The Blue Flower

by Penelope Fitzgerald

Paper Book, 2014




Boston : Mariner Books, 2014.


A fictionalized biography of the 18th Century German poet, Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg, who wrote under the nom de plume, Novalis. The novel centers on his philosophy ("My conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it.") and on his romance with Sophie von Kuhn, 12, who became his muse, but who died of tuberculosis before they could marry. By the author of The Gates of Angels.

Media reviews

Penelope Fitzgerald's writing is rife with odd, almost impossible contradictions: She is a minimalist who celebrates an abundance of details, a miniaturist who can unravel the mysteries of human character with five words of dialogue. In the closely observed realm of her slim, 1995 novel titled The Blue Flower, readers are plunged so suddenly, intimately and irrevocably into the physical and intellectual world of 18th-century Germany – which produced, among others, Goethe and Hegel – the 21st century becomes merely a faintly remembered acquaintance.....Sensual feast that it is, however, this book brings the reader back again and again to the growing, transmogrifying child – the blue flower – at its heart....
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Penelope Fitzgerald uses fiction to examine an 18th-century German poet and his doomed love for a 12-year-old ...It is hard to know where to begin to praise the book. First off, I can think of no better introduction to the Romantic era: its intellectual exaltation, its political ferment, its brilliant amateur self-scrutiny, its propensity for intense friendships and sibling relationships, its uncertain morals, its rumors and reputations and meetings, its innocence and its refusal of limits. Also, ''The Blue Flower'' is a wholly convincing account of that very difficult subject, genius.

User reviews

LibraryThing member stillatim
Fitzgerald's last novel, and, quite frankly, the praise it receives often seems to be more a result of her dying after writing it than the novel itself. Often described as 'strange,' 'magical,' and 'short,' The Blue Flower is certainly concise. But strange? It's a reasonable faithful depiction of Novalis's falling in love with a 12 year old. Yes, *that's* strange, but that doesn't mean the novel is. Magical? In the sense that psychotic episodes might be enchanting, maybe.

None of which is to take away from the book's great merits: beautifully written, hysterically funny, and particularly enjoyable for trainspotting purposes (*love* the catty Schlegels and the jokes at Fichte's expense).

But my suspicion, and hope, is that Penelope is floating above us somewhere laughing at the human being's ability to mistake irony for passion. Here we have a novel in which a silly but highly intelligent young man falls in love with a 12 year old girl who is, precisely, a 12 year old girl. He does not fall in love with the 27 year old woman that the reader really wants him to fall in love with. His brother proceeds to also fall in love with the (now) 13 year old girl instead of the (now) 28 year old woman he should fall in love with. This is the background for one of the most famous symbols in romantic literature, the blue flower: what is it? Why on earth would you want it?

Anyway, the moral of this story is i) that all men are remarkably silly. They're either romantics who get rewarded for blathering on at great length about nothing, pietists who will put their family through hell, or morons in other less obvious way. And ii) that if you're a sensible, intelligent woman who thinks she's found a sensible, intelligent man, give it a year and he'll reveal himself to be remarkably silly by falling in love with a child or thinking that, because you're a little nervous around him, you hate him (he will then run away from you). Also, you will all die of consumption.

Rest in peace Ms. Fitzgerald. May your ghost encourage others to write beautifully.
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LibraryThing member thorold
The thing about Heinrich von Ofterdingen that probably grates most on a modern reader is the way it treats the poet's Great Love. Poor Mathilde only has about three lines in the whole book (when she blushingly agrees to teach him the guitar, marry him, etc.). The irony here is that this probably reflects very closely Novalis's own Great Tragic Love, for the unfortunate teenager Sophie von Kühn. He met her during a visit to her family when she was 12 and he in his early twenties, they became engaged on her thirteenth birthday, and she died a couple of years later, before they could marry. Penelope Fitzgerald takes this incident as the hook for her historical novel about Novalis, The Blue Flower. Significantly, we never see him as anything other than a charming but rather selfish young man who is training to be a mining official, whilst Sophie is just a dim and slightly puzzled little girl. Fitzgerald puts the focus on the busy social life around them: their various siblings (as usual Fitzgerald handles the eccentric child-characters brilliantly), the frustrated intelligent young women who are rather hoping that Friedrich might notice them, their parents, teachers and doctors.

The book has its irritating aspects - for instance, I didn't like the slightly clumsy Germanisms she puts in to disguise the fact that we're reading the book in English ("the Bernhard"), but on the whole it's an amusing, moderately thought-provoking palate-cleanser when you've been exposed to the worst aspects of Romanticism. And it's not quite a satire: there's a strong element of explaining where the Romantics were coming from, trying to give us a feel for what it might have been like to live in a time when science had made all questions ask able but - at least for practical everyday purposes like healthcare - hadn't yet answered very many of them.
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LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
I picked up this book because it had a pretty cover. I noticed it had a blurb on the front from A.S. Byatt, whom I rather like, and it also noted that the author, Fitzgerald, was a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. So I looked at the back cover, and saw that it was a historical novel about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis - which was quite a coincidence, since I'd just that month been reading about Novalis and looking at some of his poetry online. So I grabbed it!

However, at first I couldn't get into the book, and as I read through it, it began to actively annoy me.
Fitzgerald obviously did a lot of research for the book, reading Novalis' letters, writings, documents from the time period... (late 18th-century).
Unfortunately, rather than working these period details subtly into the narrative, she just bluntly inserts random facts into the text, even when they don't really serve a purpose in the story. It's distracting, and struck me as poor writing technique.
Her personal, 20th-century opinion on everything also shines through - and it's not a positive opinion. In my opinion, the 'job' of historical fiction is to take the reader into the time and place described, and to make the reader see things from the characters' point of view. Instead, we find out that Penelope Fitzgerald thinks that people in 18th-century Germany ate disgusting cuisine, were unhygenic, penurious - and for some reason she seems to think they were always freezing cold, even though Germany has a mild climate and particularly nice summers. I'm sorry, but if the characters would think that a pig's nostril was a delicacy, I want to FEEL that it's a delicacy while I'm reading the book. I don't care if the author personally thinks it's gross. By the end of the book, I wondered why she even chose to write about these people, since her opinion of not only their culture and lifestyle - but of them personally - was so low.

Fritz (Novalis) is portrayed as faintly ridiculous and a cad, and his love interest, the young Sophie, as air-headed and ugly. Both of their families come across as caricatures - one of the ridiculously strict and religious variety, and one of the jolly yet greedy and grasping type... I can certainly appreciate books where the characters are all unlikable - but I didn't get the impression that these people really were, historically, that bad - just that Fitzgerald personally regards them with a kind of snide contempt. There's no one in the novel that the reader gets to even really, feel that you know, due to the distancing style of the writing. Fitzgerald uses an odd style of referring to people using an article: "The Bernhard," "The Mandelsloh." Even if this was a custom at the time (I don't know if it was - it's not a modern German usage), such a construction should be saved for dialogue, not when the author is talking about her characters.

I couldn't believe the multiple pages of rave reviews printed inside the front of the book - I really didn't think it was impressive in any way.
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LibraryThing member scohva
This novel is centered around young, late eighteenth century German student, then writer, philosopher, and salt mine inspector Friedrich Von Hardenburg, who would become the poet Novalis. When he falls in love with unremarkable looking and somewhat stupid 12 year old Sophie Von Kuhn, his family and friends wonder how someone with such genius could ever fall in love with someone with so little to offer. Told in 55 short chapters, The Blue Flower was often funny, and the most compulsively readable book I've read so far this year. The characters, especially the von Hardenburg family, were wonderful. There was a great sense of Germany (at least among the upper class) of the time, with a love of conversation, learning, and family showing the influence of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism.… (more)
LibraryThing member mirrani
This book didn't really do anything for me one way or the other. When I finished reading I wasn't sure of a lot of things. I wasn't sure if I liked what I read and I wasn't really sure I remembered what I read either. I picked this book because it was longlisted for the Orange Prize (Now Women's Prize for Fiction) and I assumed that meant it would be an enjoyable read or have some aspect to it that would capture me somehow. I didn't dislike my time with this book, but I certainly didn't find it entertaining, nor did I see what the fuss was about. I feel somewhat pressured by the four and five star reviews I have seen to go back, read this again and try and work out where the book and I went so wrong before, but I can't really make myself think about doing that right now. Maybe in a few years I'll give it another go. For now I will just admit that other readers found something in this book that I didn't have a clue even existed. I can't find the greatness, but I won't say it's bad either.… (more)
LibraryThing member carmarie
Ugh. I did not like this book! It was really hard to read and I skimmed through at least 2/3rds of it. I really don't see how it recieved so much praise and so many awards. Maybe because of the research that went into it, I dunno. I usually like Orange Prize picks, as well as Critic picks. But, yea, not on this one.
LibraryThing member tandah
A very clever and possibly profound book but one that requires time, and possibly a re-read to appreciate all the aspects of the story.
LibraryThing member dcnorm1
My first reading of Fitzgerald and certainly my first familiarity with Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772 – 1801), upon a portion of whose life this "true" novel is based. The style is a simple one, almost Hemingwayesque, but the muscularity of the words is even stronger. Everything counts, nothing wasted, nothing simply for posing or show. The story itself is compelling and evocative. Compelling in being in part a doomed love story; another, in beliefs, intellectual beliefs, and love can engage one another in remarkable and strange ways. For von Hardenberg expresses in his love for an otherwise unremarkable woman his philosophy that what one sees is what one believes; that it is in the mind that outward reality is created. He rejects an attractive, intellectually vigorous and aware woman in favor of a child with barely a thought, for the latter can be his "philosophy," someone who he can create as his mind wishes. And it is evocative in portraying the life of provincial late 18th century "Germany" in language and sentences and paragraphs that leaves one slack-jawed with wonder.… (more)
LibraryThing member K.Binkley
This book is written beautifully but it gets bogged down by all the adjectives. It didn't always keep my interest.
LibraryThing member akblanchard
The Blue Flower tells the love story of German poet Novalis’s doomed engagement to a girl much younger than he is. Thirteen-year-old Sophie seems rather empty headed, and it’s hard to tell exactly what he sees in her, other than her name, which means “wisdom” (would he have fallen for her if her name had been Gretel, I wonder?). His family doesn’t approve of the match because Sophie’s not of the nobility, and she’s weak with tuberculosis. Nonetheless, the two get engaged, and after enduring horrific medical treatments, Sophie dies, just as she did in real life. The main characters in this book are inaccessible; the reader can’t answer the most basic questions about their motivations: why does he love her, really? Does she love him? Only thing I can think of is that to Fritz, Sophie represents his anima, as Carl Jung would say, and as a young, inexperienced Sophie just goes along with his plans. It’s not a living breathing (or in Sophie’s case, coughing) teenage girl he loves; it’s that somehow in his mind he has identified her as his coveted “blue flower”.

The only characters that are in the slightest bit lively are peripheral to the central love story, Fritz’s (Novalis’s) good-hearted brother Erasmus and sister Sidonie, Karoline, who loves Fritz even though she fails the literary interpretation test he gives her (best scene in the book, in my opinion), and “the Mandelsoh” Sophie’s no-nonsense older step-sister. I’m glad I read this book because it gave me a glimpse into the customs of a distant place and time (early 1800’s Germany) but I didn’t find it easy going. Even though this book won a lot of accolades when it was published, I think the author made a mistake in putting such inaccesssible characters in such an unfamiliar setting. Either make the characters opaque or the setting, I’d say, not both.
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LibraryThing member auntieknickers
My clearest memory from this book, based on the life of the German poet Novalis, is the scene of the German household doing a year's laundry all at once!
LibraryThing member KateBadenoch
Tried to finish it. I really did. The first few chapters were engaging... the rest was just awful
LibraryThing member John
I like Penelope Fitzgerald; see The Bookshop (97:41) and The Beginning of Spring (98:1), and this book has lots of impressive endorsements on the cover from people such as A.S.Byatt and Frank Kermode, but it didn't work for me and I gave up about three-quarters of the way through.

The story is that of Fritz von Hardenberg who became "the great romantic poet and philosopher, Novalis". All news to me. The story is set in Germany at the end of the 1700s, and Fitzgerald is very good with the description of the times: the food, the housing, the ways of life, and the fickleness of fate with many children and others struck down by any number of ailments. The story moves and unfolds slowly, which mirrors the pace of life at the time. What does not change is the vicissitudes of everyday life and human relationships, though a little different for the times: Fritz falls in love with a 12-year old girl when he is 20, and is content to wait until she is 16, at the same time developing as a poet and philosopher in a world that knows what these are, and seems to value them.

But, for some reason, the story just didn't click for me. And when you feel that reading something is becoming a chore or an obligation, then it is time to put it down and move on to something else.
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LibraryThing member astridnr
Penelope Fitzgerald manages to write in English a very German story of the romantic poet known as Novalis, who lived at the same time as Goethe in the late eighteenth-century. Her use of language is such that we feel transported to an earlier time. As a native speaker of German, I was amazed at her ability to capture the nuances of expression and thought so specific to the German psyche, that I wondered if The Blue Flower had been written in German first and then translated into English. The Blue Flower is a very interesting read. Fitzgerald educates the reader on a very specific place and time in history. Our hero, know as Friedrich von Hardenberg, or Fritz, falls in love with a twelve year old girl within the first fifteen minutes of meeting her. He becomes engaged to her within two years. For a man who is a well-educated poet, it seems unfathomable that he would succumb to such an irrational course of action. Fitzgerald's characters are for the most part likeable and accessible. Topics covered include eighteenth century Germany, philosophy, medicine, fate, family life and romantic love.… (more)
LibraryThing member sharlene_w
I was suggest this book by my library system's "Next Read" program because I have read and enjoyed a couple of Tracy Chevalier's books. The Blue Flower reconstructs the life of German romantic poet Novalis, whose real name was Fredrich von Hardenberg. It brings to life his life and surroundings in 18th-century Germany, particularly his relationship with young Sophie von Kühn, a mere child when they met. The attraction of historical fiction is being able to experience a taste of life during that time and place and Penelope Fitzgerald does a wonderful job with her descriptions of that time.… (more)
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Despite the lovely prose, I couldn't really connect to the main characters - especially Sophie. Fitzgerald doesn't convey what this girl had that made Fritz, then Erasmus, and finally the Father become so smitten.
LibraryThing member lxydis
"how does she do it?"
LibraryThing member CarltonC
The Blue Flower is typical of Fitzgerald in that it is concise and elliptical, yet like an impressionist painting. Much is suggested and this reader enjoys that approach, but others may not.
I think that all of Fitzgerald’s novels are excellent, and had read most by the time I read The Blue Flower, which is about the early life of the artist who became Novalis. I had been to an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery the previous year, The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990 which included works by Novalis. So all these factors and others combine to make this a special book for me.
So I would recommend if you like a concise, suggestive style, which lets your imagination work with the book
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LibraryThing member k6gst
Quite good , but I confess not my favorite Penelope Fitzgerald.
LibraryThing member lucybrown
a really hypnotically brilliant love story
LibraryThing member Mikalina
"We are all free to imagine what the world is like, and since we probably all imagine it differently, there is no reason at all to believe in the fixed reality of things" Professor Johann Gottlieb Fichte says speaking of the philosophy of Kant (which he believed he had greatly improved upon: Kant believed in the external world) at the first lecture Fritz attended at Jena where he studied history and philosophy.

And Fritz imagines. Then Sophie - "his Philosophie" gets ill:

"Shall I stay?"
"If you stayed here, you would not be wanted as a nurse", the Mandelsloh replied. "You would be wanted as a liar".
Fritz raised his heavy head. "What then should I say?
"You look a little better this morning Söphen."

"I could not lie to her, more than I could lie to myself."
"I don´t know to what extent a poet lies to himself."

And later, at home to his brother Erasmus:
"I could not stay," Fritz told him.

Paradox and irony are too reductive words for describing this powerful book about the clash of the worlds, the material and the spiritual. Now they are all dead, Sophia, Fritz, Karoline, Erasmus, the Bernhard and all the rest of them, the courageous and the foolish alike. Truly no imagination saved them from that - All dead? What about the blue flower? Oh - it blooms. With a fragrance more contagious than consumption, it flowers with a deadly flame that burns with the life we bring to it, reading....

Materially: So easy reading, uncomplicated storyline, straightforward language, short.
Spiritually: I share Fritz feeling when carrying the Bernhard, saving him from drowning. "How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility". Left more than a bit blue .... heavy actually, by the reality of what lives and what dies.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
a really hypnotically brilliant love story
LibraryThing member lucybrown
a really hypnotically brilliant love story
LibraryThing member amanda4242
A buffoon becomes obsessed with an empty headed twelve year old, who, in grand Romantic fashion, dies of consumption. I don't understand why there are so many glowing reviews of this one: the plot is crap and the writing has the stilted quality of a very poor translation.
LibraryThing member AlisonY
Set in the late 1700s in Germany, The Blue Flower is a fictional account of the life of Fritz von Hardenberg, who would later become known as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Born into a noble, pious family, young Fritz's future has already been mapped out for him; he will follow in his father's footsteps in the Salt Mines Directorate. Yet as he studies, Fritz's predisposition for thought and romanticism leads to him becoming utterly entranced with the 12 year old Sophie whom he believes to be his muse.

The Blue Flower was a lot more 'readable' than I'd expected. Whilst Fitzgerald plays with Fritz's elevated thinking (which touches on humorous madness at times), there was so much more to this novel than simply being an account of the early life of this renowned man of literature and philosophy. With well researched historical detail, we are swept back to the times of eighteenth century nobility in Germany, as von Hardenberg breaks all the expected rules of his position and intellect in his pursuit of this vacuous child from a lower class family.

4 stars - first class historical fiction that swept me away with it.
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