Penelope Fitzgerald: Blue Flower, Gate of Angels, and more


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Here's a thread for discussion of the novels and letters of this critics' favorite (1916-2000).

Here's a New York Review of Books piece on her.

I read several of her novels years ago and am overdue to return to this author -- perhaps reading again some I've already enjoyed, perhaps reading something for the first time.

Separately I will post some reflections that I jotted down years ago. These would be most appropriate to kick off discussions with people who've already read the novels. Beware spoilers!

How about you? Is a Fitzgerald thread overdue here?
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Some thoughts on The Blue Flower with a glance at The Beginning of Spring. Beware spoilers! These are notes perhaps best read if you've read the novels.

17 June 2001
Of the three novels by Fitzgerald I have read - - all within the past few days - - The Blue Flower (1995) seems to have least plot.
A few minutes after having finished it, I don't perceive a focused resolution of the obvious issue, namely the young poet's love for the very young girl who dies. The novel is about Novalis, yet he is offstage a lot of the time. I take it we can say he kept faith with her.

There are snatches of various people's ideas, but at first glance, at least, they don't seem to relate very meaningfully to the events of the book. With some authors one might take it that that is the point, but I am not sure that's so with Fitzgerald.
It's a story of several families:

Hardenbergs, at Weissenfels (Novalis's own - - and calling him "Novalis" is anachronistic, because it was only after the time covered by the book that he assumed this pen-name; he is often just Fritz in the book) - - his Moravian father, his mother, his sister Sidonie, several brothers - - "the" Bernhard (I don't know why the definite article), Erasmus, Karl...
Justs, at Tennstedt - - including Karoline, who experiences unrequited love for Fritz
Rockenthiens, at Gruningen - - the family of Fritz's beloved, Sophie van Kuhn
One also read a bit about Jena, a city of professors and students.
People talk about revolution in France.
Goethe appears briefly. One or other of the Schlegels also.
A theme does seem to be the inadequacy of man's studies. One sees a number of mentions of a doctor, the inventor of "Brownismus," which seems
of its time, and not very likely to help much.
Fritz learns the salt mine trade. And he sees mining for precious metals as releasing something from its underground darkness, not as spoliation of nature.
I don't know if we are supposed to make any connections between digging in the earth, and digging in people; anyone who finishes the book will have been struck by the minimally presented account of Sophie's incisions to drain a tubercular tumor, etc.
We're given passages from letters and diaries (including Sophie's, which usually records nothing having happened), which sound authentic. There was one thing that didn't sound authentic to me, and that was when a portraitist (who never completes a portrait) comes to Sophie's family, and pretty much keeps his room - - and someone thinks perhaps he's bedding one of the maids, since one hears mattress springs. I doubted that the mattress would have springs.
Quite often one character doesn't know what another is thinking or feeling.
Fritz insists that he fell in love with Sophie in 15 minutes. The novel doesn't lead us to doubt that. There is not a lot about his poetry - - we are to understand that he writes poems and that some have been published by the end of the period covered by the book, but his actual poems are not emphasized. That's not a fault; the book covers several years of Fritz's life; in fact Chapter 5 takes us back to the birth of Fritz's father. The story certainly is something of a family chronicle.
That's interesting because we might expect a novel about a founder of (German) Romanticism to emphasize the emotions of an individual.
Readers probably would want to explore the contrasts between the early-married woman (turns out she is only 22 at the book's end) called "the Mandelsoh" and Karoline (who's 27 when she meets Fritz - - so older than he; but unmarried) and, I suppose, Sophie. The men in the story seem to be on the move a lot from town to town on various errands, learning a trade etc. while the women sit home.
I know a little about German Romanticism, having read things about George MacDonald who was influenced by it, and so on, but there are things here that elude me. What about readers who know less about GR than I do? Who does Fitzgerald think she is primarily writing for? She had to be confident that this audience would be faithful because she has not bent her efforts to make a book that will captivate a wide range of readers. Having said that, I'll say that there is plenty of concise but good description of rooms, the surroundings of houses, dusty roads, streams, etc.
I kept being reminded of Caspar David Friedrich paintings but, note, not really of any particular one.
The Beginning of Spring was set at a time of obvious social transition - - Moscow in 1913. All right, so is this book about Novalis - - the beginning of Romanticism. I think Fitzgerald is pretty sympathetic to it although she doesn't work up the emotional content in obvious ways, and as I was reading I thought, several times, that I felt pretty detached. But, anyway, here are people "on the cusp" (is that correct?) between two readily labeled eras.
Yes, there is a fair bit of contrast between father and son. . . but no set-piece confrontations, as, after all, are perhaps not very common in real life. So I appreciate what PF is doing there.
The title comes from the novel that Novalis never finished, Heinrich von Ofterdingen; of which we are given about a paragraph - - the blue flower idea. Of what is it an emblem?
The dry style noted by a reviewer can allow a reader to miss the actually strong emotion and rapid activity of various characters.
What's the significance of Fritz's rescue of his younger brother, the red-capped Bernhard - - and assuming him to be, then, at least, so unhappy, why was the boy so?
Things that can't be helped... that’s an idea that comes up.
More notes, this time on The Gate of Angels -- beware spoilers.

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald © 1990

21 June 2001
This is the fourth of her novels that I have read, and could be one for a class, I suppose. It is more straightforward in narrative style than The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower. The plot will appeal to many, certainly to more readers than the plot of The Bookshop.
It’s a story of young love, even love at first sight. As we learn before long, Fred Fairly, a junior fellow of the fictitious St. Angelicus College of Cambridge, 1912 (once again PF tells us the year on the first page!), returned to consciousness in a bed with a young woman, where, thinking them to be married, the two were placed by Mr. and Mrs. Wrayburn after they had an accident whilst riding their bicycles. (Something I would watch for on a second reading is whether there is more mystery than one might expect about why they crashed then and there.) He falls in love with her.
They meet again and things are proceeding towards their marrying – even though this will mean that Fred must give up his fellowship, as his college is celibate, and for Daisy Saunders the marriage would be to a man of a very different background from her own urban and lower-class origins. We learn quite a bit about the two of them, including Daisy’s career as a nurse.
The romance is derailed, however, by the emergence of a lecherous newspaperman who had just about inveigled Daisy into spending a night with him at a seedy hotel. At the end of the story readers will be pretty sure that Daisy and Fred will be reconciled.
As an admirer of M. R. James’s ghost stories, I was entertained by the character of Dr. Matthews, Provost of St. James’s College, a palaeographer with the habit of writing ghost stories and reading them aloud. He is obviously MRJ. Fitzgerald gets to provide a quite Jamesian and gruesome (not gory) antiquarian ghost story, which might be connected with Daisy and Fred’s accident (p. 53).
There are a number of characters who are economically presented but whom, I think, we could get to know pretty well.
There is quite a bit of discussion about the physics and math matters of the day. I suppose here again we have Fitzgerald’s interest in historical “cusps,” just before the Great War, just before Einstein etc. A reviewer suggests that she is concerned in this book with the role of chance – or grace – in human life. There’s something going on here about the inadequacy of observable, replicable experimentation as the key to the knowledge we need.
A few questions.
pp. 30, 50, and the end of the novel – the mysterious southwest door of the College, which has only on very rare occasions opened.
p. 35 What were the “comforting unseen presences which, in childhood, had spoken to [Fred] and said: Give me your hand,” from which he has “step by step” freed himself?
Is there a progression, even a resolution, in the account of Fred’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?
PF’s attitude towards the university, or Cambridge specifically?, at that time. Her re-creation of it. Actually, the story gets around a bit. One could, perhaps, make a film of this without a great deal of trouble. Plenty of possibility for interesting exteriors and interiors, but the book isn’t filled with period bric-a-brac.
It’s the most cheerful of the four books.
I only have a copy of Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower that I have not yet I'm having to ignore your notes for now.

Minus any spoilers Extollager, what is your favourite Fitzgerald work, the one you recommend the most?

I for one am very happy to see a thread on this author...:)
It's years since I read four or five of her novels, but I believe I liked The Beginning of Spring the most, with its Russian milieu. That's not to say I think it is the one that I'd generally recommend to first-time readers, something about which I'm not sure.
Hah! This is a peculiar coincidence, as I have been 'googling' and 'wiki-ing' Penelope Fitzgerald a lot in the last few days, with a view to trying her novels. This came about because of an off-hand remark made by a friend of mine, and nothing to do with this thread, which I've only just seen. So, I guess this is me saying, 'I know nothing about her work, and can't comment yet, but I am very likely to do so over the next couple of months! I'll be back, as Arnie once famously said.
And I'm back, as Arnie once said. I'm currently reading Fitzgerald's The Golden Child, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Its highly comedic and oddball, and not what I was necessarily expecting at all. It reads like a rather literary Ealing Comedy, but set in the early 70's. I can see Smith as a young Alec Guinness in the role, had it been written and filmed in the times of the Ealing Comedies. I've not quite finished it, but wont have any problem doing so. My mother rather put me off trying Fitzgerald for some time by describing her prose as being rather spare and cold, but I wouldn't agree. Don't trust your parents!
Having just read Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, and then recalling the existence of this thread, I thought perhaps I ought to pen a few words on it.

The Bookshop is a short novel (nominated for the Booker Prize in 1978), of only about 150 pages or so, and involves a small plot, with restricted geography, which might give the impression there wouldn't be much to it. It depth and breadth belies its brevity though. This is a rather sad tale, beautifully told, about the unfairness of life. It's hard to say too much about it without spoiling the plot for those who haven't read it, but I would recommend it.

The book was very recently filmed, with Emily Mortimer in the lead role. I've not seen the movie but I've read that, while it's quite good, it struggles to convey the subtlety and depth of Fitzgerald's novel. This hardly seems surprising. I also wonder if the producers added content to the novel, otherwise some of the co-stars would have very small parts indeed - certain key interactions in the book are based a single meeting or interaction. I'm not sure whether I'll see the film or not, but I am sure I'll read the 'next' Fitzgerald (I'm slowly through reading them in written order), which was Offshore, a novel that did win the Booker Prize for Fitzgerald the following year (1979).

I've only spotted this thread myself.
I have a grand total of one book by Penelope Fitzgerald.
This is an ebook that I downloaded as part of a bundle a couple of years ago from Amazon but haven't read yet.
It's titled The Knox Brothers and appears to be some kind of biography, a quick skim I've just carried out shows pretty dull and heavy sentences and TBH I don't really fancy getting into it.

Are there any recommendations for other works by her?
I'd maybe try one or two of her others first to get myself accustomed to her writing style
...pretty dull and heavy sentences...
Are there any recommendations for other works by her?
I found the two I've read and comment on, above, to be quite easy reads, with a lightness to them that surprised me. She may have become less approachable as she wrote more and became more 'literary' in a pejorative sense, I'm not sure. The Knox Brothers is indeed biography - about her uncles I think.
I just read Offshore, Fitzgerald’s third book (continuing my slow OCD journey through her novels in the order she wrote them). I really liked it - probably better than The Bookshop, though they are both terrific. Offshore does end a touch abruptly perhaps, but it’s like a good painting, in the way it portrays the feel of the barge community almost as a snapshot.
I’ve now read Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, Human Voices, set at the BBC in 1940, during the blitz. It’s probably the funniest book of hers since The Golden Child, but it’s also very touching. Like her books tend toward, the plot is quite narrow and presented almost like a moment in time. We follow characters that come and go at Broadcasting House over about 6 months only. The ‘story arc’ is slight, and yet Fitzgerald manages to show us a lot with the minimum of fuss. In much the same way that great composers are sometimes credited with pauses and the absence of notes, similarly Fitzgerald seems to create a narrative depth through omission of details as much as by exposition. Good stuff, and recommended. It’s also quite educational for those who’s knowledge of wartime London isn’t great.
Hi. Lurker here, finally posting. I read my first Fitzgerald late last year (The Bookshop, got it as one of those Kindle $1.99 deals), and liked it so much that I spent December and January reading all her novels and short stories. I'd say my favorites are Gate of Angels and Human Voices. The Beginning of Spring too. I probably found Innocence and At Freddie's the hardest to like. I imagine I'll give them a second chance, though.

(Now, if only an editor had sat down with PF and ironed out the chronology of Gate of Angels. The main action, which doesn't seem to extend over more than three weeks, sometimes seems to be taking place in February, sometimes in April. Sometimes in 1911, sometimes in 1912. It wouldn't have been so hard to fix this.)
I'd like to. I haven't been on one of these old-fashioned message boards in over a decade. But I've recently found myself lurking here since I find it so much saner than more modern social media.

One more thing about Gate of Angels: it's perhaps her one book that most belongs on a SFF forum. Not only is a character modeled after M.R. James (and a chapter is a wicked parody of his stories), but an important event toward the end may have a supernatural cause. Fitzgerald's books seem comfortable going occasionally beyond simple "realism" into the speculative: there's the poltergeist in The Bookshop (accepted rather matter-of-factly by the MC and other characters), and a rather chilling, and never explained, moment in The Beginning of Spring. And among her short stories, there's one unambiguous fantasy story, and a couple more that are arguably ambiguously so.
Working my way through Fitzgerald's novels in publication order, I have just read the next in line, At Freddie's.

This is a pretty good novel. It is set in the world of London's theatre scene, and specifically within a stage school run by the eponymous Freddie, a large, old, eccentric woman of some character. Like all Fitzgerald's books, its very well written, set over a relatively short space of time and is deeper than its light plot might immediately suggest. I did enjoy it, and the characters were beautifully drawn, but I thought its ending was left a bit too open for me. It ends suddenly, leaving the reader to decide what happens in the two key plots that are set up, resolving neither with any degree of certainty. I've read that Fitzgerald had a clear thought about how it ended with regard to the boy genius, but left it hanging entirely. I would suggest it would have been better if she had actually just finished the story she envisaged. Recommended, with some reservations - the lack of a clear denouement might irk some.

Next up will be Innocence. I have it on my shelf, so I'll be back at some point to comment on that too, once I've read on...
As I mentioned above, At Freddie's and Innocence are probably my least favorite of hers, just ahead of The Golden Child (which I don't think she counted among her serious novels).
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