by Nancy Means Wright
For those who begin writing in their sixties, seventies, even eighties, the tenet “less is more” literally applies. Less time left to complete a long work, yet more years of living to write about. Now that I’m in that season of life myself, I love to discover late blooming writers. There are many, of course. like Wallace Stegner, or Harriet Doerr who published a debut novel in her seventies. But few are as brilliant as British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who resembled, as writer Julian Barnes whimsically described in The New Yorker, “some harmless, jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world.”
Grandmother she was, but hardly harmless–every word a polished dart. Her first novel tiptoed into the world when she was sixty; her last, The Blue Flower, about poet Novalis’s real life infatuation with a twelve-year-old girl, appeared when the author was eighty. She was, as she quipped, “an old writer who had never been a young one”– a crusty eccentric who dyed her hair with tea bags, ate blackboard chalk to counter a calcium deficiency, and wore clothes, as her biographer Hermione Lee wrote: “curiously constructed, I think, out of curtains.” Fitzgerald wasn’t wholly ignorant of the writing world; rather she grew up “dipped in ink.”
Her father was editor of the satirical Punch, her brother a Cambridge don and WW2 code breaker; her mother wrote off and on for The Manchester Guardian. She worked for the BBC and married a handsome Irish ex-soldier, Desmond Fitzgerald. Together they ran a cultural magazine that published writers like J.D. Salinger before he penned The Catcher in the Rye.
But her husband’s psyche had been damaged in the WWI fighting. He fell to pieces, the magazine failed, and his wife was left to raise their three children. Ultimately homeless, the family slept and ate on a dark, leaky barge in the Thames River. “I’m sorry I’m late,” Fitzgerald famously announced one day at the school where she taught, “but our house sank.” The barge had capsized at high tide with all their possessions, books, and family papers turned to pulp. Only the cat was saved, clinging to the mast.
That cryptic comment was typical of Fitzgerald, who came from a family of few words. When the alcoholic husband died, she at last had a room of her own, and the words poured from her pen. She drew on her own life experience for novels like The Bookshop and Offshore (that leaky barge)–the latter won the Booker Prize in 1979. She set fiction in times and places she’d never experienced: Innocence is set in Florence; The Beginning of Spring in revolutionary Russia; The Blue Flower in 18th-century Germany. She treated the drama of personal defeats “as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”
Most of the books are under 200 pages. Less is more. “I feel drawn to whatever is spare, subtle, and economical,” she declared. “I try to make everything quite clear, but then I think, this is an insult to the reader…and so I begin to cut out, whole chapters go.” She worried about endings, too, that she might wax sentimental, or that she might explain too much–and so she pared them to the bone. (I think here of some TV versions of mystery novels, in which the last several minutes attempt to explain every moment of a crime. I personally deplore this dull recapitulation.)
In the last scene of Innocence, about a girl who sets her hearts on a bullheaded doctor who resolves to be emotionally dependent on no one (the Boston Globe called it “a delectable comedy of manners”), the despondent young doctor asks “What’s to become of us? We can’t go on like this.” And the character Cesare, who tends to silence, replies: “Yes, we can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.”
And so Fitzgerald wrote to her final breath at age eighty-three. The Blue Flower has fifty-five short chapters, some only a page or two. Each detail is momentary but vividly imagined–like the evasive blue flower, which appears to be something ineffable that we seek in our lives, but seldom find. It’s that greater truth we long for, perhaps, now captured by the writer–in a few carefully chosen words.