When literary critics look back on the final quarter of the CXX they are likely to be struck by the contrast between the dominant position of women in the field of English Literary Fiction and their comparative lack of recognition. Beryl Bainbridge is the most obvious example, but until she published her last novel, The Blue Flower, in 1995 it may be said that no one and quite got the true measure of Penelope Fitzgerald.
Penelope Fitzgerald had been nominated for the Booker Prize with her second novel, 'The Bookshop', and won it with her third, 'Offshore', but that victory was heavily discounted by journalists who had already written copy extolling the virtues of V.S.Naipaul `s `A Bend in the River' - which everyone had assumed would win. In those days, winning the Booker did not necessarily make you rich, but it might have been thought to entitle you to some respect. Instead, Mrs Fitzgerald had to put up with sneering, condescension, and suggestions, even from her publisher, Colin Haycraft, that she was essentially an 'amateur' and not cut out for creative fiction. As for the 'Blue Flower', whilst it achieved due recognition when it became the first book by a British author to win the National Book Critics Circle award, it failed to make even ther short list in a year when the Booker Prize judges were George Walden, Kate Kellaway, Peter Kemp, Adam Mars Jones and Ruth Rendell.
These 500 pages of collected correspondence are, nevertheless, something of a disappointment. There are scarcely any letters from the first years of Penelope Fitzgerald's life - none for example, to her father, none to her Knox uncles; none to friends from Oxford, or her pre-war friends in London (save for a few, mildly uninteresting ones to Hugh Lee). The first 200 pages or so comprise letters written to her two daughters when the latter were schoolgirls or at university in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s. These have a certain period charm, and will remind contemporaries of the communal interest taken by the civilised middleclass in Cliff Richard and the Beatles; the film of Dr.Zhivago, with the young Julie Christie and 'Lara's Theme'; the horrors of inflation and the three day week. It is true, too, that they present an interesting picture of the evolution of a seriously-minded middle class family of great distinction into something rather different: one nephew grows a pony tale; another works as a waiter; marriages ae made outside a once tightly knit society of anglo-catholic liberal families: at Christmas, grandchildren sprawl over furniture, stairs and carpets playing with handheld consoles which flash, squeak and bleat, they are astonished that granny should have a profile in the literary world - life indeed goes on, but it goes on less interestingly, perhaps, than once it it did and on the whole these are tedious letters, few of which really merited publication. The exceptions are the wonderful epistles written from Gladstone's library at Hawarden (St.Deiniol's), where antique and toothless clergymen regard their female visitor apprehensively over half-moon spectacles - and one of them tells her that his father had known John Henry Newman 'quite well'; and a description, from October 1974, of a surrealistic tea party in Rye, including in its number Henry James' manservant `(still living in Rye, but with a deaf aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) and couldn't really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up to wait upon people, with the result that he tripped over the cable - and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ` Mr Henry was a heavy man - nearly 16 stone it was a job for him to push his bicycle up hill' - in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn't hear'.
The second part of the book consists of letters to publishers, editors, critics and other writers, and are of somewhat greater interest, particularly when they discuss projects which were dear to the writer's heart, and which were never completed (such as an intended biography of L.P.Hartley or a study of H.Munro and the Poetry Bookshop) - all of which indicate just how interesting and original Penelope Fitzgerald's interests were, and how limited the pre-occupations of publishers inevitably constrained by literary fashion and the limitations of the British reading public. One or two letters contain useful indications of how extraordinarily meticulous Penelope Fitzgerald was in her research, and this is particularly true of the letters to Harvey Pitcher which provide a fascinating background to 'The Beginning of Spring'.
It is, I am afraid, necessary to express some irritation at the limitations of the editing. This is by Terence Dooley, Penelope Fitzgerald's son-in-law, who, after contributing an outstanding introductory essay seems to have considered his job well done. The letters are presented not chronologically, but according to recipient, so that the reader is drawn repeatedly through the same events and pre-occupations, often described in much the same terms. The footnotes confine themselves principally to items of Knox/Fitzgerald genealogy, and there is a consistent failure to identify references to people, books and events which will drive the inquisitive reader mad. There is no excuse. Many of the recipients of these letters must still be alive, and it was surely possible to make the relevant inquiries. A few days, or weeks in a library would have been the meat and drink of an enthusiastic editor, but there is no sign of it here, and these are the worst edited letters that I have read since Paul Levy's astonishingly inadequate edition of Lytton Strachey's Letters.
The title of the book suggest the warmth of an intimate correspondence, but is, as the epigraph makes clear, a quotation from the first lyric of Wilhelm Muller's `Winterreise' - famously set by Schubert. On a moonlit winter's night a traveller sets off into the snow, leaving his youth and his beloved behind him: `I shan't disturb your dreaming, I'll not disturb your sleep, you will not hear my footsteps, as I go past your door; and on the door I'll gently trace the word `Good Night' so that, on waking, you will know that I have thought of you...that I have thought of you'. Joseph von Spaun, who was at the only performance of the cycle in Schubert's lifetime says that the composer's friends were `quite dumbfounded by the gloomy mood of these songs.' Penelope Fitzgerald's letters are not exactly gloomy, but the title is well chosen in that it hints the refined but elusive impression of things left unsaid which are not just a feature of this writers literary work, but also, alas, of her letters - 'ce que tu vois de la femme n'est pas la femme'.