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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 7 November 2013
It was not until the renowned author Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty years old that she became a published novelist - but why did it take so long for this marvellous writer to attain her goal? Hermione Lee's excellent biography, along with many other interesting details, reveals the answer to this question. Penelope Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox in 1916, into an intellectual family of high achievers: both grandfathers were bishops, her uncle Dillwyn, was a brilliant classicist and cryptographer, who worked on the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, and her father, Evoe Knox, was the editor of 'Punch'. Penelope grew up in Hampstead ("Hampstead was literary, poetic, artistic, rural, part-bohemian, part-genteel") and, after doing well at school, she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, shortly after the very sad death of her mother. As was expected, Penelope obtained a first class degree and left Somerville with the intentions to start her writing career. She did write some pieces for 'Punch' and she also wrote scripts for the BBC, where she worked during the war (and where she got the inspiration for her later novel Human Voices) but her writing career did not then take off. In 1942, Penelope married Desmond Fitzgerald, an officer in the Irish Guards, who was sent to North Africa shortly after the marriage. Desmond returned home with a Military Cross, but he came back as a changed man, complete with nervous problems and a strong compulsion for alcohol.

In 1950, Penelope and Desmond took over as joint editors of the 'World Review', a literary and cultural magazine, but with three children and a rambling house in Hampstead, the Fitzgeralds were living beyond their means and Desmond's drinking was becoming even more of a problem. By the late fifties, the Fitzgeralds were practically penniless and it was necessary to leave Hampstead and move to Southwold, where Penelope got a job working in a bookshop. By 1960, money was so tight that they rented an old Thames barge, named Grace, at Chelsea Reach (where her novel Offshore the 1979 Booker Prize Winner was later set), which was moored opposite a row of old tenement buildings. Life was now becoming even more difficult for the Fitzgeralds - Desmond, who had been working in the legal profession, had been disbarred after being arrested for fraud and was drinking very heavily, and Penelope, exhausted and under great stress, spent her nights sleeping alone in the living area of the barge on a single-day bed. She spent her days working as a teacher, first at the Italia Conti Stage School (where she collected material for her novel At Freddie's) and then at Queen's Gate, a private girls' school in Kensington, writing whenever she could in her free periods in the staffroom. One night the decrepit, leaking barge sank, taking all of the Fitzgeralds' belongings with it - another huge setback for Penelope and her family. Penelope however, went into school the next day, slightly more disheveled than usual and said: "I'm sorry I'm late, but my house sank." There is, of course, a lot more in this well-researched, interesting and, at times, very sad biography, but I shall leave that for prospective readers to discover.

Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather has, with careful and meticulous research, done an excellent job in revealing details of the writing life and personal life of this intriguing, complex, elusive and extremely private writer, whose career only really took off once her husband had died. By the time of her death in 2000, at the age of 83, Penelope Fitzgerald had written three biographies and nine brief, but beautifully composed novels, four of them closely based on her own life; reading this absorbing and poignant biography, with its lovely selection of photographs, has made me keen to go through my bookcases and read all nine of those novels again, with an enlightened knowledge of how some of those stories came about. And that is just what a good biography should do.

5 Stars.

Please note: There is a very interesting review with Hermione Lee in: Paris Review Issue 205 (Summer 2013) where she talks about the art of biography.

Also highly recommended by Hermione Lee: Virginia Woolf.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
So the first thing to say is that this is not your regular novelist's biography. Hermione Lee has done a wonderful job of tracking down documents, engaging the trust of Fitzgerald's children, and reconstructing what is in many places a very sad story of a long life spent doing drudgework before Fitzgerald finally began publishing novels at the age of 60. The irregularity, then, arises from the life itself, not from the biographer: there have been gaps and omissions all the way through Penelope Fitzgerald's life, which Hermione Lee documents with great care. Yes, certainly a large cache of writing, letters and records sank with Fitzgerald's houseboat; but even before that there are mysterious sections of the novelist's life (such as a long trip to America to visit some distant relatives who owned a mine and who might leave it to Fitzgerald's son (?!)) where you start thinking: hmm, this almost sounds like her fiction...!

Penelope Fitzgerald was also an intensely reticent person. Lee has several times in the book caught Fitzgerald out fabricating, omitting, talking round something, or just plain lying. There is an intensely embarrassing (to me at any rate) incident where another writer, sharing a room with Fitzgerald on an official trip, accuses the elderly, cash-strapped novelist of pinching her tights! Which were allegedly then produced from Fitzgerald's own luggage, rather reluctantly. I felt very sorry for her, much of the time, and wondered how much she would have hated having these intensely personal details revealed.

Fitzgerald's fiction is all about people, and I think often very quietly makes the case for how difficult it really is to know another person. Mysterious chance events seem to rock the lives of her characters much more often than in the work of other writers; a sort of indolent, unbothered god of fate who sticks his hand in wherever and causes chaos for no apparent reason, but wrecks plans and existences, just like that. People the book has taught you to root for often have sad or difficult things befall them. And yet the characters just keep trying to get on with life. I couldn't help thinking as I finished reading this biography that this is also a good description of Fitzgerald's own life.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 21 January 2014
I love Penelope Fitzgerald's writing, and have wondered - as so many people do throughout this book - 'How does she do it?' Hermione Lee has responded to the family's request for her to write this biography by doing it frankly, faithfully, with full respect for PF's reticence, silences and idiosyncrasies. By the end I felt that I knew PF as well, or as little, as one of her friends might have known her; that her life experiences were extraordinarily rich and cavernous in range; and that I now understand her work a great deal better. Though I still don't know how she did it.

I recommend the book very warmly.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 9 July 2014
PENELOPE FITZGERALD - A LIFE cannot be faulted for its research: Hermione Lee has trawled through sources in libraries worldwide in order to produce a highly detailed account of the life of an author who only started writing full-time at the age of sixty after a life spent looking after her family and trying to keep afloat, both literally as well as figuratively. Brought up in a large, close-knit family, Fitzgerald spent much of her early life writing for the BBC; but everything changed once she married her lawyer husband Desmond. The two of them ran a literary magazine, WORLD LITERATURE, in the early Fifties; but after that collapsed Desmond found it difficult to return to his original profession. The family lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a variety of residences, including a house-boat in central London that sank due to age. Throughout such ordeals Fitzgerald worked hard to keep the family together. Success only really came to her once the children had grown up and she had both the time and space to write. Initially the literary establishment found her success rather troubling (there is a particularly gruesome account in Lee's book of Fitzgerald's appearance on the BBC's THE BOOK PROGRAMME, once she had won the Booker Prize), but eventually she received due recognition as one of Britain's major novelists. Lee's book tries to capture the essence of its subject; but, like Fitzgerald herself, it only portrays her as an elusive figure, someone who rarely talked about herself or revealed her true feelings to anyone. Brought up in a culture where displays of emotion were considered bad form, Fitzgerald became highly adept at creating a facade, answering interviewers' questions with a series of stereotypical answers. PENELOPE FITZGERALD - A LIFE is a long book - almost too long, in fact, as the author spends several pages examining each one of her novels in turn, a technique that becomes irritating after a whole, as it interrupts the flow of the biographical narrative. In a sense this is almost two books in one - the life of Fitzgerald intertwined with a critical study of her work. Perhaps the text might have worked better if Lee had separated the two strands.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 11 March 2014
Hermione Lee feels affection for her subject and at the same time sees her flaws, the right combination for a good biography. It's true she does includes detailed synopses of the books, but they are important for understanding the woman and the author. I felt I must go back and read them again.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2014
She obviously made a great granny....and too she was a confection of contradictions.A mind like a steel trap.Forensic and imaginative.Life gave her much,and treated her v badly in the middle years.A person difficult to know and for many perhaps, to be indifferent to, or dislke.For those that came to know her at all,she seemed to command respect,loyalty and affection.Prickly, at times secretive[and why not?]with a lot to contend with.The author has written an illuminating biography,which must have been difficult.Tho her dissecting of fitzgerald's novels for me at any rate was tedious and numbing.A compulsive read.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 28 November 2013
I enjoyed the first half of this book with its interesting detail and insights into Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. I chose this book because I was interested in the reasons for publishing a first book at age 60. The second half of the book seems to consist of a tedious synopsis of each of the books Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, with little bits of opinion and tenuous links to the author's life experience here and there. I got rather bored and gave up reading I'm afraid. It could have been much better but I suspect that this very private woman didn't leave many clues.
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on 5 September 2015
A highly competent biography of an intriguing writer, written with very little authorial voice (always the sign of a good biographer). Penelope Fitzgerald led a mostly quiet life, teaching and then writing - apart from when the barge she was living on sank in the Thames - but Hermione Lee makes the most of her material and has a good attempt at explaining Penelope's appeal. There is possibly rather too much delving into the plots and characters of her books, which is tiresome if you haven't read them as of course synopses and paraphrasing fail to give any flavour of Penelope's writing. However, I changed my mind when such digging concerned the books I had actually read; I found Hermione Lee very insightful as to what Penelope was about, particularly so as regards The Blue Flower, a work that has always stayed with me but which I now can see I didn't fully understand. This biography therefore has the effect of sending you straight back to Penelope Fitzgerald's books, which is exactly what a good biography should do. Excellent.
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on 27 July 2015
Once I had read a chapter or two I couldn't put it down. The themes are of hard work and observation, and her ability to transform her own experiences into literature. The biography reveals her low profile astuteness and her sense of self as a Knox, early successes at the BBC and in journalism, her years as wife and mother in hard working, depressed and frugal circumstances (resonant with many readers, of family life in the nineteen 'forties and 'fifties), her self assurance that she would ultimately write - and her success. I enjoyed the background of a remarkable family, the fringes of Bloomsbury, the publishing set and the young literati... a most interesting and absorbing book.
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on 15 November 2015
A really well researched & meticulously detailed account of the life & work of this interesting author. It's so evident that Lee wants to share her enthusiasm for Fitzgerald & pass on so much information to enthrall readers to venture further into other works of Fitzgerald. It's a treasure trove of useful gems & literary details of an interesting life and work but also would be useful for further reading linked to different novels.
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