John Horder on
So I Have Thought of You - The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald
introduced by Dame Antonia Byatt (Fourth Estate, £25)
Publicist: Jesse Caae on 0208 307 4928 or [email protected]
Penelope Fitzgerald's life was largely her re-invention of Alice in Wonderland, which for most of the time turned into a battleground with her own pain and chaos. Three-year-old girl though she was in her heart of hearts, she could never evade either her pain or chaos, as so many of the literary Big Wigs like Dame Byatt seemed able to do, at the drop of a mad hatter.
Penelope was a novelist, biographer, Mad Hatter herself and Literary Grand Dame, when she wasn't wasting her energies congratulating the many people she put on pedestals for O.B.E.s and C.B.E.s etc.
Fame as a novelist came to her eventually when she was 65, exhausted for years of being the main breadwinner for her family, for her to enjoy it as much as she might otherwise have done. The
Bookshop (Harper Perennial, £6.99), now recognised as a classic, was first shortlisted for the Booker.
It was a novella first published by Colin Haycraft when Duckworths H.Q. was at The Old Piano Factory
in Camden Town, and Beryl Bainbridge combined the roles of office cleaner and novelist in residence.
Offshore, another novella also published by Duckworths, went on to win the Booker Prize, much to the amazement of some who were taken in by her false persona as a bag lady. We shall return to the conflict between her and Colin when she won the Booker for the wrong novel, as usually happens.
Penelope's strong sense of conscience and puritan work ethic ran in a family of R.C. and Anglican bishops. Her uncle was Ronald Knox, the most public convert to Roman Catholicism since Cardinal Newman. She wrote about the brothers in her amazing biography, The Knox Brothers.
Wilfred, the least known, was an Anglican chaplain at Cambridge, wrote profound devotional works, Terence Dooley informs us guardedly. All this devotion transparently contributed to Penelope's lasting desire to be in the world, but not of it.
Her father Eddie, nicknamed Evoe, the legendary editor of Punch between two world wars, lived the longest, dying in 1970 at the ripe old age of ninety. There is not a single letter to him, or, more surprisingly, to her alcoholic husband Desmond.
This 520 page tome, So I Have Thought of You, edited by Terence Dooley, who is married to Penelope's daughter Maria, is divided into two parts: 1) Family and Friends and 2) Writing. We get to know the side of her which lacked compassion to herself best of all in the nourishing letters to her beloved daughters Tina and Maria in Family and Friends. They make up the very core and lasting essence of The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, which has eluded Terence Dooley in part 2.
It will mainly benefit her future biographers.
It is peppered with unnecessary "congratulations" to the waspish gay novelist, Francis King, and her last Knight in Shining Armour who could do no wrong, American publisher, Chris Carduff.
Chris was responsible for her last thrilling success in America of her novel about the poet Novalis, The Blue Flower. By then Penelope had run out of steam for the fights with Colin Haycraft at The Old Piano Factory. As Terence Dooley amazingly recounts:
"(Penelope) had hoped (Colin) would accompany her to the Booker dinner, but he did not, adducing the improbable lack of a dinner jacker. Shortly after this it was inexplicably implied to Penelope that Duckworth had a surfeit of elegant novellas and she should return to crime-writing, which would sell better."
Though we see Colin Haycraft hastily backtracking, huge damage had already been done. She was deeply deeply hurt. She took her next novel to Philip Ziegler, a respected biographer, at Collins. Here at she fell on her feet: she at last found a publisher who loved. honoured, respected and cherished her lasting genius.
John Horder © world copyright 2009