Television coverage of the Booker Prize has rarely been distinguished or insightful. In fact, more often than not, it’s been marked by embarrassing behaviour of some kind or other by a gauche, misinformed presenter or a tired and emotional agent or publisher. Nonetheless, the TV presentation of 1979’s proceedings must rate as an all-time low. That year a heavyweight win for V S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River had been widely predicted, but in the event the prize was awarded to Penelope Fitzgerald for her third novel, Offshore.
The subsequent discussion on the Book Programme was, as Hermione Lee says in her life of Fitzgerald, ‘breathtakingly condescending’, as the interviewer, Robert Robinson, together with his assorted guests, competed to pour scorn on the winner sitting in the studio alongside them, looking like she’d been hit hard over the head. Full of self-congratulatory candour, Susan Hill launched in at the start by admitting that although it was an appalling thing to say – and she stressed that she didn’t want ‘to discomfort’ Fitzgerald – she wouldn’t have chosen her book as the winner. Off air, as Fitzgerald later wrote to the novelist Francis King, Robinson was in a bad temper and complaining to his producer, ‘who are these people, you promised me they were going to be the losers.’
By that time, in her early sixties, Penelope Fitzgerald was long accustomed to humiliation and, far worse, to catastrophe. Indeed, her late flowering as a novelist of extraordinary power and originality was founded in part on her ability to translate into writing her empathy for life’s losers. Failure was a major theme of her life and her work. ‘I am drawn’, she said, ‘to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.’
Fitzgerald’s early life had seemed full of possibilities. Her father, Edmund (‘Evoe’), editor of Punch from 1932 to 1949, was one of a remarkable quartet of siblings that included the priest and theologian Ronald and the classicist and code breaker Dillwyn, memorialised by Fitzgerald in The Knox Brothers, a masterpiece of collective biography and her second non-fiction book. This paternal inheritance may have been an ambivalent one, though. Penelope was fiercely proud of her father and her uncles, but their record of achievement also presented a somewhat inimitable and awe-inspiring example. Knoxes, as became apparent in Penelope’s relationship with her son, Valpy, had to be winners (significantly, perhaps, she only started to write her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones, after her father’s death in 1971, by which time she was already 55). Despite the premature death of her mother just before she went up to Somerville, Penelope earned a congratulatory first in English in 1938, after an Oxford career that marked her out as one of the outstanding undergraduates of her time. She joined the wartime BBC – an experience she recreated with memorable comic results in her fourth novel, Human Voices – and in 1941 she married. Her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, was a war hero, usually described as ‘dashing’; he was awarded the MC for fighting with the Irish Guards in North Africa, in a battle in which he was the only surviving officer and which led ultimately to the Allies’ successful capture of Tunis. The couple had Valpy and two daughters.
However, things soon started to go badly wrong. Desmond, employed as a barrister but drinking heavily, was increasingly unable to provide for his family. It fell to Penelope to scrape together a living for them, working in a Suffolk bookshop and later teaching in London tutorial colleges. In 1962, Desmond was found guilty of stealing from his chambers. The case came to court and he was disbarred and expelled from the Middle Temple. For the rest of his working life he would be employed as a travel agent’s clerk. Facing penury, the Fitzgeralds were soon made homeless as well. The decrepit barge, moored at Chelsea, on which the family lived sank one summer evening in 1963, with the loss of most of their possessions. Hermione Lee pictures Fitzgerald shortly afterwards as ‘a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate … with a disgraced alcoholic husband’.
For her biographies, like her novels, Fitzgerald collected a vast amount of material, but she distilled it, writing elliptically and with great economy of style. The contrast with Lee, as her authorised biographer, could scarcely be greater. The early sections of Lee’s book droop noticeably under their weight of superfluous detail, which she persists in including almost as though she was suffering from a nervous tic (Fitzgerald thought biographers were madder than novelists; there should certainly be a better home for all this extraneous material). In the breathless onrush of factual information, there are naturally some mistakes. Winifred Holtby didn’t leave her papers to Somerville, Penelope’s old college, but bequeathed it something far more valuable, a proportion of the royalties from her novel South Riding. Beryl Bainbridge may have been underpaid as a writer by Colin Haycraft at Duckworth – Penelope’s first publisher – but, contrary to what Lee says, Bainbridge saw her fortunes at the firm rise dramatically with the publication of her two most successful books after Haycraft’s death.
While the salient aspects of Penelope Fitzgerald’s life lie sometimes buried under layers of accumulated research, Lee’s critical voice in her reading of her books is as acute as ever. She rightly views Fitzgerald’s achievement as a novelist as essentially un-English and not to be bracketed with superficially similar contemporaries, particularly in the astonishing, indefinable acts of imaginative recreation that produced two late novels, The Beginning of Spring, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and The Blue Flower, based on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg before he adopted the pen name ‘Novalis’. And in her treatment of Fitzgerald’s life of the poet Charlotte Mew, Lee asks a question that should preoccupy us more often: what made the biographer choose her subject? Mew was famous for a few intense poems. Her life was edged with poverty and blighted by unrequited lesbian passions. She took her own life, her last words, after swallowing disinfectant, being, ‘Don’t keep me, let me go.’ Lee notes that, while rejecting sentimental identification with Mew, Fitzgerald enters sympathetically, and with pity, into a tragic and peculiar life. She claims Mew as one of society’s outsiders, and as ‘an outsider even to herself’.
Penelope Fitzgerald may have seen herself as an outsider, but she lived long enough to receive world acclaim as a great writer. Lee captures not only the asperity in her character, but also her resilience and hard work. Fitzgerald herself once said that her subject was ‘fortitude in the face of the world’s difficulties’, and Hermione Lee’s book makes us see her life as an undiluted expression of precisely that.