Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.
This meticulous biography paints a stunning portrait of the late-blooming English author
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Nov. 28, 2014
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Lifeby 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.