Penelope Fitzgerald Was as Brilliant and Mysterious as Her Own Fiction

Before she died, she was hailed as England’s greatest living writer, but she had a hard road getting there—at one point she even lived on a freezing, leaky barge.

Jillian Edelstein/ Camera Press/ Redux

“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching,” says the epigraph of Hermione Lee’s biography of the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald. The line is one of Fitzgerald’s: she attributes it to the German Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis in her last novel, The Blue Flower, which re-imagines his early life. But Hermione Lee—an Oxford professor of English, who has also written biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton—thought it was a “very telling and moving remark” about biography in general: “You think you know why you are doing it and you think you know roughly what the person is like, but as you embark on the story you find more mysteries,” she said when I spoke to her on the phone. The reservation is particularly relevant in the case of Penelope Fitzgerald, who did her best to confound speculation about herself: as Professor Lee writes in Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, “There are many things she did not want anyone to know about her.”

The mysteries are partly a consequence of a career that did not conform to expectations—least of all her own. She was born into a literary family, the daughter of one of four famously gifted and eccentric brothers called Knox, who were the subject of her second biography, and she had literary ambitions herself: as a clever, popular student at Oxford in the ’30s, she said, “We didn’t feel the need to study modern literature” because “we were going to write it.” Yet she did not publish her first book until she was nearly 60, and the years between were not easy. She got married in 1942 to a man she described as an “Irish soldier,” but Desmond Fitzgerald was profoundly damaged by his wartime experiences in North Africa and Italy: “He came back a different person,” Lee writes. “He had seen appalling things and lost many men; he had killed a large number of people. He would wake up in the night, screaming.”

To begin with, the Fitzgeralds seemed to prosper: Desmond resumed his career as a barrister, and they moved to Hampstead, the North London suburb where Penelope had grown up. It was known as a village for “writers, musicians, artists, psychoanalysts, and cultured refugees,” and the Fitzgeralds seemed to fit in well: Penelope had spent the war years working as a script writer and producer at the BBC, and Desmond had written a History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War, which Professor Lee describes as a “remarkably vivid, personal, and dramatic for a regimental history.” The “handsome, charming lawyer/war hero and his brilliant literary wife” edited a magazine called World Review, which published writers such as J.D. Salinger, Albert Camus, and Norman Mailer. Yet they were living beyond their means, and in 1957, they abandoned their five-story Queen Anne house with rent unpaid, and moved to Southwold.

The disintegration of their family life would supply Penelope Fitzgerald with the material for her second novel, The Bookshop, which recasts Southwold as Hardborough, a Suffolk seaside town whose inhabitants reject and expel a woman called Florence Green who attempts to open a bookshop. The Fitzgeralds were forced to leave Southwold in equally chastening circumstances: by 1960, Desmond was drinking heavily, and earning very little, and again, they found themselves unable to pay the rent.

When they moved back to London, the only accommodation they could afford was a freezing, leaky barge on the Thames. They had become drifters in the most literal sense, “creatures neither of firm land nor water,” as Fitzgerald wrote in Offshore, her third novel, which described the precarious lives of a “ramshackle assembly” of barge-dwellers, like the ones she had lived with. She had started teaching when they moved back to London, and when Desmond was convicted of forging checks and disbarred from legal practice, she was required to support the family largely on her own.

Their “rough, harassed, scavenging life” on the river ended in 1963, when the boat sank, and they moved to a council estate in Clapham. “A profile of Penelope Fitzgerald in these years might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband … her early ambitions to be a writer catastrophically thwarted, her life obscure,” writes Hermione Lee. “This was not, in fact, the whole story—or at least was only the bleakest version of the story. Something else was bubbling under the surface, all this time.”

Her first book—a biography of the Victorian artist, Edward Burnes-Jones—was published in 1975. It was followed two years later by The Knox Brothers, her biography of her father and three uncles, and a comic thriller called The Golden Child, which she said she wrote “to amuse [her] husband when he was ill” (Desmond died in 1976). The Bookshop, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1978, and Offshore, which won it in 1980, were followed by two more short novels that made use of her own experiences—Human Voices returned to the wartime BBC, and At Freddie’s was set in a drama school like one where she had taught.

Reaction to the decision to award the 1979 Booker Prize to Offshore was muted and patronizing: “Mrs. Fitzgerald is that wonderfully dotty and endearing sort of lady other people always seem to have as a favorite aunt,” said one report. Hermione Lee says she saw the role as “useful camoflage,” and played up to it, saying that she intended to buy an iron and a typewriter with the prize money. Those who knew her best were not deceived: “As sharp as a knife is old Penelope—and goes to great lengths to pretend not to be,” said the novelist Penelope Lively.

Her evolution as a writer was not yet over: her 1984 biography of the Victorian poet Charlotte Mew was, according to Lee, the “hinged door, between what, in another writer, you might call ‘early’ and ‘late’ work.” Charlotte Mew & Her Friends was her last biography: afterwards, she combined her story-telling skills and research techniques in a series of spare, lucid, historical novels on which her reputation largely rests. She evoked Italy in the ’50s in Innocence, Moscow in 1913 in The Beginning of Spring, and late 18th century Germany in The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998, two years before she died.

By then, she was being called “the finest British writer alive.” “I rate her very, very highly,” says Hermione Lee. “I think her economy and spareness is quite breathtaking. I find her very moving, and I set her beside someone like Turgenev—I think she is as moving and as educational, in terms of how she makes you think about life.”

Lee met Fitzgerald several times during the ’80s, at literary festivals and prize givings, and she interviewed her in the flat at her daughter’s house where she spent her final years. At the time, she did not know that she would write her biography: she regrets “not having paid closer attention to everything she said,” though she recognizes that no degree of curiosity would entirely overcome Fitzgerald’s “reticence, evasiveness and secrecy.” Ultimately, she was content to let some mysteries remain: “By the end, I felt I had answered quite a lot of things, and found out quite a lot of things, but there are also things I will never know—and I like that.” Her biography does Penelope Fitzgerald a double service: it preserves the ambiguities of a complicated and sometimes unhappy life, and sends us back to the novels with new enthusiasm.