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Originally published Sunday, November 30, 2014 at 5:03 AM

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‘Penelope Fitzgerald’: brilliant comeback from a hard life

In “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,” master biographer Hermione Lee illuminates the life of Fitzgerald, the English writer and novelist who published her first novel at age 59 and won the Booker Prize for “Offshore.”

Special to The Seattle Times


“Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life”

by Hermione Lee

Knopf, 544 pp., $35

British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (“The Blue Flower”) was called by A.S. Byatt “one of the best novelists of my lifetime,” and there are plenty of readers — myself included — who would agree.

Because she didn’t publish her first book until 1975 when she was 59, she’s often seen as a late bloomer. In the biographical note accompanying her last book of fiction, a story collection titled “The Means of Escape,” her publishers even wrote: “Fitzgerald did not turn to writing until late in her life.”

That turns out to be not quite true, as Hermione Lee — a marvelous biographer whose past subjects have included Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather — makes clear.

One of the biggest surprises in “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life” is its account of what Fitzgerald and her husband, Desmond, were up to between 1950 and 1953.

From out of a large ramshackle house in Hampstead — a traditional London literary outpost — they ran a magazine, World Review, that published Muriel Spark, Alberto Moravia, Albert Camus and J.D. Salinger (pre-“Catcher in the Rye”). The periodical, in Lee’s words, was “brisk, unpretentious, and often humorous.”

Fitzgerald contributed plentiful arts and literary commentary, and even squeezed in a “satirical fantasy” or two. She also, while raising three children, wrote scripts for the BBC and reviews for Punch (a New Yorker-like periodical edited by her father E.V. Knox). In short, she was in the thick of early 1950s literary London. But the family was living beyond its means, and the magazine went bust.

By 1964, after a series of disastrous moves, including one to a Thames houseboat that sank (the basis for her 1979 Booker Prizewinner, “Offshore”), the Fitzgeralds were living in a council flat (the English equivalent of public housing) and all their literary ambitions had seemingly fizzled. Desmond was working as a travel agent; Penelope worked a series of poorly paid teaching jobs.

“A profile of Penelope Fitzgerald in these years,” Lee writes in a pivotal passage, “might describe her as a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in south London with a disgraced alcoholic husband.”

But this, Lee cautions, was “only the bleakest version of the story. Something else was bubbling under the surface.”

That “something else” included four deeply eccentric-incisive autobiographical novels drawing on her experiences as a BBC employee during World War II (“Human Voices”), a small-town bookseller (“The Bookshop”), a single mother raising her children on a decrepit houseboat (“Offshore”) and a teacher at a shoestring-budget school for child actors in central London (the hilarious “At Freddie’s”).

In the late 1980s, Fitzgerald turned away from her own life and wrote four extraordinary historical novels set in 1950s Italy (“Innocence”), 1912 Moscow (“The Beginning of Spring”), 1912 Cambridge (“The Gate of Angels”) and 18th-century Germany (“The Blue Flower,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award). The books were compact, slantwise, total submersions in their chosen eras.

Lee does a brilliant job of revealing Fitzgerald’s method: comprehensive research combined with a self-effacing way of parlaying her hard-won knowledge into elusive stories that seem to take their surroundings casually for granted.

She illuminates something similar in Fitzgerald’s own character too — a half-feigned vagueness or dottiness mixed with a tough tenacity that not only made her steady stream of books possible, once she got going, but made them what they were.

Michael Upchurch:

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