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Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life Hardcover – 7 Nov 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus; First Edition edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701184957
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701184957
  • Product Dimensions: 16 x 4.7 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 193,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Excellent... [Hermione] Lee is a perfect choice as Fitzgerald's biographer. She has done a superb job, capturing an elusive personality and a complex, sometimes rather harrowing story." (Philip Hensher Guardian)

"Lee elucidates the depth of [Fitzgerald's] achievement, and ties it enthrallingly to a life and personality more complex and difficult than anyone imagined. In a perfect literary biography, Lee plumbs the creative mind beneath that persona, tracing the metamorphosis of messy experience into crystalline art." (Financial Times)

"Brilliant and passionate...a haunting tale of blighted hope, personal tragedy and rare, late fulfilment. Thanks to this sympathetic biography, [Fitzgerald's] afterlife shows signs of becoming finally blessed with understanding, admiration and respect." (Robert McCrum Observer)

"Admirable and perceptive... Hermione Lee non-judgmentally excavates this extraordinary life. Her biography is very good indeed" (Susan Hill The Times)

"A worthy monument to one of the finest English novelists of the second half of the 20th century" (Jonathan Derbyshire Prospect)

"Adroitly executed and meticulously researched... insightful... Ms Lee's shrewd examination makes this a riveting biography" (Economist)

"Lee's absorbing biography is the story of a late starter... [She] is partisan in her project: she means to expose a truth she is certain of -- that Fitzgerald is "a great English writer". Her feat is to have woven an involving narrative out of such a skeletal life....Excellent...." (Nicholas Shakespeare Telegraph)

"This book will hold insights and treats for any admirer of [Fitzgerald's] fiction, and recruit converts to this reticent, witty, ferocious champion of the utterly downtrodden." (Emma Townshend Independent)

"Her book is in the very best tradition of critical literary biography. Phenomenally well researched and elegantly written, with a fine, dynamic fluency and lucid understanding, this is a very good biography indeed." (The Tablet)

"This elegant, richly researched biography tells a tale of misfortunes borne with dignity, humour and courage, and finally of quiet triumphs" (Michèle Roberts i)

Book Description

Intimate, perceptive, critically acute, funny and moving, this is the first full biography of one of the finest English novelists of the last century.

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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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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