Just towards the end of Penelope Fitzgerald’s brilliant new novel, the reader is treated to a ghost-story, told in the manner of M R James. It is the harrowing tale of an 1870s archaeological dig in a field near Cambridge, on the site of an ancient nunnery dedicated to St Salome (‘the Virgin Mary’s midwife’). This site – now resembling a double-row of piggeries – appears, at first glance, unremarkable, but it nevertheless has a nasty effect on one of the academics, who starts to relive the fate of a 15th-century commissioner sent to evict the nuns. ‘In, in, in. Under, under, under,’ he hears women intone repeatedly (when there is, of course, nobody there). After he experiences a highly traumatic encounter with a hole in a wall (which in later life he would never discuss), we learn that in the course of excavation, the skeleton of the 15th- century commissioner was duly found. ‘It appeared to have been crushed and rolled up and then stretched or elongated.’ The body had been inserted, it seems, inch by inch into a culvert. And it had probably still been alive at the time.
Like genuine M R James stories, Fitzgerald’s pastiche daintily sets all your nerves individually on end, and then knocks them down like dominoes, so that a wave of panic sweeps up your back to the top of your head. The fact that the horror story sits comfortably in a novel ostensibly dealing with more mundane matters – young scientist meets ex-nurse in 1912 Cambridge and falls in love – is an indication to anyone that this is a novel about the power of the unconscious mind, and the knowledge that goes deeper than response to observable fact. What is so extraordinary about The Gate of Angels is that (again like M R James) Fitzgerald writes in such a way that she seems actually to engage the reader’s own unconscious mind. Everything in this novel is superbly suggestive of something else.
The Gate of Angels is largely about the dangerous confusions that arise when emotional truth meets intellectual sophistry. What should you believe: what you feel? what you see? or what you know for a fact? Fred Fairly is a junior fellow of St Angelicus College (known as Angels), whose life is much taken up by such questions. Can you believe in the soul, when you can’t see it? Should you believe in atoms, when you can’t see them, either? Once you can describe something, explain it, is it rendered ‘ordinary’? It was out of such an aridly empirical Cambridge that M R James wrote his stories, in which the subtext is written in invisible rune-type letters an inch high: ‘The scary thing is, you see, that knowing all about something doesn’t stop it having power over you.’
Into Fred’s life comes Daisy Saunders, a 20-year-old Londoner who might (given the period setting) qualify as a representative of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Life Force’. She is young, strong, straightforward, generous, and – refreshingly – she knows for a fact that right and wrong are absolutes: ‘They don’t change; it’s what they refer to that changes.’ She can always be relied upon to see the heart of the matter: at the Blackfriars Hospital where she is training to be a nurse, a patient goes on hunger strike because news of his attempted suicide hasn’t appeared in the press. Bypassing the hospital’s procedures and regulations, she simply seeks out an editor, in the hope that he will print the story – a breach of confidentiality for which she loses her job, and sets her on the road to ruin (though Fortune intervenes).
‘Fairly’ is a well-chosen name for Fred. He wants to believe things absolutely, yet never discovers a sine qua non that permits him to do so. ‘You must always tell me the truth,’ he says to Daisy, ‘I’m lost if I can’t depend on you.’ But in the world of this book, truth is divorced from certainty in all manner of ways: everything is conditional, provisional, requiring an access of faith to bridge the gap between doubt and belief. The college of St Angelicus, we discover, was founded by Pope Benedict XIII, who was later dethroned; thus, to believe in its status, you have to believe that all the proceedings of the Catholic Church since 1396 have been made on false authority. Pope Benedict never accepted his deposition, and his legendary obstinacy has descended to the college, whose Spanish motto is ‘I have not changed my mind’, and whose resistance to modern thought is nicely summed up by its present Master – a blind, monk-like figure, for whom the world has shrunk to the size of Angels’ tiny quad.
Dwelling like this on the novel’s symbolism may give the wrong impression, however. Fitzgerald’s other notable gifts – for witty dialogue, stylish characterization, period detail, and freshness of narrative – all keep her readers on their toes, enjoying every minute, and learning not to ignore a single word. When Fred, for example, is offered his academic post (a provisional one, of course), Fitzgerald explains: ‘There was a vacancy in the college, not through death, but through a lecturer in Propellent Explosives being unexpectedly recalled to Germany.’ If you miss the joke, you also miss the much more serious point that highly-trained observers of fact are sometimes not aware of what is going on directly under their own noses.
But what of the cruet-set given to Daisy when she leaves Blackfriars Hospital? To tell you the truth, I have spent the whole review up to this point trying not to mention it. Flicking idly through my Book of Saints while reading The Gate of Angels, I found the entry for St Mary Salome (presumably the saint to whom the nunnery in the ghost-story was dedicated). The entry says that St Mary Salome was one of the ‘three Marys’ who witnessed the death and resurrection, and who ministered to Christ during his public life. ‘She is depicted,’ says my book, ‘carrying a pot of ointment, or a pair of cruets’. This deeply buried reference seems to me terribly impressive: on the other hand we have Daisy, a real nurse, carrying (so it happens) a pair of cruets; and on the other we have the Convent of St Salome, about which everything derives from false authority – from the saint herself, whose biography is only sketchily represented in the Gospels (no mention of cruets in St Mark), to the nunnery (a figment of an antiquary’s fervid imagination).
As I said, the reference is deeply buried – yet somehow it pushes its way to the surface. The M R James figure says at one point: ‘As to being buried alive, so many things walk when they seem buried safely enough.’ But what to make of it? I can only return to my earlier assertion (bound directly for Pseuds Corner, I shouldn’t be surprised) that this novel appeals to its reader in a powerfully sub-conscious kind of way. Take the ‘gate’ of the title. A symbol for the closed-in, suffocated life of the college, it has been closed since the Middle Ages, opening only twice in mysterious circumstances. The dons, of course, are proud of its record as a barrier against the world – especially against the world of women, of sex and cruet-sets. But at the end of the novel – when it opens, again mysteriously, for a third time – it is Daisy who walks through it, shattering the male-only enclave, while at the same time letting in some unaccustomed air and noise. And I can only say that the sense of spiritual release brought on by this event is – truly – absolutely marvellous.