Lee's subject was too elusive to be lovedby Jonathan Derbyshire / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
Penelope Fitzgerald’s uncle, the priest and theologian Ronald Knox, once gave her the following piece of advice: “Biographies should be written about people you love and novels about characters you dislike.” Hermione Lee doesn’t love Fitzgerald, exactly—her subject was too elusive to be loved, at least at a distance—but she certainly admires her, and that is enough to make this a worthy monument to one of the finest English novelists of the second half of the 20th century.
Not that Fitzgerald herself felt especially English as a writer. Lee shows that her elective affinities were predominantly European—among them Turgenev, Beckett and the Italian Alberto Moravia. Fitzgerald’s intense interest in Moravia in the 1950s was, Lee writes, a particularly important stage in her “long journey” towards writing fiction.
The sheer length of that journey—Fitzgerald didn’t publish her first novel until she was 60—might have stumped a less able biographer than Lee. But she solves the problem posed by the telescoped chronology of Fitzgerald’s career very elegantly, tying her discussion of the early novels to the domestic episodes from which they sprang.
Lee is at her best, however, discussing Fitzgerald’s less domestic, more historical later books. She assiduously annotates the research that underpinned novels about 1950s Italy, pre-Revolutionary Russia and Germany in the late 18th century, while also acknowledging that such digging won’t unlock the “secret” of Fitzgerald’s unusual gifts. On that score, Lee displays all the tact and reticence for which her subject was well known.