Cover image for Penelope Fitzgerald : a life
Penelope Fitzgerald : a life
Lee, Hermione, author.
Personal Author:
First United States edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Physical Description:
xvi, 488 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, genealogical table ; 25 cm
English writer "Fitzgerald, born into an accomplished intellectual family, the granddaughter of two bishops, led a life marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop's palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. We see Fitzgerald's very English childhood in the village of Hampstead; her Oxford years, when she was known as the 'blonde bombshell'; her impoverished adulthood as a struggling wife, mother, and schoolteacher, raising a family in difficult circumstances; and the long-delayed start to her literary career"
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Item Holds
PR6056.I86 Z74 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
PR6056.I86 Z74 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A Best Book of the Year: San Francisco Chronicl e, Seattle Times
Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

The acclaimed biographer of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf gives us an intimate portrait of one of the most quietly brilliant novelists of the twentieth century.

Penelope Fitzgerald was a great English writer whose career didn't begin until she was nearly sixty. She would go on to win some of the most coveted awards in literature--the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Now, in an impeccable match of talent between biographer and subject, Hermione Lee, a master biographer and one of Fitzgerald's greatest champions, gives us this remarkable writer's story. Lee's critical expertise is on dazzling display on every page, as it illuminates this extraordinary English life. Fitzgerald, born into an accomplished intellectual family, the granddaughter of two bishops, led a life marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop's palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. We see Fitzgerald's very English childhood in the village of Hampstead; her Oxford years, when she was known as the "blonde bombshell"; her impoverished adulthood as a struggling wife, mother and schoolteacher, raising a family in difficult circumstances; and the long-delayed start to her literary career.

Fitzgerald's early novels draw on her own experiences--working at the BBC in wartime, at a bookshop in Suffolk, at an eccentric stage school in the 1960s--while her later books open out into historical worlds that she, magically, seems to entirely possess: Russia before the Revolution, postwar Italy, Germany in the time of the Romantic writer Novalis. Fitzgerald's novels are short, spare masterpieces, and Hermione Lee unfurls them here as works of genius. Expertly researched, written out of love and admiration for this wonderful author's work, Penelope Fitzgerald is literary biography at its finest--an unforgettable story of lateness, persistence and survival.

Author Notes

Hermione Lee is a biographer, critic, teacher of literature, and president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Among her many works are literary biographies of Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald, which won the James Tait Black Prize and the Plutarch Award for Best Biography. She is also the author of critical books on Elizabeth Bowen and Philip Roth. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was made a CBE in 2003 for services to literature, and a DBE in 2013 for services to literary scholarship. She lives in Oxford and Yorkshire.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Booker Prize-winning novelist Fitzgerald (who died in 2000) once observed, "I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost." In this illuminating biography, critic and scholar Lee (The Novels of Virginia Woolf) shows how Fitzgerald's characters were drawn not just from real life but from her own life. Fitzgerald was born into a remarkably accomplished and well-connected family of clerics and writers: her father was the editor of the humor magazine Punch; an aunt (Winifred Peck) and uncle (Ronald Knox) were well-known authors; and their circle of acquaintances included Evelyn Waugh, Lytton Strachey, A.A. Milne, and other literary celebrities. "Mops" studied at Oxford and wrote radio plays for the BBC during WWII, but lived mostly in the shadow of her accomplished relatives. She got her chance to shine co-editing the cultural magazine World Review with her husband in 1950, but when the magazine folded in 1953, their lives fell apart and the couple and their three children spent years living in poverty aboard decrepit houseboats in London. Fitzgerald began publishing novels in 1977, at age 61, and Lee does an exceptional job of drawing lines of association between the author's life and fiction. She mines details from Fitzgerald's journals and notes to fill in the blanks of her famously self-effacing subject. Her observations have the vitality of Fitzgerald's own reflective prose, and she writes with sympathy and clarity. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Choice Review

Prize-winning author of Edith Wharton (CH, Nov'97, 35-1380), Willa Cather (1990), and Virginia Woolf (CH, Jan'08, 45-2476), Lee (Univ. of Oxford, UK) here gives British writer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) the royal treatment in a work that is as much social history as it is biography. To understand Fitzgerald, Lee suggests, her family's background in Edwardian England has to be thoroughly investigated, for there among churchmen and women's rights advocates, writers and educators, she learned the virtues of understatement that formed the background of her novels and biographies. Fitzgerald is not an easy person to know even when she writes about her family, but Lee does well interpreting the nuances of her subject's narratives. The result is a deeply grounded but sometimes ponderous biography. Fitzgerald, who was highly valued for her brief novels, might have been dismayed at the lengths to which her biographer goes. Still, this magisterial work brings Fitzgerald's world alive and illuminates the sources of her novels, which gradually moved farther afield to encompass Russia before the revolution and the life of the Romantic writer Novalis-a significant accomplishment for a writer who published her first book when she was approaching the age of 60. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. --Carl Rollyson, Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY

Booklist Review

Although, sadly, not as well known in the U.S., Booker Prize winner Fitzgerald (1916-2000) was a powerhouse of British letters, particularly acclaimed for her novel The Blue Flower (1995). Fitzgerald's wide-ranging career was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she didn't publish her first work, a biography of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burke-Jones, until she was nearly 60. Her life up to that point, however, provided her with rich source material upon which to draw. Hers was a bohemian existence in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a turbulent time in which she tried to raise a family in near poverty, suffering the misfortunes of her alcoholic husband. Fitzgerald herself once said that biographies should be written about people you love, and clearly, exceptional biographer Lee (Edith Wharton, 2007) is fully enamored of her subject. Extensively researched and exuberantly detailed, Lee's examination delves the depths and heights of this roller-coaster life while meticulously deconstructing each of Fitzgerald's works. A first-rate trove of literary criticism and background that lovers of literature will find invaluable.--Haggas, Carol Copyright 2014 Booklist

Library Journal Review

British biographer Lee, whose previous subjects include Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, here tackles an English novelist who is not as well known as these other writers, at least in the United States. Fitzgerald (1916-2000) did win a Booker Prize, and she had some success during her lifetime, especially from critics and the reading public. While she wrote a number of short novels, as well as a few biographies, her writing career started when she was middle-aged, so her output is comparatively limited. Also, she was very reticent about herself; in interviews she avoided discussing her family and other private information. Lee, who met and interviewed Fitzgerald toward the end of the novelist's life, vividly evokes the times in which Fitzgerald lived, how her experiences shaped her fiction, and how her personality can be gleaned from her works. Fitzgerald could be both charming and critical, sharp-tongued and loving, but eminently worth reading. VERDICT Just as Fitzgerald, in her biography of British poet Charlotte Mew, made her subject come alive, so Lee, in this scrupulously researched and sympathetic portrait of a worthy and accomplished novelist, makes a strong case for renewed interest in Fitzgerald's works. Highly recommended for anyone interested in well-written literary biographies. [See Prepub Alert, 5/12/14.]-Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology, Brooklyn (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Bishops' Granddaughter "Must We Have Lives?" The Old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln was freezing cold and full of hectic activity in the winter of 1916. The Bishop's younger daughter, Christina Frances, had said goodbye to her husband, Eddie Knox, in peacetime a journalist and poet, now second lieutenant in the Lincolns, a regiment he had joined because of its connection to her family home. He was waiting to embark for France. They had been married four years and had a ­three-­year-­old son, Rawle. Christina was ­thirty-­one, and heavily pregnant. She and Eddie had set up home in rural Hampstead, but because of the war she had moved into the Palace with Rawle and a young nursemaid, to have their second child under her parents' care. But the Bishop, Edward Lee Hicks, and his wife, Agnes, were under strain. They had thrown open the Palace at the start of the war to a group of pitiful Belgian refugees, some of whom were still living nearby and doing odd jobs for them. Lincoln, because it had munitions factories, was a target for Zeppelin raids. The town was full of ­war-­wounded and displaced persons and housewives coping with bereavements, air raids and rationing. The Bishop was shocked to see police controlling huge queues for margarine at the shops. He was working so ­hard--­visiting camps and hospitals, protesting against the ­ill-­treatment of conscientious objectors, giving sermons all over the ­country--­that he had come down with a dangerous attack of the flu. Agnes was doing everything. He was too ill to see Christina when her baby, Penelope Mary Knox, was born, without much fuss, on the Sunday afternoon of 17 December 1916. The Bishop was still not well enough to officiate at the baptism on 18 January 1917. Penelope Mary was baptised by the Dean of Lincoln, with two aunts from either side of her family (Eddie ­Knox's sister Ethel and Christina's ­sister-­in-­law Margaret Alison Hicks) as her sponsors. Her given names, though, were never used by the family. She was always called Mops, or Mopsie, or Mopsa. The great frost lasted into March. The Bishop had barely recovered from his illness, and his granddaughter was only a few months old, when the news came of his oldest son's death. Christina's brother Edwin Hicks caught trench fever at Amiens, then died of an attack of meningitis. The Bishop, a pacifist who opposed the war, asked that "nothing about 'victory' should be put on the grave of his dead son." The young widow, Margaret Alison, married for less than two years, bore up valiantly: this was a comfort to his parents. Weeks later, Bishop Hicks and his family turned the Old Palace over to the Red Cross for a hospital, and moved into a much smaller house, cramped quarters for Christina, her parents, her little boy and the new baby. In September 1917, Eddie Knox, who had been shooting rats in the trenches, observing "ordinary behaviour under terrible conditions" and finding himself unable to write comic pieces from the front line for Punch, was reported missing. He had been shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, then found in a ­shell hole in a pool of blood. He was invalided out, operated on, and brought to a Lincoln hospital to convalesce. Christina, meanwhile, was playing her part on the home front, looking after the children, helping her father, and organising an exhibition of women's war work at the local branch of Boots. In April 1919, when Eddie was finally demobbed, she was being visited by the Hickses in a Lincoln hospital for women and children, and was said to be only slowly improving; perhaps she had had a miscarriage. Just then, the Bishop, finally worn out, retired from his duties. He died in August 1919. Christina and her children were at his bedside, but Penelope, aged two, was too young to remember. Nevertheless, Bishop Hicks was a figure who mattered to her, among the bishops, missionaries, vicars and priests thickly scattered through her family tree. She liked the sound of him. Edward Lee Hicks never refused to see anyone who came to his door for help. He was a great enemy of poverty and injustice, having come, while he was at Oxford, under the influence of John Ruskin. Ruskin he admired, not only for his teaching but also for his delight in even the smallest details of life. Ruskin, he said, would describe "with the keenest relish" the joy of shelling peas: "The pop which assures one of a successful start, the fresh colour and scent of the juicy row within, and the pleasure of skilfully scooping the bouncing peas with one's thumb into the vessel by one's side." I can honestly say that I never shell peas in summer without thinking of Ruskin and of my grandfather. Shelling peas was the right association, since the Hickses were originally a farming family. So were the Pughs, the Bishop's maternal family. The Hickses farmed in Wolvercote, a village on the northern edge of Oxford that looks over Port Meadow and the River Thames. They were an ­old-fashioned Church of ­En­gland family who ­didn't like Methodists coming into the village. But Edward Hicks, the future Bishop's father, married Catherine Pugh, a ­strong-­minded person who lived to a great age, one of eleven poor children of a musical Welsh father and a devout Wesleyan mother. Because of his marriage Edward Hicks became a Methodist. So his son Edward Lee Hicks grew up with a mixed religious background. Since the Hicks/Knox families contained Quakers, Ulster Protestants, Wesleyans, Evangelicals, Anglicans, ­Anglo-­Catholics and Roman Catholics, some not on speaking terms with one another, Penelope Fitzgerald developed a belief that religious schisms are pointless, and that all different faiths are ­really one. She draws attention to this in The Knox Brothers, when calling the faiths that maintained the Knoxes in their dark hours, or "the Bishop of Lincoln's when his son died in the trenches, or Christina's when she got a telegram to say that Eddie was missing," not greater or lesser faiths, "but the same." Where she agreed with both her grandparents was that faith was necessary for life. Both Edward Hicks and Catherine Pugh had fathers who died young (Edward's fell off a ladder pruning a Wolvercote fruit tree), and Edward Hicks, too, died early. An argumentative, musical, generous person, he was a ­hopeless businessman, who went into debt and died of consumption when his son Edward Lee was nine. Catherine ran the fatherless family, and got Edward Lee into Magdalen School as a chorister. He remembered the shame of being a poor boy at school among richer boys. But he grew up into a scholar and an Oxford don, teaching at Corpus Christi College in the 1860s when Ruskin was there, and when Oxford was, in Fitzgerald's words, "spiritually in low water" after Newman's departure and the fiercely divisive Tractarian wars. One of Edward Lee Hicks's students at Corpus was Edmund Arbuthnott Knox. The Hickses and the Knoxes would keep on ­interconnecting. Hicks was ordained in 1870; he was also by then an expert in Greek epigraphy, known at the British Museum for "a happy ability in restoring ­half-­destroyed inscriptions." So when he was offered the country living of Fenny ­Compton--­a backwater between Banbury and Leamington ­Spa--­for about £600 a year, in 1873, and married a vicar's daughter, Agnes Trevelyan Smith, he could have settled into a modestly comfortable combination of scholarship, rural ministry and domestic life, with six children (one of whom died in infancy) born between 1878 and 1892. But Edward Lee Hicks was not an ­easy-­living person. His years at Fenny Compton were a time of agricultural depression and farm workers' strikes. He sympathised with and worked on behalf of the "land-­hungry" labourers. He was a Liberal who believed in grassroots social reform. In the 1880s he and the family moved to a huge, poor parish in Manchester, where he took his double life, as a social reformer and classical scholar, into a tough urban environment. But the move meant that scholarship, the quiet, happy deciphering of Greek inscriptions, had to give way entirely to public work. As Rector at Salford and Canon of Manchester Cathedral, he also wrote polemical ­pieces--­for instance, against the Boer ­War--­for his friend C. P. Scott at the Manchester Guardian. One of the clerics he disagreed with was his ­ex-­pupil Edmund Knox, now his bishop at Manchester, who ran a loud national campaign for the retention of church schools, which were under ­threat--­while Canon Hicks thought that parents should have the right to have their children taught according to their own beliefs. Some people thought Hicks was too dangerously radical to be made a bishop, and the appointment came late in his life. He had nine years at Lincoln, but he made the most of them. His obituaries called him "a ­progressive prelate" and "a friend of the poor." It ­wasn't only for his ­pea shelling that Bishop Hicks admired Ruskin. Ruskin's ­dictum--­There is no wealth but ­life--­was his own, and he used Ruskin's attack on the immorality of capitalism, Unto This Last, as a text for his sermons. In "Christianity and Riches," given at Cambridge in 1913, he preached that the Church suffered from being associated with the comfortable, wealthy classes. But "all must refuse to value anyone the more because of his riches." His granddaughter, who also admired Ruskin, agreed. He understood poverty because he had experienced it. Fitzgerald wrote, with feeling, of Bishop Hicks's family: "Occasionally they would write down a list of all the things they wanted but ­couldn't afford, and then burn the piece of paper. This is a device which is always worth trying." All her life, Christina could never take a taxi without feeling guilty: "cabby" was her word for "expensive." There were other things, too, she got from her father. Hicks was a feminist, school of John Stuart Mill. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow bishops to take the clause about "obeying" out of the Marriage Service in the Prayer Book, and he supported women's suffrage. Christina Hicks inherited those beliefs. Her father gave her, and her brothers and sister, free choices. All the children, Christina wrote eloquently, were encouraged to talk to him as equals. They consulted him as though he were an encyclopaedia. "He never laughed at us, and always contrived to make us feel that we had asked something ­really interesting." They were taught that things should be "perfectly simple" but good of their ­kind--"a book well printed and bound, for instance, that ­didn't crack when it was opened." He liked games, music, walks, funny stories and beautiful objects; he hated tyranny and ugliness. He believed in equal opportunities for boys and girls. When he and Agnes moved to Lincoln in ­1910--­Christina was then ­twenty-­five, with a university ­education--­she was "offered the choice of going away to make a career for myself, or of being ­'home-­daughter,' whichever I pleased . . . I have never known a daughter so treated, and I have asked many." i We hardly hear that thoughtful, intelligent voice of Christina's in her daughter's family ­memories--­either in The Knox Brothers or in other later pieces about her ­childhood--­where the mother mainly exists as a silence or an absence, and appears first as "a gentle, spirited, scholarly, ­hazel-­eyed girl, a lover of poetry and music . . . ready to laugh at herself " and later as "a quietly spoken woman whom nothing defeated." In Granny ­Pugh's letters to her ­daughter-­in-­law Agnes about the children, Christina figures as an admirable granddaughter. In 1896, when she was eleven: "It is grateful to me to hear that Christina is fond of poetry. She always seemed to me a child of promise." In 1897: "I am so glad that Christina has distinguished herself." At Withington Girls' School in Manchester, she took the lead in school plays. In 1904 she got a scholarship for £40 a year to Somerville, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford. Her daughter would be amused by the letter which came with the scholarship, "reminding her that she must change her dress for dinner, but 'must bring no ­fal-­lals, as they only collect dust.' " Her tutors thought her "decidedly promising" if a little immature, "animated and intelligent," with good skills in logic. Helen Darbishire, the Milton and Wordsworth scholar, then senior ­En­glish Tutor, thought that she wrote with "taste and ­judgement," but needed "to cultivate more ­self-­confidence." She was active on college committees, writing careful minutes as secretary ("Miss Hicks drew attention to complaints which she had received from members whose mackintoshes and umbrellas had been borrowed without permission") and allowing herself some light moments: "Miss Blake delivered a stirring ­exhortation on the subject of the Fiction Library" . . . "Rules about Sleeping Out: No one may consciously sleep out in the rain!" She worked hard, went to dances, had a "beau" or two, won the College Coombs prize, made friends with the future novelist Rose Macaulay, and left in 1907 with a Second Class in ­En­glish, though she could not take her degree until 1921, the year after Oxford at last started awarding degrees to women. Possibly Oxford's discriminatory attitudes, as well as her father's support, fuelled Christina's involvement, in 1908, in demonstrations and mass meetings in support of the Women's Suffrage Bill. Her father grieved over Edwin's death and over the defection of his youngest son, Ned, who, after being wounded on the Somme, converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of Ronald Knox. But the Bishop was proud of "Tina's" scholarly achievements. He was close to his younger daughter. When she went abroad after Oxford, he advised her: "Try to use all the chances that come to you of learning about the habits and conditions of the people." When she asked him about belief, he sent her a long letter, which concluded: "The sound Christian is largely an agnostic." When he gave her the choice in 1910 of being a "home-­daughter" or having a career, she went to teach at St. Felix School in Southwold. The Bishop approved of that as much as he did of her engagement to Eddie Knox, son of his old acquaintance the Bishop of Manchester, in 1912. Christina and Eddie met in Oxford, probably introduced by her younger brother Ned, who, at Magdalen School, had already brought home an admirer for his sister, his fellow chorister Ivor Novello, who on family holidays followed her about devotedly. Nobody wanted the engagement to be long. One sensible bishop's wife, Mrs. Hicks, conferred with the other, Mrs. Knox: "Christina says . . . it does seem such a long time till May! She is anxious because he is lonely . . ." They were married in St. ­Hugh's Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral on 17 September 1912. It was a family affair. Excerpted from Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. xi
Prefacep. xv
Family Treep. xviii
1 The Bishops' Granddaughterp. 3
2 Learning to Readp. 25
3 The "Blonde Bombshell"p. 48
4 Love and Warp. 66
5 The Worldp. 95
6 The Bookshopp. 124
7 Clinging On for Dear Lifep. 140
8 Family Mattersp. 163
9 The Teacherp. 186
10 The Useful Artsp. 213
11 Enigmasp. 235
12 The Prizep. 258
13 The Ventriloquistp. 280
14 Innocencep. 301
15 The Beginning of Springp. 317
16 The Gate of Angelsp. 347
17 The Blue Flowerp. 377
18 Last Wordsp. 398
Acknowledgementsp. 425
Abbreviationsp. 429
Notesp. 433
Indexp. 461