‘I recalled closed situations which created their own story out of the twofold need to take refuge and to escape, and which provided their own limitations. Those limitations were also mine,' Penelope Fitzgerald declared in an article in the London Review of Books (Feb. 1980), summing up her literary method neatly. Not for her the convolutions of traditional plot-making or the discursiveness of the novel of ideas. She assembles a manageable cast and places it in a distinctive setting – a bookshop, a barge or the BBC. Among the virtues claimed for her last novel, Offshore (which won the 1979 Booker Prize, to the surprise of many and the annoyance of some) were economy, accuracy of detail, and 'the pace and grip of the story' – the first two just, and the third almost ludicrously wide of the mark. 'Pace and grip' (the old-fashioned term makes us think of the Boy's Own Paper or the novels of John Buchan) her narratives do not have; in fact, it's what she substitutes for these qualities that makes her novels interesting.
All her effort goes into probing deeper into a situation, not developing it; you don't read her books to find out what happens next, rather to get a clearer insight into what is happening at present. Like certain other novelists celebrated for mild eccentricity of approach (Henry Green, Muriel Spark