Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

by Hermione Lee


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A Best Book of the Year: San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times
Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the most quietly brilliant novelists of the twentieth century, was a great English writer whose career didn’t begin until she was nearly sixty. Her life was marked by dramatic twists of fate, moving from a bishop’s palace to a sinking houseboat to a last, late blaze of renown. Her exquisite novels—short, spare masterpieces—would go on to win some of the most coveted awards in literature: the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now, in an impeccable match of talent between biographer and subject, Hermione Lee gives us this remarkable writer’s story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804170499
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 839,992
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Hermione Lee is a biographer, critic, teacher of literature, and president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Among her many works are literary biographies of Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald, which won the James Tait Black Prize and the Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2014. She is also the author of critical books on Elizabeth Bowen and Philip Roth. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was made a CBE in 2003 for services to literature, and a DBE in 2013 for services to literary scholarship. She lives in Oxford and Yorkshire.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Bishops’ Granddaughter

“Must We Have Lives?”

The Old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln was freezing cold and full of hectic activity in the winter of 1916. The Bishop’s younger daughter, Christina Frances, had said goodbye to her husband, Eddie Knox, in peacetime a journalist and poet, now second lieutenant in the Lincolns, a regiment he had joined because of its connection to her family home. He was waiting to embark for France. They had been married four years and had a ­three-­year-­old son, Rawle. Christina was ­thirty-­one, and heavily pregnant. She and Eddie had set up home in rural Hampstead, but because of the war she had moved into the Palace with Rawle and a young nursemaid, to have their second child under her parents’ care.

But the Bishop, Edward Lee Hicks, and his wife, Agnes, were under strain. They had thrown open the Palace at the start of the war to a group of pitiful Belgian refugees, some of whom were still living nearby and doing odd jobs for them. Lincoln, because it had munitions factories, was a target for Zeppelin raids. The town was full of ­war-­wounded and displaced persons and housewives coping with bereavements, air raids and rationing. The Bishop was shocked to see police controlling huge queues for margarine at the shops. He was working so ­hard—­visiting camps and hospitals, protesting against the ­ill-­treatment of conscientious objectors, giving sermons all over the ­country—­that he had come down with a dangerous attack of the flu. Agnes was doing everything.

He was too ill to see Christina when her baby, Penelope Mary Knox, was born, without much fuss, on the Sunday afternoon of 17 December 1916. The Bishop was still not well enough to officiate at the baptism on 18 January 1917. Penelope Mary was baptised by the Dean of Lincoln, with two aunts from either side of her family (Eddie ­Knox’s sister Ethel and Christina’s ­sister-­in-­law Margaret Alison Hicks) as her sponsors. Her given names, though, were never used by the family. She was always called Mops, or Mopsie, or Mopsa.

The great frost lasted into March. The Bishop had barely recovered from his illness, and his granddaughter was only a few months old, when the news came of his oldest son’s death. Christina’s brother Edwin Hicks caught trench fever at Amiens, then died of an attack of meningitis. The Bishop, a pacifist who opposed the war, asked that “nothing about ‘victory’ should be put on the grave of his dead son.” The young widow, Margaret Alison, married for less than two years, bore up valiantly: this was a comfort to his parents. Weeks later, Bishop Hicks and his family turned the Old Palace over to the Red Cross for a hospital, and moved into a much smaller house, cramped quarters for Christina, her parents, her little boy and the new baby.

In September 1917, Eddie Knox, who had been shooting rats in the trenches, observing “ordinary behaviour under terrible conditions” and finding himself unable to write comic pieces from the front line for Punch, was reported missing. He had been shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, then found in a ­shell hole in a pool of blood. He was invalided out, operated on, and brought to a Lincoln hospital to convalesce. Christina, meanwhile, was playing her part on the home front, looking after the children, helping her father, and organising an exhibition of women’s war work at the local branch of Boots. In April 1919, when Eddie was finally demobbed, she was being visited by the Hickses in a Lincoln hospital for women and children, and was said to be only slowly improving; perhaps she had had a miscarriage. Just then, the Bishop, finally worn out, retired from his duties. He died in August 1919. Christina and her children were at his bedside, but Penelope, aged two, was too young to remember. Nevertheless, Bishop Hicks was a figure who mattered to her, among the bishops, missionaries, vicars and priests thickly scattered through her family tree. She liked the sound of him.

Edward Lee Hicks never refused to see anyone who came to his door for help. He was a great enemy of poverty and injustice, having come, while he was at Oxford, under the influence of John Ruskin. Ruskin he admired, not only for his teaching but also for his delight in even the smallest details of life. Ruskin, he said, would describe “with the keenest relish” the joy of shelling peas:

“The pop which assures one of a successful start, the fresh colour and scent of the juicy row within, and the pleasure of skilfully scooping the bouncing peas with one’s thumb into the vessel by one’s side.” I can honestly say that I never shell peas in summer without thinking of Ruskin and of my grandfather.

Shelling peas was the right association, since the Hickses were originally a farming family. So were the Pughs, the Bishop’s maternal family. The Hickses farmed in Wolvercote, a village on the northern edge of Oxford that looks over Port Meadow and the River Thames. They were an ­old-fashioned Church of ­En­gland family who ­didn’t like Methodists coming into the village. But Edward Hicks, the future Bishop’s father, married Catherine Pugh, a ­strong-­minded person who lived to a great age, one of eleven poor children of a musical Welsh father and a devout Wesleyan mother. Because of his marriage Edward Hicks became a Methodist. So his son Edward Lee Hicks grew up with a mixed religious background. Since the Hicks/Knox families contained Quakers, Ulster Protestants, Wesleyans, Evangelicals, Anglicans, ­Anglo-­Catholics and Roman Catholics, some not on speaking terms with one another, Penelope Fitzgerald developed a belief that religious schisms are pointless, and that all different faiths are ­really one. She draws attention to this in The Knox Brothers, when calling the faiths that maintained the Knoxes in their dark hours, or “the Bishop of Lincoln’s when his son died in the trenches, or Christina’s when she got a telegram to say that Eddie was missing,” not greater or lesser faiths, “but the same.” Where she agreed with both her grandparents was that faith was necessary for life.

Both Edward Hicks and Catherine Pugh had fathers who died young (Edward’s fell off a ladder pruning a Wolvercote fruit tree), and Edward Hicks, too, died early. An argumentative, musical, generous person, he was a ­hopeless businessman, who went into debt and died of consumption when his son Edward Lee was nine. Catherine ran the fatherless family, and got Edward Lee into Magdalen School as a chorister. He remembered the shame of being a poor boy at school among richer boys. But he grew up into a scholar and an Oxford don, teaching at Corpus Christi College in the 1860s when Ruskin was there, and when Oxford was, in Fitzgerald’s words, “spiritually in low water” after Newman’s departure and the fiercely divisive Tractarian wars. One of Edward Lee Hicks’s students at Corpus was Edmund Arbuthnott Knox. The Hickses and the Knoxes would keep on ­interconnecting.

Hicks was ordained in 1870; he was also by then an expert in Greek epigraphy, known at the British Museum for “a happy ability in restoring ­half-­destroyed inscriptions.” So when he was offered the country living of Fenny ­Compton—­a backwater between Banbury and Leamington ­Spa—­for about £600 a year, in 1873, and married a vicar’s daughter, Agnes Trevelyan Smith, he could have settled into a modestly comfortable combination of scholarship, rural ministry and domestic life, with six children (one of whom died in infancy) born between 1878 and 1892.

But Edward Lee Hicks was not an ­easy-­living person. His years at Fenny Compton were a time of agricultural depression and farm workers’ strikes. He sympathised with and worked on behalf of the “land-­hungry” labourers. He was a Liberal who believed in grassroots social reform. In the 1880s he and the family moved to a huge, poor parish in Manchester, where he took his double life, as a social reformer and classical scholar, into a tough urban environment. But the move meant that scholarship, the quiet, happy deciphering of Greek inscriptions, had to give way entirely to public work. As Rector at Salford and Canon of Manchester Cathedral, he also wrote polemical ­pieces—­for instance, against the Boer ­War—­for his friend C. P. Scott at the Manchester Guardian. One of the clerics he disagreed with was his ­ex-­pupil Edmund Knox, now his bishop at Manchester, who ran a loud national campaign for the retention of church schools, which were under ­threat—­while Canon Hicks thought that parents should have the right to have their children taught according to their own beliefs.

Some people thought Hicks was too dangerously radical to be made a bishop, and the appointment came late in his life. He had nine years at Lincoln, but he made the most of them. His obituaries called him “a ­progressive prelate” and “a friend of the poor.” It ­wasn’t only for his ­pea shelling that Bishop Hicks admired Ruskin. Ruskin’s ­dictum—­There is no wealth but ­life—­was his own, and he used Ruskin’s attack on the immorality of capitalism, Unto This Last, as a text for his sermons. In “Christianity and Riches,” given at Cambridge in 1913, he preached that the Church suffered from being associated with the comfortable, wealthy classes. But “all must refuse to value anyone the more because of his riches.” His granddaughter, who also admired Ruskin, agreed.

He understood poverty because he had experienced it. Fitzgerald wrote, with feeling, of Bishop Hicks’s family: “Occasionally they would write down a list of all the things they wanted but ­couldn’t afford, and then burn the piece of paper. This is a device which is always worth trying.” All her life, Christina could never take a taxi without feeling guilty: “cabby” was her word for “expensive.” There were other things, too, she got from her father. Hicks was a feminist, school of John Stuart Mill. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow bishops to take the clause about “obeying” out of the Marriage Service in the Prayer Book, and he supported women’s suffrage. Christina Hicks inherited those beliefs. Her father gave her, and her brothers and sister, free choices. All the children, Christina wrote eloquently, were encouraged to talk to him as equals. They consulted him as though he were an encyclopaedia. “He never laughed at us, and always contrived to make us feel that we had asked something ­really interesting.” They were taught that things should be “perfectly simple” but good of their ­kind—“a book well printed and bound, for instance, that ­didn’t crack when it was opened.” He liked games, music, walks, funny stories and beautiful objects; he hated tyranny and ugliness. He believed in equal opportunities for boys and girls. When he and Agnes moved to Lincoln in ­1910—­Christina was then ­twenty-­five, with a university ­education—­she was “offered the choice of going away to make a career for myself, or of being ­‘home-­daughter,’ whichever I pleased . . . I have never known a daughter so treated, and I have asked many.”


We hardly hear that thoughtful, intelligent voice of Christina’s in her daughter’s family ­memories—­either in The Knox Brothers or in other later pieces about her ­childhood—­where the mother mainly exists as a silence or an absence, and appears first as “a gentle, spirited, scholarly, ­hazel-­eyed girl, a lover of poetry and music . . . ready to laugh at herself ” and later as “a quietly spoken woman whom nothing defeated.” In Granny ­Pugh’s letters to her ­daughter-­in-­law Agnes about the children, Christina figures as an admirable granddaughter. In 1896, when she was eleven: “It is grateful to me to hear that Christina is fond of poetry. She always seemed to me a child of promise.” In 1897: “I am so glad that Christina has distinguished herself.” At Withington Girls’ School in Manchester, she took the lead in school plays. In 1904 she got a scholarship for £40 a year to Somerville, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford.

Her daughter would be amused by the letter which came with the scholarship, “reminding her that she must change her dress for dinner, but ‘must bring no ­fal-­lals, as they only collect dust.’ ” Her tutors thought her “decidedly promising” if a little immature, “animated and intelligent,” with good skills in logic. Helen Darbishire, the Milton and Wordsworth scholar, then senior ­En­glish Tutor, thought that she wrote with “taste and ­judgement,” but needed “to cultivate more ­self-­confidence.” She was active on college committees, writing careful minutes as secretary (“Miss Hicks drew attention to complaints which she had received from members whose mackintoshes and umbrellas had been borrowed without permission”) and allowing herself some light moments: “Miss Blake delivered a stirring ­exhortation on the subject of the Fiction Library” . . . “Rules about Sleeping Out: No one may consciously sleep out in the rain!” She worked hard, went to dances, had a “beau” or two, won the College Coombs prize, made friends with the future novelist Rose Macaulay, and left in 1907 with a Second Class in ­En­glish, though she could not take her degree until 1921, the year after Oxford at last started awarding degrees to women. Possibly Oxford’s discriminatory attitudes, as well as her father’s support, fuelled Christina’s involvement, in 1908, in demonstrations and mass meetings in support of the Women’s Suffrage Bill.

Her father grieved over Edwin’s death and over the defection of his youngest son, Ned, who, after being wounded on the Somme, converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of Ronald Knox. But the Bishop was proud of “Tina’s” scholarly achievements. He was close to his younger daughter. When she went abroad after Oxford, he advised her: “Try to use all the chances that come to you of learning about the habits and conditions of the people.” When she asked him about belief, he sent her a long letter, which concluded: “The sound Christian is largely an agnostic.” When he gave her the choice in 1910 of being a “home-­daughter” or having a career, she went to teach at St. Felix School in Southwold. The Bishop approved of that as much as he did of her engagement to Eddie Knox, son of his old acquaintance the Bishop of Manchester, in 1912.

Christina and Eddie met in Oxford, probably introduced by her younger brother Ned, who, at Magdalen School, had already brought home an admirer for his sister, his fellow chorister Ivor Novello, who on family holidays followed her about devotedly. Nobody wanted the engagement to be long. One sensible bishop’s wife, Mrs. Hicks, conferred with the other, Mrs. Knox: “Christina says . . . it does seem such a long time till May! She is anxious because he is lonely . . .” They were married in St. ­Hugh’s Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral on 17 September 1912. It was a family affair.

Table of Contents

Illustrations xi

Preface xv

Family Tree xviii

1 The Bishops' Granddaughter 3

2 Learning to Read 25

3 The "Blonde Bombshell" 48

4 Love and War 66

5 The World 95

6 The Bookshop 124

7 Clinging On for Dear Life 140

8 Family Matters 163

9 The Teacher 186

10 The Useful Arts 213

11 Enigmas 235

12 The Prize 258

13 The Ventriloquist 280

14 Innocence 301

15 The Beginning of Spring 317

16 The Gate of Angels 347

17 The Blue Flower 377

18 Last Words 398

Acknowledgements 425

Abbreviations 429

Notes 433

Index 461

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