Week 20
Propaganda in the Catholic University (or College)

52 Authors: Week 20 - Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) started her writing career rather late in life at the age of 58, shortly before her husband died. She was a member of the very accomplished Knox family, which included her father, who was the editor of Punch, and his three brothers, one of whom was the famous convert to Roman Catholicism, Monsignor Ronald Knox. She herself took an Oxford First and also seemed set to accomplish much. But then she went to work at the BBC during World War II, married shortly thereafter, had three children, and held on through a difficult marriage that found her having to provide most of the family’s economic support. She even lived in public housing for a long spell, and she wasn’t able financially to quit working as a teacher until she was 70.

Fitzgerald is not considered a Christian writer, but I think she should be. Most critics, at least, have missed that as the wellspring of her novels. They’ve found them little jewels, beautifully written in a spare, incisive way, with touches of subtle wry humor, but they’ve also been mystified by what they’re supposed to mean, and often come away thinking hers is a pessimistic vision of the human lot. I can see why this happens if her Christian belief is not taken into consideration because she does usually leave things hanging in mid-air, unresolved, events seemingly more due to chance than anything else, and so her books have a rather unsettling effect overall. But if a belief in Divine Providence and even the possibility of miracles is put into the mix, things look different, even if still not super clear.

Fitzgerald unfortunately didn’t help to dispel this confusion because, as even she admitted in a couple of interviews, she’d not done her best to get her Christian perspective across, and she blamed that on a lack of courage on her part, since belief was considered ridiculous to many, or even most, folks nowadays. I would think, though, that the settings she chose for her later novels, the ones critics think most highly of, would have given a hint of that Christian perspective. I’ve read only one of her early novels, Offshore, the one for which she got the Booker Prize, and it is based on her own life, the time she spent living with her family on a barge on the Thames. It’s mostly about the eccentric lives of those in the barge community in the changing world of the late 1950s/early 1960s , and there’s not much about belief in it, other than the fact that the children in the book attend a religiously run school and a small appearance by a priest concerned with the children’s lack of regular attendance there. But the three later novels I’ve read—The Gate of Angels, The Beginning of Spring, and The Blue Flower—all feature faith lived or at least faith talked about.

The Gate of Angels is set in 1912 Cambridge and London and spends quite a bit of time talking about the effect of science on belief. Its main character is a young man who has lost his faith and is set to spend his life as a celibate don, until he is knocked unconscious in a bicycle collision with a young woman, wakes up in bed beside her (they’d been put there by the man who found them injured, thinking them married), and immediately falls in love with her. She is a young, disgraced nurse from London, and soon is shown in a court case to have engaged in sexual misconduct. The romance is nipped in the bud, the broken-hearted young man is back on the don career path, and she is leaving town. But then something happens and …; well, I won’t give away the ending, other than to say that we’re left to wonder about the blind chance of it all. Or maybe not so blind, if we can see Providence in there somewhere.

In The Beginning of Spring (my favorite of her books) the setting is Moscow in 1913, at a time when life there was still thoroughly infused with Orthodox Christianity. Its protagonist is a man born to English parents who had come to Russia to set up the printing business he now runs, who is faced with his English-born wife’s suddenly leaving and taking their children with her and then sending the children back to him. First, a taste of how Fitzgerald can perfectly capture setting with the sparest of strokes:

Up until a few years ago the first sound in the morning in Moscow had been the cows coming out of the side-streets, where they were kept in stalls and backyards, and making their way among the horse-trams to their meeting-point at the edge of the Khamovniki, where they were taken by the municipal cowman to their pastures, or, in winter, through the darkness, to the suburban stores of hay. Since the tram-lines were electrified, the cows had disappeared. The trams themselves, from five o’clock in the morning onwards, were the first sound, except for the church bells. In February, both were inaudible behind the inner and outer windows, tightly sealed since last October, rendering the house warm and deaf.

Here in the description of the blessing of the printing business is an example of the way she circles around the matter of faith:

The priest came out in his stole, the deacons in their surplices. The censer was lit with a piece of red-hot charcoal from the canteen samovar. The fragrance of the smoldering cedar of Lebanon reached every corner of the room where men, women and children stood motionless.

Some of them, Frank knew, were agnostics. The storekeeper had told him that, in his opinion, soul and body were like the steam above a factory, one couldn't exist without the other. But he, too, stood motionless. The priest offered a prayer for the God-protected Tsar and his family, for the Imperial Army, that it might put down every enemy of Russia beneath its feet, for the city of Moscow and for the whole country, for those at sea, for travellers, for the sick, for the suffering, for prisoners, for the founders of the Press and the workers there, for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, pardon and remission of sins.

Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He tried to call himself to order. Thomas Huxley had written that if only there was some proof of the truth of religion, humanity would clutch at it as a drowning man clutches at a hencoop. But as long as mankind doesn’t pretend to believe in something, they see no reason to believe, because there might be an advantage to pretending—as long as they don’t do that, they won’t have sunk to the lowest depths. He himself could be said to be pretending now, still more so when he had attended the Anglican chapel , with the idea of keeping [his wife] Nellie company. Why he had felt alarmed when [his daughter] Dolly told him that her teacher said there was no God, he didn’t know. The alarm suggested that as a rational being he was unsuccessful. Either that, or he had come to think of religion as something appropriate to women and children, and that would be sinking to a lower depth than Huxley had dreamed of. Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.

Dignity and solemnity, a religious urge, followed by confusion, almost dismissal, and then not, or maybe. The use of “motionless” in that passage, by the way, said it all for me.


The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, was Fitzgerald’s last novel. Although it is the one most highly praised by critics, I find it the most mystifying of all. Set in Germany between the last decade of the 18th century and the first of the 19th, it follows the short life and tragic love of an actual German Romantic poet named Novalis, who falls in love with a girl of 12, waits years for her to reach marriageable age, but then she dies a horrible death from tuberculosis before that can happen, and then more family members die terribly young, and then the young poet himself dies. That all sounds very sad, but it didn’t leave me feeling hopeless, just confused about what I should feel. Although there’s some talk of faith, as usual with Fitzgerald it’s ambiguous, so that’s not why the sadness didn’t overpower. Maybe it’s because we get caught up in Fitzgerald’s marvelously rendered details of life in that long-ago time, or maybe the characters are simply too archaic and their concerns therefore don’t seem quite real. Anyway, I’ll leave this with the much-quoted opening of the book:

Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend's home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weisenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler's own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case, it didn't, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. The underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.

—Marianne lives in New Zealand


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Nice to know who my hero is! Now to read the post.


Thanks for a great post! I love the Blue Flower. I know its sad but I found the book very funny

The first one I read was The Bookshop. Read itcat Heathrow last summer. It perfectly captures the gray atmosphere of a Norfolk seaside town, with its feel of ancient creepinf damp.

Well, a good many of these 52 Authors posts have made me want to go out and read books, but none more than this one. Unfortunately at the moment I am buried under things that I must read--and write.

But, I'm recommending her to my book club, so soon one of her books may be one of the books that I must read.


Her biography of the four brothers is good


I know what you mean about finding the Blue Flower very funny. I did too in parts, especially during the totally-at-cross-purposes conversations between the poet and his very young beloved.


One thing about Fitzgerald's books is that they're all pretty short, usually not over 200 pages.

I'd heard of her but had no idea she was one of the Knoxes. I'm very intrigued now. The general description makes me think of the Anita Brookner novel I've mentioned here fairly recently, Hotel du Lac. Only it sounds like Fitzgerald's work has more or more interesting substance.

I have no recollection of ever even hearing of Penelope Fitzgerald. I had no idea there was a novel about Novalis in English. I'm going to have to read that. I know him as the author of Die Christenheit oder Europa (written 1799, during the 6-month papal vacancy after Pius VI had died a French prisoner):

There once were beautiful, splendid times when Europe was a Christian land ... [The] history of modern unbelief is extremely strange, and is the key to all the monstrous phenomena of recent times. ... [Catholicism's] incidental form is as good as destroyed, the old papacy lies in its grave and Rome has become a ruin for the second time. ... Just be patient, it will, it must come, the holy time of eternal peace, when the new Jerusalem will be the capital of the world; and until then, fellow believers, be cheerful and courageous amid the dangers of the time, preach the divine Gospel in word and deed, and cleave to the true, eternal faith until death.

Very good piece!

I've only read The Bookshop, which I liked, but for some reason never read any more of her. Someone (either Modern Library or Everyman's) has done a nice hardcover omnibus edition of three of her novels. I had a chance to buy this in a used bookshop a few months back, but I didn't have any money on me at the time, and when I went back a few days later it was gone.

I can't remember where I first heard about Fitzgerald, but I became familiar with Novalis through my interest in George MacDonald, who was a great devotee, and who actually published some of his own translations of Novalis' poetry.

You can read one of her books overnight at the airport

Thats a plus

I was about to say that I seemed to remember that George MacDonald was very interested in Novalis, but Rob seems to have beat me to it. I think that may have been where he got onto ground that made people question his orthodoxy.


I think it would be very nice, Maclin, if you could put a link on the sidebar to all the Authors posts--because you have nothing else to do. :-)


Or maybe update the schedules page with the link as each piece is published? Seems like it might be a little unwieldy on the sidebar. Or did you mean just one link for all? You can get that by clicking on the 52 Authors tag on the posts. It's decidedly unwieldy, though.

The only thing I know about Novalis (besides that he was a 19th c German poet and what Paul just said) is C.S. Lewis saying something along the lines of Macdonald's writing sometimes having "an oversweetness borrowed from Novalis."

Oh, I meant all together, but if you can just click on the tag, that would be fine, although the links on the schedules page would be helpful if you can find time.

You need a minion.


Have you read her book about Burne-Jones?


Everyman has two omnibus editions, each one containing three of her novels.


Although it's been many years since I read Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac and a couple more of her novels, just on the question of style alone I don't remember a whole lot of resemblance there to Fitzgerald's work. Brookner's books feature mostly interior monologue, don't they? And they're usually about quiet, solitary lives? In Fitzgerald, there's lots of talk between people, and lots of characters bustling about, at least in the four of her novels I’ve read.

Gosh, so many of you know all about Novalis, and here I'd never heard of him. And, shame on me, even after reading The Blue Flower -- two times! -- I've not been curious enough to read up on him.

So, it's the blue flower as in sehnsucht, right? That just this minute occurred to me.



I read the knox bio but I didnt read the novels for years and years partly because I thought they would be dismal north London novels like Brookner. They are not

Marianne, it was the description of PF's books as "little jewels, beautifully written in a spare, incisive way" that made me think of Brookner, or rather of Hotel du Lac. It's not a monologue but it is definitely told from the point of view of one character, and she's on a solitary vacation and doesn't have all that much to do with other people.

This post makes me feel ignorant! I've read Fitzgerald's Knox brothers book, but didn't realize she'd written novels, and I'd never heard of Novalis. I know the word only as the name of a Catholic publishing house. But this ignorance just feels like a happy opportunity.

I know very little about Novalis. I just read a bit about him in MacDonald's biography.


I can't find where you mentioned Hotel du Lac, Maclin, which makes me kind of glad because that means I didn't just forget it. It must have been elsewhere.


Um...at the risk of making you feel bad: 5/18, 10:33pm. :-)

Or maybe you were referring to my saying I had mentioned it here recently? Yeah, that could have been somewhere else.

You did talk about Brookner earlier, Mac, in the post Janet did on Dean Koontz -- here's the link.

Oh yeah, that's it. I knew I remembered saying something like that somewhere to somebody...:-)

This search engine stinks.


Yes, it does. If I use it to look for something and don't find it, but really think it's there somewhere, I use Google. ("site:www.lightondarkwater.com")

Where do you put the thing you are looking for?


Before the "site:" bit. E.g.

"hotel du lac" site:www.lightondarkwater.com

HOWEVER: I just discovered that you get different results with www.lightondarkwater.com and lightondarkwater.typepad.com. With the first you get the most recent mention, but no others. With the second, you get two other mentions, but not the most recent. This is vexing.

Just remember, the whole point of computers is to save us time and effort.


No. The whole point of computers is to store data about us so either a) someone can make money off of us, or b) someone can control us, or c) some combination of a) and b).

That's the point of the internet.


I would save a whole lot of time by staying away from computers.

They were doing it before the internet.

The point of the internet is to make us generate more data about ourselves so computers can store it and carry on with Robert's a) b) c).

I'm sure you're right Robert, but you'll have to explain to me how a computer that isn't connected to other computers can be used that way.




I use to actually punch those.



I can't type a six word sentence correctly.


Yeah. You messed that one up, too. It should be "six-word." :)

I can't type an eight-word sentence correctly either.

I actually thought about the hyphen, but was too lazy to go back and put it in.


I used to, too. I started programming at the very end of the keypunch days. Horrible experience.

I never liked it. Before I did that, I had worked at an Amex reservations center which transitioned from using typewriters connected to the computer to CRTs while I was there, and then I did data entry with a regular keyboard for a couple of years, but Holiday Inn where I worked at the time had a small room with about 4 keypunch machines where they did some odds and ends and they moved me there when there was a big job to do. It didn't last long, which was good.


I have now read The Bookshop which was very good, but not entirely happy, and am about to finish listening to Gate of Angels, which I am really enjoying. There is a pretty good ghost story in GoA, almost worthy of Russell Kirk.


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