them to advance rather far in their chosen careers.  Evoe, for example, worked at iconic satirical magazine Punch, during what Richard Holmes states was ‘a perilous time (1932-1948) when the magazine was still a great institution of national identity’.  It is fair to say that Fitzgerald’s family made important contributions to British history.  Her father fought in the First World War and survived the Battle of Passchendaele, and Uncle Dillwyn, who ‘appeared to live entirely on black coffee and chocolate’ worked upon the Enigma Code, which was instrumental in ending the Second World War.  Her family are justly remembered kindly.  Wilfred worked as a chaplain at the University of Cambridge, and upon his death, ‘so many students wanted to get into Pembroke Chapel for the memorial service that there had to be a ballot for tickets.  It was hard to envisage life in college without their tattered chaplain’.

Many anecdotes have been included throughout, and a lot of these are amusing and heartwarming.  When staying in a different house for the night and encountering electric light within a dwelling for the first time, Wilfred and Ronald ‘sat in their nightgowns, taking strict turns, as they always did, to turn it [the light] on and off, and nobody told them to stop’.  Wilfred, when he was around fourteen years old, went on to collect ‘Bits of Old Churches’.  ‘These’, says Fitzgerald, ‘were souvenirs, stones and chippings which must genuinely have fallen off and been honestly picked up, otherwise they did not “count”, though Eddie and Dilly sometimes assisted with a good hard blow at the church wall which Wilfred never suspected’.  Quotes and recollections have also been taken into account in each chapter, and most of these hail from the letters or memories of other family members.  It is clear that Fitzgerald greatly respects her ancestors, but at no time is she overly gushing or biased about them.  She tells of their stories with both wit and warmth.

Evoe Knox (date unknown)

A lot of the details in The Knox Brothers are recounted in Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.  The entirety of the book is, of course, well written and so interesting, but this reviewer would suggest that a long period of time is left between reading both of the aforementioned books, as they do overlap rather a lot.  In The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald has presented a very well considered portrait of a most intriguing family, each and every one of whom deserve to be remembered.

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‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee ****

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’.

Penelope Fitzgerald (The Telegraph)

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.