The Unknown Penelope Fitzgerald
The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald has long been famous as a “late starter”, a writer whose juvenilia began when she was in her sixties and whose masterpiece, The Blue Flower, appeared when she was seventy-nine. But, as Edmund Gordon reveals this week, her “Cinderella narrative” hides the facts of a flourishing youth as a writer, before marriage, financial difficulties and possibly other problems produced “a suspension of her creativity.”
The discovery of Fitzgerald’s student writing casts a new light on her literary development, Gordon writes. "What now seems clear, but was missing from her own account, is that writing had always been her vocation. In 1939, shortly after leaving Oxford, she contributed two pieces to the TLS (a short article about Nazi censorship entitled “War on Wit,” and a review of Carleton Stanley's Matthew Arnold), and several film reviews to Punch. She was beginning, in her publisher’s phrase, to “embark on her literary career.” Yet it would be almost forty years before her first book appeared; and apart from a handful of essays and one short story, all of them dating from the 1950s, there is no evidence that she wrote anything for publication in the intervening period."
What could account for so long a suspension of her creativity? The distinguished scholar, Hermione Lee, who is writing Fitzgerald’s biography, will no doubt be much concerned with that question; in a piece about Fitzgerald’s annotated books, published in the Guardian on April 3, she observed that “it would be too simple to say that ‘marriage stopped her writing’”. Two pre-teen stories from the 1920s, “The Victoria Line” and “Matilda, Matilda”, were considered by their author for inclusion in an anthology of short fiction just before her death but have since disappeared. It would be fascinating to find them.
A Respectable British Radical
The creative life of Gerrard Winstanley in the English seventeenth century followed precisely the opposite pattern to that of Fitzgerald in the twentieth, a few years of wild literary and political radicalism, sandwiched between two periods of unexceptional business activity selling cloth and grain. In the turbulent years leading to the execution of Charles I in 1649, Winstanley found a voice to match that of Bunyan and became a pioneer of the modern protest song—as well as becoming a Digger of public land on the public behalf, bequeathing, as Michael Braddick describes in a review of OUP's newly published Complete Works, a name and a lesson to socialists who followed later. To men of a certain age, as Braddick concedes, a mid-life crisis on this scale holds its own fascination, but the interpretative question of broadest interest revolves around how to regard Winstanley the author and Digger, against the backdrop of the revolution and of Winstanley’s own life, taken as a whole. In many ways this is a discussion about the place of England’s wild years in a history that is usually taken to have been rather staid.
The Wild Diaries of Mussolini’s Mistress
The best-known image of Mussolini’s mistress, Claretta Petacci, shows her hanging by her feet in front of a garage in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan on the day after she and Il Duce were shot by partisans on Lake Como in April 1945. The diaries of her pursuit and passion for her leader, beginning when she saw him at the wheel of his car on a trip to the seaside in 1932, show aspects of her life by which she might prefer to have been remembered.
Follow him!” she ordered her driver. As Ian Thomson describes in the TLS this week, the cars drew level, and Mussolini pulled over to confront his pursuer. Petacci was twenty; he was forty-nine. As the weeks went by, the daughter of the Pope's personal physician began to court Mussolini in a decorous way, first by sending him notes, then by calling on the telephone. Before long, bouts of “savage, ardent sex” routinely occurred in Mussolini’s headquarters at Palazzo Venezia in Rome. For sixty years Petacci's diaries have been locked away in Italy’s National Archives, becoming only now a contribution to the history both of Fascism and of pillow-talk.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.