Penelope Fitzgerald (17 December 1916 – 28 April 2000) was an English Booker Prize-winning novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945". In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower one of "the ten best historical novels".
17 December 1916
|Died||28 April 2000 (aged 83)|
|Period||20th century, 21st century|
|Notable works||Offshore, The Blue Flower|
|Notable awards||Booker Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award|
|Spouse||Desmond Fitzgerald (1941–1976)|
Penelope Fitzgerald was born Penelope Mary Knox at the Old Bishop's Palace, Lincoln, the daughter of Edmund Knox, later editor of Punch, and Christina Hicks, daughter of Edward Hicks, the bishop of Lincoln, and one of the first women students at Oxford. She was a niece of the theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox, the cryptographer Dillwyn Knox, the Bible scholar Wilfred Knox, and the novelist and biographer Winifred Peck. Fitzgerald later wrote: "When I was young I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn't like them. Later on, I found that this was a mistake, but I've never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I suppose they were unusual, but I still think that they were right, and insofar as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world."
She was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Somerville College, Oxford University, from which she graduated in 1938 with a congratulatory First; she was named a "Woman of the Year" in Isis, the student newspaper. She worked for the BBC during World War II, and in 1942 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she had met in 1940 while they were both at Oxford. When they met he was studying for the bar and had enlisted to serve as a soldier with the Irish Guards. Six months after their marriage, Desmond's regiment was sent to North Africa. He won the Military Cross in the Western Desert Campaign in Libya, but when he returned to civilian life he was an alcoholic.
In the early 1950s she and her husband lived in Hampstead, London, where she had grown up, while they co-edited a magazine called World Review, where J. D. Salinger's "For Esmé with Love and Squalor" was first published in the UK, as were writings of Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and Alberto Moravia. Fitzgerald also contributed to the magazine, writing about literature, music, and sculpture. Soon afterwards Desmond was disbarred for "forging signatures on cheques that he cashed at the pub." The end of his legal career led to a life of poverty for the Fitzgeralds; at times they were even homeless and lived for four months in a homeless centre. They lived for eleven years in a council flat (public housing). To provide for her family during the 1960s Fitzgerald taught at the Italia Conti Academy, a drama school, and at Queen's Gate School, where her pupils included Camilla Shand (later Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). She also taught "at a posh crammer", where her pupils included Anna Wintour, Edward St Aubyn, and Helena Bonham Carter. In fact, she continued to teach until she was seventy years old. She also worked in a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. For a time she lived in Battersea, on a houseboat that sank twice, the second time for good, destroying many of her books and family papers.
The couple had three children: a son, Valpy, and two daughters, Tina and Maria.
Fitzgerald launched her literary career in 1975, at the age of 58, when she published a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. This was followed two years later by The Knox Brothers, a joint biography of her father and uncles in which she never mentions herself by name. Later in 1977 she published her first novel, The Golden Child, a comic murder mystery with a museum setting inspired by the Tutankhamun mania earlier in the 1970s. The novel was written to amuse her terminally ill husband, who died in 1976.
Over the next five years she published four novels, each connected in some way with her own experiences. The Bookshop (1978), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, concerns a struggling bookstore in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough; set in 1959, the novel includes as a pivotal event the shop's decision to stock Lolita. A film adaptation with the same title The Bookshop, starring Emily Mortimer as Florence Green and written and directed by Isabel Coixet, was released in 2017.
Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for 1979 with Offshore, a novel that takes place among residents of houseboats in Battersea in 1961. Human Voices is a fictionalised account of wartime life at the BBC, while At Freddie's depicts life at a drama school.
Fitzgerald said after writing At Freddie's, that she "had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about". After writing a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew she began a series of novels with a variety of historic settings.
The first was Innocence (1986) a romance between the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat and a doctor from a southern Communist family set in 1950s Florence, Italy. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci appears as a minor character.
The Beginning of Spring (1988) takes place in Moscow in 1913, and examines the world just before the Russian Revolution through the family and work troubles of a British businessman born and raised in Russia.
The Gate of Angels (1990), about a young Cambridge physicist who falls in love with a nursing trainee after a bicycle accident, is set in 1912, when physics was about to enter its own revolutionary period.
Fitzgerald's final novel, The Blue Flower, published in 1995, centres on the 18th-century German poet and philosopher Novalis, and his love for what is portrayed as a rather ordinary child. Other historical figures, such as the poet Goethe and the philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel, feature in the story. The book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award 1997, has been called Fitzgerald's masterpiece. In 1999 it was adapted and dramatised for BBC Radio by Peter Wolf.
A collection of Fitzgerald's short stories, The Means of Escape, and a volume of her essays, reviews and commentaries, A House of Air, were published posthumously. In 2013 the first full biography of Fitzgerald appeared: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee.
- Edward Burne-Jones (1975)
- The Knox Brothers (1977)
- Charlotte Mew and Her Friends: With a Selection of Her Poems (1984)
- The Golden Child (1977)
- The Bookshop (1978)
- Offshore (1979)
- Human Voices (1980)
- At Freddie's (1982)
- Innocence (1986)
- The Beginning of Spring (1988)
- The Gate of Angels (1990)
- The Blue Flower (1995, UK, 1997, US)
Short story collectionsEdit
- The Means of Escape (2000)
- Paperback edition (2001) has 2 additional stories
Essays and reviewsEdit
- A House of Air (US title: The Afterlife) edited by Terence Dooley, with an introduction by Hermione Lee (2005)
- So I Have Thought of You. The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald edited by Terence Dooley, with a preface by A. S. Byatt (2008)
- Hollinghurst, Alan (4 December 2014). "The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald". New York Review of Books. 61 (19).
- "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". The Times (London). 5 January 2008. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
- Skidelsky, William (13 May 2012). "The 10 best historical novels". The Observer. London. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
- Turner, Jenny. "In the Potato Patch: Review of Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life" by Hermione Lee". London Review of Books. 19 December 2013.
- results, search (14 August 2000). "The Knox Brothers". Counterpoint. Retrieved 12 April 2018 – via Amazon.
- Bostridge, Mark (23 August 2008). "So I Have Thought of You: The letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, ed Terence Dooley". The Independent (London).
- "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
- Hartley, Cathy (2003). A Historical Dictionary of British Women. Psychology Press. p. 349.
- Harvey-Wood, Harriet (3 May 2000)."Penelope Fitzgerald". The Guardian (London).
- Hofmann, Michael (13 April 1997). "'Nonsense Is Only Another Language'". The New York Times.
- Harvey-Wood, Harriet (3 May 2000)."Penelope Fitzgerald (obituary)". The Guardian (London).
- "Blue Flower, The". www.radiolistings.co.uk. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Penelope Fitzgerald|
- Obituary, The New York Times, May 3, 2000
- "How did she do it?", Julian Barnes, The Guardian, 26 July 2008
- "The Unknown Penelope Fitzgerald", Edmund Gordon,TLS, 30 June 2010
- Penelope Fitzgerald Was Here: An Appreciation, Courtney Cook, Los Angeles Review of Books, 23 January 2015
- Penelope Fitzgerald Collection, **Additional Papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin