After reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop, last weekend, I picked up this volume of her letters that had been sitting on the tbr shelves since it was published over two years ago. I’ve spent the last week equally fascinated & frustrated by it. Fascinated because I enjoyed listening to Penelope Fitzgerald’s voice. Her dry humour & wit, so much a part of her voice as a novelist, is no less evident in these letters. Frustrated because of the way the letters have been edited.
The editor is Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley. The letters have been arranged by correspondent, rather than chronologically. So, all the letters to her eldest daughter, Tina, are followed by all the letters to her daughter, Maria. The reader jumps from the 1960s to the 1990s, with stories retold in slightly different ways, according to the correspondent, every 50 pages. There is no timeline to get a grip on where we are in Fitzgerald’s life or what was happening or even which book she was working on. A timeline might not have mattered if there had been adequate footnotes.
This is my main problem with the book. The footnotes are scarce, erratic & completely arbitrary. A footnote at the beginning of each chapter identifies the correspondent & their relationship to Fitzgerald. Then, you’re on your own. I suppose you wouldn’t be reading this book if you weren’t already a fan of Fitzgerald’s work. But, sometimes the only clues to the novel referred to is the mention of the setting – Italy (Innocence), Russia (The Beginning of Spring) etc. Many events & people are passed over in silence but some people always rate a footnote. Colin Haycraft, Penelope’s publisher at Duckworths, always rates a footnote, even though, after the first few mentions, we could probably have worked it out for ourselves. However, the lack of footnotes, while irritating, didn’t stop me reading the letters.
There are several significant gaps. All Fitzgerald’s papers, including letters to & from her husband, Desmond, were lost when the houseboat the family lived on sank in 1963. There are no letters to her son, Valpy. Still, there are enough family letters to get a sense of her love of family life & the sometimes desperate poverty she struggled with.
I especially loved the letters written to publishers & editors. Fitzgerald spent years working on the research for a biography of the novelist L P Hartley, best known for The Go Between. She knew Hartley & wanted to write the biography before everyone who knew him was gone. However, the more she talked to people, especially Hartley’s sister, Norah, the more she realised that she could never write the book in Norah’s lifetime. The things she found out about him would have hurt his sister too much. She was also politely obstructed by other friends, including Lord David Cecil, who didn’t want Hartley’s passion for him to be exposed,
And then Lord D insists that Leslie’s life was completely happy. He added that his life was completely happy, and that he can’t remember ever being unhappy. I asked him whether LPH wasn’t heartbroken when he got married and he said, well he did seem upset, but I asked him to be best man – as though that made up for it! But he’d never seen Leslie unhappy, he repeated. I said, has it struck you that Leslie was happy when you were there, and not when you weren’t, like sunshine and shadow? Lord D looked rather taken aback. (To Francis King 29 October 1979)
Fitzgerald eventually gave up on the idea of the biography. She also had to give up on the idea of writing about Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, because no publisher was interested. The Bookshop encouraged & published the work of several early 20th century poets. It was a minor but important part of the literary scene of the period. Fitzgerald was persistent in her approaches to any publisher she knew but to no avail. She didn’t waste the research as she wrote a wonderful biography of one of the poets, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. Charlotte Mew was a minor poet, a lesbian who had some very tortured relationships & whose career spanned the late 19th century until the 1920s,
…worse still, I’ve just sent you another letter about Charlotte Mew – I can’t help it, it keeps coming over me as they say, I still feel her life is interesting in its way – and she did write at least one good poem, how many of us can say that? (To Richard Ollard 16 July 1982)
Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore & she was also a judge on several occasions. I can’t resist quoting this as I have the same feeling about so much modern fiction,
I certainly wish I hadn’t taken on the Booker judging this year. I thought it would be a nice sedentary occupation, and after all I have done it before, but I’ve definitely gone downhill since then and I think books have got longer – I’ve only done 35 so far (I keep counting them) so 100 more to come, and already there’s hardly any floor space left in my little room. Also, I drop off to sleep almost immediately when I start to read them – it’s becoming an automatic reaction. (To Maryllis Conder 7 May 1998)
Listening to Fitzgerald’s voice as I read the letters sent me back to the collected essays & reviews, A House of Air, published in 2003. This is my favourite of all her books, which probably isn’t the best thing to say about a novelist. Like Virginia Woolf, I prefer the essays & letters to the fiction. Fitzgerald reviewed widely & she wrote introductions to many novels, including J L Carr’s A Month in the Country & the Virago reprints of Margaret Oliphant’s novels. Looking through the index of A House of Air, there are also chapters on Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edward Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, Charlotte Mew, William Morris, Rose Macaulay & M R James. I’m looking forward to Hermione Lee’s biography even more after reading the letters.