The Knox Family
Whether writing fiction or a biography of her uncles, Penelope Fitzgerald was superb
Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By BRIAN MURRAY
"I think that everyone's got a certain amount in them that they can write about," Penelope Fitzgerald told an interviewer earlier this year. "And they can write about it early in life, or late."
Fitzgerald chose late. She was fifty-eight when, in 1975, she published her first book -- a biography of the English painter Edward Burne-Jones -- and nearly sixty when she started writing fiction in a serious way. Fitzgerald's 1979 novel, Offshore, won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize; three others -- The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990) -- were shortlisted for the same honor. In 1998 Fitzgerald won the American National Book Critics Circle Award for The Blue Flower, her final novel and first international best-seller. She died this April at the age of eighty-three.
Publishers, mindful of Fitzgerald's continuing popularity, are now making her earlier works available to American readers. Fitzgerald's novels are marked from the start by an assurance of structure, a maturity of tone: They're wry, graceful, and lean. Fitzgerald often focuses on oddballs and outcasts, as well as on self-deluding souls encumbered in life's struggles by their own weaknesses and flaws. "One should write lives of people one admires," Fitzgerald once explained -- but "novels about people who are sadly mistaken."
Thus, in The Bookshop, Fitzgerald's most representative novel, a widow named Florence Green opens a bookshop in Hardborough, a dull and soggy coastal town in East Anglia. Florence is middle-aged and wary, suspecting for example that "men and women aren't quite the right people for each other." Still, as her last name suggests, Florence has remained something of an innocent; she has "a kind heart," which "is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."
The people of Hardborough, Florence soon learns, aren't much interested in books or culture. They are, however, quite good at petty bickering and stirring up suspicion and spite, and in the end Florence's little bookshop folds in a squall of unexpected controversy. She leaves Hardborough with her "head bowed in shame," far less green than before. Florence, Fitzgerald suggests, will no longer "blind" herself to the grim fact that, in the final analysis, human beings are "divided into exterminators and exterminates, with the former, at any given moment, predominating."
The same issues of power and themes of cruelty are present in The Means of Escape -- a new collection of eight stories previously unpublished in the United States. These fable-like pieces, most written in the 1990s, illustrate vividly Fitzgerald's fondness for indirection and avoidance of heavy-handed explanation. Indeed, many readers will decide that several of these stories -- "Beehernz," "Not Shown," and "At Hiruharama" -- are rather too pared down: turned into puzzles, not tales. Others, like "The Axe" (Fitzgerald's first published story), are oddly surreal. For readers new to Fitzgerald, The Means of Escape is not the place to start. Still, even in these stories you can see her fascination with power and cruelty. "The Axe" features a cold-blooded manager who, for little reason, fires an old and pathetically devoted employee, with vicious and haunting results. "Not Shown" includes an oppressive woman who, we're told, "belongs to the tribe of torturers. Why pretend they don't exist?"
In all her work, Fitzgerald favored underdogs, the weak against the strong, and she despised self-importance and careless brutality. Just as emphatically, she prized wit, ingenuity, and generosity -- qualities amply displayed in her remarkable family of clerics, writers, and intellectuals. In fact, back in 1977, Fitzgerald published a fine family biography, The Knox Brothers, that pays tribute to her father, Edmund ("Eddie") Knox, and his three younger brothers -- who are now largely forgotten, but who were men of considerable achievement in their day.
Her father's family, Penelope Fitzgerald reports, included many Anglican churchmen: ministers, missionaries, and minor religious authors. But it was Edmund -- her grandfather -- who ascended most impressively in ecclesiastical rank, serving as bishop of Birmingham and, later, Manchester.