One would expect Penelope Fitzgerald to have enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was an editor at Punch and her mother was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. Penelope also attended Oxford and before graduating in 1938 she was named woman of the year in the student newspaper, Isis. She then went on to work at the BBC and soon married; however, her marriage turned out to be a difficult one. Her husband returned from the war a changed man: recognized as a war hero, he had also become an alcoholic. Life was not easy for Fitzgerald, yet she carried on.
Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burney-Jones. Her first novel, The Golden Child, was written to amuse her sick husband, who died in 1976. Fitzgerald continued writing. Julian Barnes, in his tribute to Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, nicely sums up her writing career:
In the period 1975-84 she published two more biographies and four more novels. Those four novels are all short, and written close to her own experiences: of running a bookshop, living on a houseboat, working for the BBC in wartime, teaching at a stage school. They are adroit, odd, highly pleasurable, but modest in ambition. And with almost any other writer you might think that, having used up her own life, she would – being now in her late 60s – have called it a day. On the contrary: over the next decade, from 1986 to 1995, she published the four novels – Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower – by which she will be remembered. They are written far from her obvious life, being set, respectively, in 1950s Florence, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912, and late 18th-century Prussia. Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.
In 1979 Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for Offshore. Her 1990 novel The Gate of Angels was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Fitzgerald’s novels may be short, but they reward close reading; she eliminates all she believes unnecessary. “I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much,” she said. But, as Barnes notes, “it is more than just a taste for economy. It is the art of using fact and detail so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
In an article in Departures, Jo Durden-Smith reports that she asked Penelope Fitzgerald what she needed to have before she could start writing. Fitzgerald answered succinctly: “A title, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph.”
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouses. On the open ground to the left the willow-tress had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
In his review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald, Alan Hollinghurst writes:
“Must I explain this?” [Fitzgerald] asks herself of Daisy’s religious faith in The Gate of Angels. For the unexplained in Fitzgerald is sometimes the inexplicable, and anyone who reads all her novels will be struck by the recurrence of the uncanny, from the raucously restless poltergeist in The Bookshop to the nocturnal vision in the Russian birch woods in The Beginning of Spring, to the miracle at the close of The Gate of Angels, which is in fact the opening of a never-opened gate. How this happened she will not say, but there is no doubt that she believes it did.
The history of the fictitious college is also relevant in relation to the title and the ending. Fitzgerald mentions that the gate to the college only opened on two other occasions. Well, at the very end of the novel it opens for the third time — a miracle, and one that made it possible for Daisy to be on the road just as Fred was returning to the college. Must we be told what that means?