Hermione Lee’s “Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life”

Spring startles me this year. I’m agog at blooms and birds, and most of all the light – early and late – already the sun sinks into the sea far to the north.

Winter was long and dark – but full of books. For Christmas I hinted about the new Hermione Lee biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I loved her novels “Offshore” and “The Bookshop” years ago, but wanting to know more of her novels before the biography, I read “The Beginning of Spring” and “The Gate of Angels.”

Born into a distinguished family, but sidetracked from writerly ambitions by marriage and children, Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize at the age of 60 – a total surprise to the literary community. Lee calls Fitzgerald’s life partly “a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style,” and finds her to be “not quite like anyone else.” Lee writes how the novels use Fitzgerald’s experiences, but hide Fitzgerald herself.

Sometimes Lee has a hard go. Fitzgerald “didn’t like full explanations,” but Lee has great investigative and analytical skills (on view earlier in her masterful biography of Virginia Woolf) and her sources are deep. Fitzgerald’s family cooperated with Lee, and it’s intriguing to read about notes and scraps of paper, clippings, and bits of fabric preserved and discovered in Fitzgerald’s working papers. Lee sometimes traces Fitzgerald’s notes and thoughts right into a book, a complication of thought becomes a memorable Fitzgerald sentence: “So sure an instinct has the human heart for its happiest time.”

Photos illustrate the book, but it’s also illuminated by Penelope Fitzgerald’s own artwork, little drawings and watercolors. That’s one of my favorite parts about Fitzgerald, the way she “took pleasure in every detail of her life, in arts and crafts.” “There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. She enjoyed painting or making things more than she enjoyed writing.”

Fitzgerald is fascinating and a little obscure, and likely to be unknown to even avid readers. In her preface Lee tells that while some people speak of Fitzgerald as their “greatest literary hero,” others, specially young readers, are likely to say, “Who?”

Lee says she wrote her book to answer that question, out of “love and admiration” for her work, and “curiosity about her life and a belief in her genius.” It’s a great read.robin