Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

by Hermione Lee

Paperback, 2015




Vintage (2015), Edition: Reprint, 528 pages


English writer "Fitzgerald, born into an accomplished intellectual family, the granddaughter of two bishops, led a life marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop's palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. We see Fitzgerald's very English childhood in the village of Hampstead; her Oxford years, when she was known as the 'blonde bombshell'; her impoverished adulthood as a struggling wife, mother, and schoolteacher, raising a family in difficult circumstances; and the long-delayed start to her literary career"


(22 ratings; 4.3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Surely it is the case that the life of a writer — even a writer who primarily comes into her own late in life as was the case for Penelope Fitzgerald — is to be found in her writing. Fitzgerald did not publish her first book until she was sixty. Thereafter she rapidly rises the ranks of British
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writers with one enigmatic, thoughtful and typically humorous short novel after another. In less than twenty years, she was being referred to by some as the greatest living British writer. By the time of her death in April 2000, there were very few dissenters. Of course, whilst the novels, biographies (she wrote three at the outset of her ‘writing’ career), short stories and numerous reviews and other various writings may constitute ‘a life’, there can be little doubt that Penelope Fitzgerald also lived another life before her writing life began. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these lives tend to merge since a number of her early novels draw substantially on her personal experience.

Hermione Lee gives in to the temptation to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s life through her novels (as well as the biographies). So much so that in early chapters of this biography, she incorporates sizeable quotations from those early novels in order to flesh out the story that she is telling about Fitzgerald’s life during the WWII, and onwards through the 1950s and 1960s. It is a risky technique since it leads to also reading Fitzgerald’s life through the novels that do not explicitly draw upon her personal experience. And that makes it somewhat hard to judge the biographical aspect of Lee’s biography. Unlike a writer such as Jane Austen, much of Fitzgerald’s life before and outside of her writing is available to the biographer. Perhaps a literary biography would have been a better fit rather than attempting the life as a whole.

The writing here is workmanly. There are plenty of facts to report and a whole host of characters, some of whom have been worthy of biographies of their own, to introduce and engage with. And yet, at the same time, it feels thin. As though the writing were waiting for some breath of life that never quite arrives. Perhaps what I am noticing is the difference between a life treated as biography and a life as fiction. Certainly Fitzgerald’s novels never lack this breath of life. And as such I would recommend them, every one, more than this life. Indeed, what the lover of Fitzgerald’s fiction will long for here is precisely what her death makes impossible — a Fitzgeraldian treatment of her life as a whole. Failing that, we shall have to make do with what we have. And that is no small thing.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
Beautifully written life of a British novelist. Hermione Lee really brought Fitzgerald to life and by the end I felt a real kinship with her. I've only read The Gates of Angels, but I'm now curious to read some of her other fiction. Highly recommended if you enjoy literary biographies.
LibraryThing member sonofcarc
Penelope Fitzgerald was the best novelist in English in the 20th century. There, I said it.
LibraryThing member Library_Lin
I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald before researching my most recent book, Library Lin’s Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs. A few years ago, I watched the movie, The Bookshop, and loved it. But I was unaware the film was based on a book or who had
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written it.

Hermione Lee has a reputation as an excellent biographer. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is the first of her biographies I have read. If this book indicates her skill, I will go out of my way to read others.

Once you got past the lengthy section on Fitzgerald’s illustrious family, what was so compelling about the book was the sense you get of knowing the subject. Even though Lee sometimes expresses frustration with Fitzgerald’s secretiveness, she makes you feel like you know her intimately. After all, we can live with people for years and know little about what goes on in their minds.

Fitzgerald lived an unusual life, encompassing privilege, education, poverty, and hard work. Her father’s role as editor at Punch and her esteemed uncles’ involvements with Oxford and the Enigma project during World War II opened some doors for her. As did her education at Oxford. But her husband’s difficulty dealing with the aftermath as a World War II soldier led to his heavy drinking, which drove his family to near-destitution. Penelope was forced to work hard to keep the family afloat.

The family’s poverty led to unforgettable experiences, such as living in an old barge on the river Thames, which was fodder for Fitzgerald’s future novels. The barge, for example, led to her novel, Offshore. Lee did such a masterful job explaining what may have influenced Fitzgerald and the brilliance of her works (which included biographies and novels) that I am determined to read them all at some point in my life. And that is the highest compliment I can give a biographer. Lee has inspired me to read more on her subject.
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James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Winner — Biography — 2013)
Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (Shortlist — 2013)
Plutarch Award (Winner — 2015)


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Physical description

528 p.; 5.19 inches


0804170495 / 9780804170499
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