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Disappointingly Long Version of an Enigmatic Author's Life
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.