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.”
The title The Gate of Angels relates to the novel in a number of ways. Besides referring to the actual gate of the fictitious Cambridge college of St Angelicus (we soon learn that the college was once a religious institution but is now one of science), it is crucial in terms of the religious significance of the ending. It also alludes to one of the main characters, Daisy, who is only introduced in Part 2, but who is clearly an angel of sorts. Not only does she train as a nurse and minister to the sick, her behaviour comes to suggest the 19th century domestic ideal of the “angel in the house.” Fitzgerald’s insights into the situation of women at the beginning of the 20th century are realistic. As critics have noted, she does her research.
In an article published in the journal of Literature and Religion in 2013, Christopher J. Knight adds a fascinating footnote in which he says that Fitzgerald originally wanted to use the title The Unobservables, a reference to both science and religion. (This title preceded the dreadful Mistakes Scientists Have Made — which was suggested by the publisher but dropped because it didn’t fit on the title page!) Knight argues that Fitzgerald believed that science and religion need not cancel each other out but can coexist sympathetically. As the original title more clearly suggests, Fitzgerald’s novel is not simply a romance but also a novel of ideas.
The opening paragraph is striking. I found it quite hilarious and was impressed that Fitzgerald could maintain that level of wit throughout the first part.
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.
Considering the importance of the opening paragraph, one can see that the world is being turned upside down, signalling a time of major change. The wind represents invisible forces and brings to mind the winds of change. I thought about this in relation to the emphasis on what is observable. Of course, the effects of the wind are visible here with the cows on their backs and their legs in the air, somewhat sexually suggestive. Yet, traditionally the wind has an association with the holy spirit, so there is the possibility of a spiritual or religious dimension at work as well. While the larger debate the novel encompasses is between science and religion, Fitzgerald cleverly presents that debate as between the seen and the unseen, which complicates the scientific perspective since there is much in physics, in particular, that can’t be seen, at least not by the naked eye.
When I read the opening paragraph, I couldn’t help thinking of another novel that begins with a violent storm. In Leaf Storm, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the magic realism, begins with a storm to herald change, in this case the destructive force of capitalist development in Columbia. On her part, Fitzgerald may also be alluding to the forces of destruction about to be unleashed by the Great War.
There is also a strong element of the absurd, or whimsical irony in Fitzgerald’s opening. The college, we learn, still disallows the fellows to marry (not to mention that women are not admitted here). This is what gives rise to the narrative conflict, as the main character, Fred Fairly, a fellow at the college, accidentally bumps into Daisy, which sparks their romance. Barnes likens the chance meeting between Fred and Daisy to particles in collision. There may be other forces at work as well.
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?