Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.

This meticulous biography paints a stunning portrait of the late-blooming English author

Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

by Hermione Lee
Knopf, 512pp., $35

Hermione Lee's meticulous biography paints a stunning portrait of a charming yet enigmatic writer who was able to realize a dream deferred.

Penelope Fitzgerald bore all the marks of a great talent in her early years. The clever, literary daughter of a historically significant British family (her uncle Dillwyn Knox was an Enigma codebreaker, while her father E.V. Knox was the editor of Punch, the influential colonial-era humor magazine) wrote of her time at Oxford, "We didn't feel the need to study modern literature, we imagined we were going to write it." Yet it would be nearly four decades – with a world war, a bad marriage, three children, and a long stretch of homelessness and abject poverty in between – before that imagining would become a reality.

What's striking about Fitzgerald's story is not that she published her first novel at age 60 or won the 1979 Booker Prize for Offshore, which mined a particularly bleak era during which she and her drunken, disbarred husband lived with their children on a dilapidated barge on the Thames. Rather, it's that Fitz­ger­ald's creative spark was never extinguished by her circumstances – it was just back-burnered to the vagaries of life, related in painstaking, if uneven, detail by her biographer.

While Lee's methodology is on point, the opening chapters are a maddening tangle of names and vague personal pronouns, effectively burying her topic in a heap of clumsy prose. Lee shines in her thoughtful analyses of Fitzgerald's novels, bringing details from her subject's life into relief in enlightening and poignant ways, while retellings elsewhere of tangential details bog down the narrative. In this way, Lee could have used a bit of her subject's economy of language. Then again, saying in a few lines what others take pages to say was one of Fitzgerald's rare talents.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Arts Reviews
<i>The Swallowed Man</i> by Edward Carey
The Swallowed Man
The Austin author's rich and strange take on Pinocchio has Geppetto tell the story from the belly of the giant fish

Robert Faires, Feb. 5, 2021

<i>Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents</i> by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
In her second book, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines and breaks down the unacknowledged social structure baked into our country

Rosalind Faires, Nov. 13, 2020

More by Melanie Haupt
Desert Door Distillery Rolls Out Large Hand Sanitizer Production
Desert Door Distillery Rolls Out Large Hand Sanitizer Production
Local sotol makers offer the critical commodity free of cost

March 20, 2020

Tibetan Dumplings Shine at Yak & Yeti in Cedar Park
Tibetan Dumplings Shine at Yak & Yeti in Cedar Park
Dishes for sharing (or not) at this tiny Nepalese restaurant

Feb. 14, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

English writers, Penelope Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee, Booker Prize

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle