12 March 2018

Penelope Fitzgerald: Greatest Hits

Posted by the Bookshop

Our Author of the Month in March is the versatile Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in 20th-century English literature. As well as producing nine novels, two biographies and numerous short stories, she wrote many essays (and more) for (amongst others) the London Review of Books. Here’s our pick of her contributions.

Following the Plot

Fitzgerald’s very first contribution to the LRB was a thoughtful disquisition on the nature and importance of plot, the possibilities for generation thereof, and the difficulties of translating real life into something that looked like a plot:

I was brought up in a journalist’s home and in a family where everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something. We children also tried to write, and our elders were resigned to this. Being dipped in ink began for us, I suppose, at about six or seven when we were first allowed to use it, and we were given the back of old galley proofs to write on. What was more, although my father once pointed out that there was no difference between journalism and literature, except that journalism is paid and literature isn’t, we expected to become rich by writing novels, or, if not novels, then short stories, for it was still the heyday of the railway magazines – the Strand, Nash’s, Pearsons’s, the Windsor.

Children’s Children

Nell Dunn’s Talking to Grandmothers gave Fitzgerald an opportunity to consider the lot of ‘creative grannies’:

Becoming a grandmother means a multiple change of relationship. You are now the wife of a grandfather (although in this book men play a very subdued part and are usually absent, dead, divorced or out late). It makes a very great difference whether the baby’s mother is your daughter or your daughter-in-law. In either case, however, you are shifted back a generation.

Dame Cissie

In 1991, a review of books about Rebecca West makes clear Fitzgerald’s continuing interest in the intersections between life and work:

As a novelist, Rebecca West liked to write about people who were rich or good-looking or high-born or all three, and her public liked to read about them. There was a converse: she found it difficult to forgive ugliness or coarseness – the crowds outside the court in the Stephen Ward case were worse because they had ‘cheap dentures’. All this was part of the great impatient shake with which she left the narrowness and just-respectability of her early life. As her son was to put it, ‘shabby-genteel life in Edinburgh marked those who had to endure it to the bone.’

Thirteen Poems

Fitzgerald’s final, unusual contribution to the LRB appeared in 2002, and consisted of poems and drawings she sent to her daughter in the 1970s:

Arrival of a Stray Cat in the Poet’s Lodgings

  1. The cat’s whiskers are as wide
    as the cat from side to side –

  2. – which gives it sound anticipation
    in an entrance situation

  3. if the whiskers will pass through
    a hole, the cat can get out too.

  4. Milk, pour, gas-fire, burn,
    Cat and poet have much to learn.

  5. He will learn to use discretion,
    Pussy shall learn affection.

  6. The milk pours, the shilling drops,
    Pussy sits and licks her chops.

  7. But she has not acquired a soul
    and he is still in a hole.